Thursday, August 20, 2009

Live Yankees: Maine's 19th century global shipping empire

W.H. Bunting has published an admirable, unflinching history of the Sewall family's global shipping empire, which dominated much of America's long-distance merchant trade in the late 19th century. My review of the book, Live Yankees, is in the new issue of Down East.

It's a reminder that Maine coastal towns like Bath once played a dominant role in national commerce and, as a result, politics. Portland -- not Boston or New York -- was to be the terminus of an ambitious trans-Atlantic railroad-and-steamship service. Vinalhaven and Stonington produced much of the raw material for the nation's bridges, monuments, and public buildings. The industrial canning of food was introduced to this country in Eastport (with the help of a Scotsman). Even the commercial fishing industry got its start here, with year-around stations operating on Damariscove and Monhegan years before the Pilgrims showed up at Plymouth Rock (and eventually learned to fish.)

[Update, 11/17/09: The most high-profile remnant of the Sewall's empire has declared bankruptcy; the Coastal Journal did an excellent job reconstructing why.]

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