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SEBAGO—PRESUMPSCOT
ANTHROPOLOGY PROJECT

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lakes region of maine
Studying the relationships
of the lake & river
with their human communities through time
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From Trees to Masts, by Land & Water
SPAP Report No. W-2
Part A
Broad-Arrow (& Cannon Balls)
Part B
The Spar-Maker (1820s-1893)
Part C
Windham Mast Landmarks

The visit of the "OpSail" Tall-Ships-Fleet to Portland (28-31 July 2000) conjures up again the ghostly moving-forest image that used to mark the daily waterfront skyline of every seaport throughout the Age of Sail. All those masts & spars literally once were a forest moved to the shore, by land & water--and no easy task it was to do so. Yet slowing the pace of that task could be deadly: In 1775, Portland (then named Falmouth) was bombarded to ruins as punishment for hindering the forest's scheduled movement.

Over dry land, ox-power was the sole prime-mover of the extremely-long mast-timbers, often requiring many yoked teams working together. Sebagoland's many lakes & rivers also were used, wherever & whenever possible, to float the immense timbers toward the sea. But whether on a road or in a channel, a mast procession must have been an awesome spectacle indeed, affecting everything around it for a while at least.

Masts became a vital export from New England to Britain relatively early in the Colonial Period. In the 1660s, London diarist & Admiralty bureaucrat Samuel Pepys mentions them repeatedly if not often in writing up his activities; clearly they were routine imports by then. Pepys seems concerned mostly with the costs of the contracts for the New England masts. Yet Britannia Ruled the Waves only by accessing a constant supply of high-quality mast timber, and availability soon became the major concern, more than costs.

Admiralty Officers in Old England and their contracted Mast Agents in New England had authority over the King's Pines in New England's forests. Whoever might own a specific piece of land, the tallest-straightest-broadest pine-trees thereon were Reserved for the Crown and marked accordingly (after c.1690) with the Kings Broad-Arrow (the symbol of British government property) axed onto them by three neat strokes [See Illustration]. In theory that meant Do Not Disturb, but in practice many colonial homes in northern New England had some very broad boards built into their upper stories where they were less visible to inspectors.

As elsewhere, the Portland area's contracted Mast Agents were rich & powerful persons. One-such was Colonel Thomas Westbrook, whose dams on Presumpscot River interfered with Wabanaki Chief Polin's fishing rights in the 1730s---with impunity from colonial government decrees to open fishways for the Indians' fishing. Probably the Colonel's dams helped his own downstream water-transporting of mast-trees over natural waterfalls by ponding the water. But they certainly stopped the fish from their natural seasonal upstream migrations, and therefore the traditional fishing activities that the Wabanaki depended upon for subsistence food. So Chief Polin took revenge repeatedly.

Another later Mast Agent was Captain George Tate Sr, whose fine 1755 mansion was built where Stroudwater River meets Fore River, in the Stroudwater neighborhood of today's Portland. Captain Tate took a big chance building such an elegant target for destruction during the (4th) French & Indian War---but he was lucky, and his mansion today still is a much-visited historic showplace at 1270 Westbrook Street, Portland 04102 (near today's Portland International Jetport). This Fore River location served well as Captain Tate's mast landing & loading port [See SIDELIGHT 1].

SIDELIGHT 1: TATE's HOUSE and MANNING's PICTURES

In the Colonial Period, masts & spars went to Britain in wooden sailing ships, some (called fly-boats, flights, flutes, fluyts) specially built with open-ports in the stern, on both sides of the rudder, and completely open inside.

A diorama of Captain Tate's mast-loading area, with a model fluyt mast-ship, is among the displays at TATE HOUSE, 1270 Westbrook Street, Portland 04102, in the Stroudwater neighborhood, near Portland International Jetport.

Also at Tate House are line drawings & written descriptions of many aspects of the Mast Trade from start to finish, by SAMUEL F MANNING. These pictures & captions also appear in a 60-page book by Manning (1979), titled NEW ENGLAND MASTS & THE KING'S BROAD ARROW, available for purchase both at Tate House and from the author at P O Box 722, Camden ME 04843.

Many thanks to SFM for permission to reproduce two of his pictures:
the book cover (shown here in Part A, Sidelight 1),
and the multi-yoke of oxen hauling a mast (shown in Part C, Sidelight 3).
Tate House photo courtesy of Tate House Museum

Nonetheless, suddenly, much of Britain's mast supply became America's own. After the opening battles of the American Revolution, New Englanders in various places openly disturbed mast-tree cargoes awaiting shipment to Britain. In June 1775, just such a disturbance erupted in Falmouth / Portland Harbor, when two ships arrived with orders from British Admiral Graves to secure all possible masts. However, local American Patriots already had towed many masts out of easy reach.

"On seeking to load in the Presumscot River, the British encountered an aroused citizenry who seized their boats, guns, and men. Thus the mast ships were forced to sail without a cargo. Admiral Graves warned...that if the masts were not given up he would 'beat the town down about their ears.' In October [1775] this threat was made good. Captain Mowatt and his fleet bombarded the town of Falmouth [Portland] and reduced it to ashes."---Quoted from page 43 of William H Rowe (1948) THE MARITIME HISTORY OF MAINE (NY: W W Norton & Co).

 

Part A
Broad-Arrow (& Cannon Balls)
Part B
The Spar-Maker (1820s-1893)
Part C
Windham Mast Landmarks

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