2016-11-18 / Community

A Window on the Past

Some Liberty ships came to an end in South Portland
By Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo
South Portland Historical Society

A Liberty ship being scrapped by Walsh Construction Company in November 1959, in the former shipyard basins of the East Yard. (Courtesy photo) A Liberty ship being scrapped by Walsh Construction Company in November 1959, in the former shipyard basins of the East Yard. (Courtesy photo) Because of the significant role that America played in World

War II, with its emergency shipbuilding program able to build ships faster than the German U-boats could sink them, we talk often of the World War II shipyards in South Portland. The people of Maine and New England came together here in South Portland to learn how to weld and do all of the jobs needed to build these huge cargo ships that provided much-needed supplies for the war effort. At the peak of our ship construction, we were able to build a Liberty ship in a little over 50 days, and we had 13 ship ways and basins in constant production. What we don’t hear talked about often is how we had an interesting period in South Portland’s history when we played a part in the end of the life for some Liberty ships.

In 1959 and 1960, a company called Walsh Construction took part in the scrapping of military surplus vessels in the abandoned basins of the old Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding basins – what had been known as the East Yard during the war. The basins today make up the combined Spring Point Marina and Breakwater Marina at the east end of Broadway.

In 1959, Walsh Construction leased out the basins to use in a scrapping operation. They began purchasing Liberty ships, submarines and other military surplus, then would float them into the basins and take them apart to sell as scrap metal. According to an October 1959 article in the Portland Evening Express, Walsh Construction had “recently reopened its offices here and moved its 200-man architectural-engineering division into former shipyard offices.” The article was written after Walsh had let Portland Harbor officials know that it was bringing in four Liberty ships that would be anchored in Portland Harbor just prior to moving them into the basins to be scrapped. There were already two submarines being scrapped in the basins at the time of the article.

The scrapping operation took off at full speed, but slowed early in 1960. While the men were very successful at taking ships apart, there was a problem with the sheer amount of scrapped material. The scrap metal would be loaded onto railroad cars and moved to Portland Terminal’s loading wharf in Portland, but the railroad cars couldn’t come fast enough. With the slow-moving rail transport, scrap material began piling up in the shipyard until it came to a point that employees had to be told to stop scrapping and Walsh was forced to lay people off.

As the year 1960 progressed, Walsh continued to encounter problems with its scrapping operation here. With the announcement that the price to acquire the military surplus ships was too high and the resulting financial yield of the scrap too low, it opted to just shut down the operation entirely. The Walsh Construction scrapping operation does make for an interesting page in South Portland’s history, though.

Note to readers: The Liberty Shipyards ornament is now for sale at Drillen Hardware, Broadway Variety, Embers Stove Shop and the South Portland Historical Society’s museum gift shop. These attractive brass ornaments come with a gift card that gives information about the South Portland shipyards and lets a gift recipient know that proceeds support the South Portland Historical Society and its museum. The museum and gift shop are open on Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Dec. 18. For more information, call the society at 767- 7299.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of South Portland Historical Society.

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