Maine’s Schooner Culture: The Wyoming and the Bowdoin

Did you know the largest schooner ever constructed was built right here in Maine? It’s true - the Schooner Wyoming was built in Maine and is the largest schooner ever by tonnage. But Wyoming is only one of Maine’s connections to schooners, the elegant ships that have been used on the Maine coasts since the colonial era when they were a favorite of traders frequenting Maine’s trading posts. Maine also lays claim to the arctic expedition schooner Bowdoin.

Schooner "Wyoming" of New York, the largest schooner in the World at the L & H Docks, Pensacola. 1916

Schooner "Wyoming" of New York, the largest schooner in the World at the L & H Docks, Pensacola. 1916

The Biggest Ever 

The most immediately interesting of Maine’s schooner history is the construction of Wyoming, a massive six-masted schooner that is still the largest ever built and also ranks among the largest wooden ships ever constructed. This 450 foot vessel was built in 1909 in Bath, Maine, and named Wyoming because the governor of Wyoming had contributed heavily to its construction fund. By 1909, Wooden ships were already on the way out in favor of metal steamships, but Wyoming was built along with eight other six-masted wooden ships, most of which were built in Maine. The schooner even featured a steam engine, but not for driving the vessel. Rather, the engine was used to pull ropes and pump water out of the ship, which commonly became waterlogged due to it’s gargantuan size. Because of the steam engine, the ship could be maintained by a relatively small crew, requiring only eleven crewmen. Despite its ungainly size and penchant for taking on water due to shifting wood, Wyoming successfully sailed the ocean for fifteen years, hauling coal for a few different companies. In 1924, the ship came up against a fierce nor’easter when moored near Nantucket. She sank, and all of her crew was lost in the storm. Today, a sculpture outside the Maine Maritime Museum remembers Wyoming, the largest schooner ever to sail the sea. 

"Bowdoin at Sable Island" Dylan Clark, 2007

"Bowdoin at Sable Island" Dylan Clark, 2007

Maine’s Official Sailing Vessel

Another famous Maine schooner is Bowdoin. A research vessel built to explore the Arctic, Bowdoin remains unique in that it is the only schooner ever specifically constructed for this purpose. The Bowdoin was built in East Boothbay, Maine in 1921, and was a creation from the mind of Arctic explorer Donald Macmillan, who wanted a ship that could thrive in the unique conditions of the Arctic Ocean. Macmillan’s vision was a success, and with him at the helm, Bowdoin visited the Arctic roughly 25 times during a period from 1923 to 1940, with Macmillan often bringing along curious scientists and explorers to the mysterious Arctic. By the dawn of the Second World War, the ship was in the command of the Navy, who used it in the war effort. At the war’s end in 1945, Macmillan bought back his vessel, and in 1954 took it one last time to the Arctic. In 1986, the schooner was named the official sailing vessel of the state of Maine. Today, the ship belongs to the Maine Maritime Academy, where it is used to train students in the cold seas of Maritime Canada. 

This July, Bowdoin will be one of the ships that visits Portland harbor. If you are interested in Maine’s historic schooners and maritime culture, come see Bowdoin in Portland Harbor July 18th-20th. Tickets are on sale now!