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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: July 2, 2014

Maine Maritime Museum trolley tour highlights Bath’s shipbuilding history

Retired shipbuilders lead the tour and drive the city-owned trolley that takes visitors from the museum on Washington Street, up past the massive Bath Iron Works shipyard, across the Kennebec River bridge and back through parts of town.

Written by: Bob Keyes
Guide John Heppell points out landmarks during Maine Maritime Museum’s “The Bath Iron Works Story” trolley tour. Photos by Logan Werlinger/Staff Photographer

Guide John Heppell points out landmarks during Maine Maritime Museum’s “The Bath Iron Works Story” trolley tour. Photos by Logan Werlinger/Staff Photographer

Maine Maritime Museum’s new trolley tour highlighting Bath’s shipbuilding history is kind of like going to coffee with the shipbuilders themselves.

Retired shipbuilders lead the tour and drive the city-owned trolley that takes visitors from the museum on Washington Street, up past the massive Bath Iron Works shipyard, across the Kennebec River bridge and back through parts of town.

The tour offers insider information about the goings-on behind the gates and the 400-year history of boat building on the Kennebec.

“The Bath Iron Works Story” tour replaces a previous tour, which was enormously popular, that took visitors into the BIW yard and behind the gates.

Amanda Craig leans out of the trolley for a better look. At left, tour guides know just where to stop for the best views of goings-on at Bath Iron Works.

Amanda Craig leans out of the trolley for a better look. At left, tour guides know just where to stop for the best views of goings-on at Bath Iron Works.

Logan Werlinger/staff photo

Construction of a new BIW building and five ships in progress, as well as ongoing security concerns, forced the museum to suspend the tour, said Amy Lent, executive director of the museum.

The museum got word in early January that BIW could no longer accommodate the tours. Last year, 6,200 people took the BIW tour, Lent said.

“Every tour was always sold out in advance,” she said. “It wasn’t until we started offering them 12 times a week that we could get people on them on the same day.”

While the new tour falls short of behind-the-scenes access, it more than makes up for that loss with the charm, wit and experience of the tour guides.

I took the 90-minute tour last week with John Heppell as my guide. Heppell, who lives in Bath, spent 30 years in the U.S. Navy and 20 years with BIW. “My whole life has been ships,” he told us. “I sailed on them, and then I built them.”

Our driver was Dave Comeau, a lifelong resident of Bath. Comeau, 72, spent 35 years at BIW.

Between them, they know pretty much everything.

High fences surround Bath Iron Works on the Kennebec river. Tourists are shown the shipyard that produces primarily military vessels during the Maine Maritime Museum trolley tour on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. Maine Maritime Museum has added two new trolley tours of Bath Iron Works and downtown Bath. (Photo by Logan Werlinger/Staff Photographer)

High fences surround Bath Iron Works on the Kennebec river. Tourists are shown the shipyard that produces primarily military vessels during the Maine Maritime Museum trolley tour. Logan Werlinger/staff photo

The tour begins with a 30-minute video created by Jason Morin, director of public programs for the museum. The video offers stem-to-stern details of what it takes to build a modern warship, from the beginning of the process when the steel is cut to sea trials in the Gulf of Maine.

Morin takes viewers high above the shipyard and into the cab of the massive white crane that towers over Bath, and into the engine room deep within the bowels when a newly launched destroyer hits full throttle for the first time during sea trials. One senses the precision required of the crane operator to lower a many-ton structure into place and the tension among the engineers when the engine is opened up for the first time.

But the highlight was riding the trolley with Heppell and Comeau.

They dispensed of the obligatory information, such as the cost of building a new Zumwalt guided missile destroyer ($3.5 billion), the pace of ship building at BIW in 1943 and 1944 during World War II (one naval warship every 17 days), and the best place for a seafood lunch (Five Islands Lobster Co. in Georgetown).

What I enjoyed was the insider information – and the views through the fence that Comeau afforded because he knew where to stop the trolley. I’ve driven through Bath all my life, but security cameras and stern signs warning against taking photos always encouraged me to keep my car in gear.

Among things I enjoyed learning:

  • The dry dock that’s visible from Washington Street came to BIW from China in 2001. During its ocean journey, it broke away during a typhoon, and tug operators scrambled to get it back under control.
  • Hull sections under construction often are clearly visible from Washington Street. Over the years, I’ve noticed they are painted in patches of red and brown, and wondered why. Heppell said red paint signifies that no more welding can occur on that hull section. Brown paint means welding is permissible.
  • The brick building near the north gate is known as Mahogany Row because that’s where the CEO has his office.
  • You can tell what workers do based on the color of their hard hats. Workers wearing brown hard hats are designers. White helmets mean management, Heppell said.
  • The largest ship built at BIW was 720 feet long. Anything longer would have trouble navigating the eight miles from the shipyard to the mouth of the Kennebec at Fort Popham. The Zumwalt is 600 feet.
  • The tides at Bath are about seven feet. That’s about four feet less than at Fort Popham, where the river meets the ocean.

Lent and her staff understand that some visitors might be disappointed they no longer have access into the yard. But she thinks the tours will remain popular because of the guides’ expertise.

“The things people loved the most didn’t require going behind the scenes. The idea of going behind the scenes caught people’s attention,” she said. “But what people learned the most had nothing to do with that.”

MAINE MARITIME MUSEUM TROLLEY TOURS

WHAT: The museum offers two tours, “The Bath Iron Works Story” and “Historic Bath Architecture: The City that Ships Built”
WHEN: The BIW tours are at noon and 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday; noon Tuesday and Thursday; 10 a.m. Saturday, through Oct. 11. “The City that Ships Built” is at 2 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, through Aug. 28.
HOW MUCH: $30, or $15 for 17 and younger for the BIW tour. The architecture tour costs $27 and $12. That includes museum admission
INFO: 443-1316 or mainemaritimemuseum.org

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