What’s something that Singapore, Japan, and Cape Horn have in common? They were all destinations for a booming shipping industry of the late 1800s – one that was based in Brunswick, Maine. This summer, Lucy Knowlton ’16 has been exploring the routes of the Brunswick shipping industry using ArcGIS maps and the resources available in Bowdoin’s Special Collections.
Knowlton has focused on the 1850s-1870s, when the wooden ships being built were at their largest, though by that time the shipyard in Brunswick had been around for decades. Boat launches such as Simpson’s Point Landing were hubs for vessels departing to destinations all over the world. After the 1870s, metal steamers began phasing out these wooden boats.
A history major, gender and women’s studies minor and a Mainer herself, Knowlton has been working alongside Associate Professor of History Sarah McMahon, using ArcGIS mapping tools to plot where shipbuilders lived in the local community and to map the routes traveled by ships sailing out of Brunswick. Knowlton’s research is shedding light on how Brunswick’s shipbuilding industry fit in to the local community, as well as how it transformed into a statewide, coastal, and international industry.
Brunswick residents would build and captain the ships, picking up goods such as cotton or coal from one location and then sailing them to another. There were several families involved in the shipping industry, such as the Sewells and the Scholfields, but Knowlton focused on the Pennell family, who captained many ships. The Pennells’ legacy lives on in street names found around the Simpson’s Point area (Old Pennellville Road, for example).
Knowlton began her research by looking at payrolls and other Special Collections documents that belonged to the Pennell family. There were more than 1,800 workers in the shipyard, of whom the payrolls contain names, salaries, and in some cases even designated duties.
“One of the first things I learned how to do was to read this really old handwriting,” Knowlton said. “It was like another language.”
She also used ship logbooks to identify the latitude and longitude of the boats on their journeys to wide-ranging international destinations, and then visually mapped their paths in ArcGIS. Additionally, Knowlton took trips with McMahon to the former shipyard through the Pejepscot Historical Society, and to the Maine Maritime Museum (where another small shipyard stood in Bath).
Knowlton’s favorite part of the research so far has been using the Ancestry search engine to find out more about members of the shipbuilding community. “The Ancestry library allows you to look at the original census records and Civil War draft records online. But sometimes their names are spelled differently so you have to guess,” she explains. “Professor McMahon has referred to it as ‘sleuthing.’ It’s really enjoyable.”
This summer Knowlton has been backed by a Gibbons Fellowship, which supports professor-student partnerships and innovative uses of technology. She hopes to become a high school history teacher after completing Bowdoin’s Teacher Scholars Program.
“I never expected that people from Brunswick, Maine, would sail to England or elsewhere around the globe and see their neighbors in these international ports,” Knowlton says. “Brunswick definitely had an impact internationally.”