The words "Shipbuilding on the Kennebunk River" bring to mind images of the shipyards at the Landing, abuzz with profitable activity during the first half of the 19th century or of Nathaniel Lord Thompson and the ships that he built at the Emmons Littlefield Yard in the Lower Village. One might visualize shipbuilding's Final Chapter at David Clark's yard, the office of which stood in the shadow of the South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport and now sits beside our Town House School research facility.
Do you picture this illustration of Daniel and Stephen Ward's shipyard depicted on the Atlas Map of York County, published in 1856? The three gentlemen conversing on the river bank might well be lamenting the circumstances that would cause the failure of D&S Ward on October 21, 1856. Diarist, Andrew Walker reported that the only people making money in shipbuilding in 1856 were the lawyers whose job it was to inventory the belongings of failed business owners and negotiate the .15 on the dollar their creditors felt lucky to get.
The Ward brothers were the two youngest sons of Nathaniel Ward and his second wife, Lucy (Smith) Crediford. When Nathaniel's first wife, Lydia Harding died, she left him with the home of her father, Stephen Harding, at the mouth of the Kennebunk River, and at least five children. The Widow Crediford would grace him with four more offspring before his death. Many of Nathaniel's children would prosper from the sea.
Eldest son Nathaniel Jr. was a 21 year old boat builder in 1812 when he purchased land for a house on the corner of School St and Maine. His son Charles was the U. S. Consul to Zanzibar in 1845, when the Sultan Seyyid bin Said signed a treaty outlawing the export of slaves. Over 100,000 slaves, from the African interior, were shipped into slavery through the island of Zanzibar during the 1700 and 1800. Zanzibar's original Arab settlers had a tradition of slaving that was at least 2,000 years old and enforcing the treaty was a dangerous if lucrative assignment.
Nathaniel Jr.'s brother John was a Master Mariner when he died in 1834. Upon his death, the Harding land at the mouth of the river was sold to the United States government for a wharf. We still know it today as Government Wharf. Sister Hannah married Ships Carpenter, Thomas Bell who would later build ships with D&S Ward. Lydia's husband was lost at sea. Her daughter, who was raised by Daniel Ward, would marry Merchant and neighbor, Anthony Luques, who would also be financially connected to the family business.
Daniel and Stephen Ward sailed coastwise between Boston and Portland. In 1831, together with Ezekiel Wormwood, they commissioned the building of the 76.82 ton schooner Grape. For ten years the brothers sailed along the coast of New England. Stephen met his wife Mary Chadbourne on a trip from Portland and Boston. The brothers invested in granite, real estate and the building of at least two more ships. In the meantime, Nathaniel Jr., a boat builder, purchased land adjoining the Joseph Perkins Wharf in Dock Square.
An article in the Sea Shell in 1913, Dissolving Views, described Kennebunkport as it was in the 1840s. The author interviewed older citizens of the town, including Captain Thomas Bell, who remembered. "Where Brown Block now stands, (and by the way, that was put up for a shoe factory, and brought many people here from Massachusetts manufacturing towns), was a shipyard, back in 1840, with the brig Eveline on the stocks. The schooner Lucy was built there and the brig Velasco for D. and S. Ward."
Brown Block was where the Colonial Drug Store now stands. Seth Bryant, in his Record of Vessels, Kennebunk District, reported that the Eveline was built for Eliphalet Perkins and was launched April 30, 1840, in Kennebunk. Bryant's handwritten record book, now preserved by the Kennebunkport Historical Society, lists the schooner Nile as the first to be launched from the Kennebunkport shipyard. She was built for owners D&S Ward and Eliphalet Perkins and her master was to be Daniel Ward. Remich, in his History of Kennebunk, shares this quote from the newspaper. “The schooner Nile was launched from the shipyard in Kennebunkport May 7, 1841. She was rigged on the stocks and went off her ways in fine style, with streamers and flags flying. She was owned by D. and S. Ward and intended for a packet between Kennebunk and Boston.”
A handful of ships were launched from Dock Square before Emmons Littlefield opened for business in the Lower Village in 1845 and another handful before the Shipyard behind the South Congregational Church was built in 1851. The Ward Brothers bought the land above the drawbridge from Ephriam Perkins on March 25, 1851.
The fully rigged ship Chas. Humberston was likely the first vessel launched from the "new" D&S Ward Shipyard. She was the largest vessel ever built on the Kennebunk River, at the time, with a capacity of 1099.74 tons and a price tag of $60,000. New Orleans was her first destination when she sailed September 26, 1851. There she loaded with cotton and departed for Harve. Her freight money, that first trip, was an unprecedented $22,000, more than 1/3 of the cost to build her. Three years of relative success followed. The Ward brothers owned, along with the shipyard, Thomas Wiswall’s Wharf at the end of Union Street, and a variety store. D&S Ward could build a ship, sponsor its voyage, unload her cargo at their wharf and sell the goods at their store.
March 31, 1855, the Ward Sawmill and Gristmill burned to the ground. Andrew Walker wrote in his diary, "The fire was discovered around midnight and nothing could be saved from the building including all of the carpenter tools which were in the second floor loft.” Losses were tallied at $6,000 but only $2,000 was covered by insurance. In December of that year, the brig Frederick W. Horn lost a freight of ships timbers being delivered to D&S Ward. They had no insurance. In an effort to recover from the financial blows of 1855, the company contracted to build three large ships in 1856. Just then, demand for large ships fell as the prospects for war with the south rose. On October 21, 1856, D&S Ward was assigned to E. E. Bourne and Andrew Luques.
The Emmons Littlefield yard across the river was assigned the following day, though ultimately, that business survived. In the spring of 1858 Nathaniel Lord Thompson would buy what was left of the Lower Village Shipyard.
The failure of the Kennebunkport shipyard impacted many lives. The Ward brothers were the largest employer in town. A group of 35 men got together and formed a co-partnership called the Kennebunkport Shipbuilding Company. D. W. Lord purchased 20 shares at $100 a piece and was voted treasurer. They finished the business in process and used up the materials left in the yard to build 646.38 ton ship Harvest, before dissolving the company in 1858.
Stephen and Daniel Ward re-gained ownership of their homes, shipyard and Wharf thanks to a town working in unison toward a single goal. Daniel retired to farming but Stephen continued to build ships at the Kennebunkport yard until he died on February 5, 1867. His great-granddaughter reminisced in a letter owned by the Kennebunkport Historical Society, “He went to Portland on business. After eating dinner at the Preble House he hurried to the Grand Trunk Station as it was then called and was suddenly seized with a heart attack and passed away. The day of the funeral all the stores were closed and the Methodist Church where the services were held was draped in black.”
Daniel died later that same year. The brothers did everything together.
Stephen’s son Charles was just 22 years old when his father died. He finished the ships on the stocks and went into business with his future father in-law, Englishman, William H. Crawford. The partnership would last until Charles accepted a position building ships in Alexandria, VA. William Crawford formed a new partnership with veteran shipbuilder, Stephen Perkins. That business would also suffer a crippling fire in 1875 and eventually fail in 1878. David Clark, son in-law of Shipbuilder Clement Littlefield, bought the beleaguered shipyard in 1880. He would face his own challenges in the business but that is a story for another day.
Charles Ward returned to the Kennebunks in 1891 to built ships in the Lower Village and proudly continued the Ward family legacy until the launching of the schooner Kennebunk in 1918.
This article was originally published in The Log, Kennebunkport Historical Society's quarterly publication. Copyright Sharon Cummins 2001-2008
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