2015-06-12 / Community

A Window on the Past

Cofferdam construction at Cumberland Shipyard
By Kathryn DiPhilippo
South Portland Historical Society


This early 1941 photograph shows the cofferdam under construction between Spring Point and Cushing’s Point. Building the cofferdam was one of the first steps in the construction of the Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding Corporation shipyard. The cofferdam kept the ocean at bay so that construction could take place. (Courtesy photo) This early 1941 photograph shows the cofferdam under construction between Spring Point and Cushing’s Point. Building the cofferdam was one of the first steps in the construction of the Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding Corporation shipyard. The cofferdam kept the ocean at bay so that construction could take place. (Courtesy photo) At the South Portland Historical Society’s museum at Bug Light Park, the main exhibit room features an exhibit that covers 100 years of shipbuilding history in our city, from 1845 to 1945. Through the first 75 years of that time period, our talented shipbuilders were makers of wooden ships. At first, they crafted beautiful sailing ships, but as steam engines came along, they were able to build and outfit wooden tugboats, fishing boats and other ships with engines. While there was a dip in activity toward the end of the 1800s, those shipbuilding skills were called back into action during World War I. Cumberland Shipbuilding hired more than 1,000 workers to build wooden cargo ships, called Ferris ships, to help with the war effort.

When World War II began, the site of the old Cumberland Shipyard was viewed as a viable location to construct a massive shipyard to make cargo ships for, at first, Great Britain. The vacant Cumberland Shipyard location was cleared and a large cofferdam was constructed to hold back the tide while they built the new shipyard basins. The photograph, pictured here, was donated to the society in 1975 along with several others which are now on display in the museum. The photo here shows cranes at work putting the cofferdam in place. Once that cofferdam was constructed, they were able to do all the work needed to create the yard. This new shipyard was used to build large steelconstruction cargo ships, both ocean ships and liberty ships. Because this was a new style of construction, most workers who came on board had to be trained to become skilled welders. The shipyard took over the old East High Street School, formerly an elementary school, and turned it into a welding school instead.

The society would like to thank Bath Savings Institution for sponsoring the 2015 shipyard exhibit. Bath Savings has been a partner with the museum for four years now; its sponsorship each year helps keep the museum free from admission charges. We hope this encourages residents to stop by for a visit. We have added some new items to the exhibit this year – related to three young men who were South Portland High School athletes, all of whom enlisted after they graduated: Philip Russell, Donald Thorne and Bud Ellis. While you are here, you can check out the new Meeting House Hill exhibit, as well. Hope to see you soon.

Kathryn DiPhilippo is director of South Portland Historical Society.

Return to top