Zac McDorrAs company names go, “Bath Iron Works” is rather bland. Perhaps it should be renamed “Phoenix,” as the company has risen from the ashes twice – once literally, once figuratively.

The first occasion was in 1894, early in the company’s shipbuilding history. The Panic of 1893 cut demand for shipping in half, and BIW’s founder Thomas Hyde was weak from pneumonia. Two weeks after a major fire leveled much of downtown Bath, another fire struck BIW. The furnace building, plate shop, mould loft, joiner shop, and second machine shop were destroyed, and one vessel under construction was damaged.

Hyde’s son Edward blamed the disaster on Bath’s low water pressure, and cursed the city for not admitting Androscoggin River water into the system. He caused a scene at the local city council meeting, and promised that BIW would never be rebuilt in Bath. Instead it would be relocated to New London, Connecticut.

Fortunately, an inquest cleared the city of any wrongdoing, and BIW managed to pick up a few contracts. The damaged buildings were rebuilt, and the company stayed in business in Bath.

World War I was good for the shipbuilding industry, and thousands of people moved to Bath to build ships for the war effort. At the end of the war, however, demand fell to practically nothing, and every shipyard in Bath closed down.

BIW tried to stay afloat by manufacturing everything from train cars to aircraft propellers, but the revenue could not meet the company’s debts and obligations. The yard and its machinery were auctioned off in 1925 for $218,000, and BIW sat deserted for two years.

Against incredible odds, former employee Pete Newell acquired the empty buildings in 1927 and BIW was back. He purchased discount machinery, arranged financing, and went after the yacht market for Roaring ‘20s millionaires. As a result, Bath is still the City of Ships today.

Source: “Bath Iron Works, the First Hundred Years,” by Ralph Linwood Snow.

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