A Shipyard Fire Shakes a Tradition-Rich Town to Its Core
EAST BOOTHBAY, Me. — This village on the eastern side of a rocky peninsula is known for its boats: majestic yachts, workhorse tugboats and sloops made by craftspeople with an unflagging work ethic and a pride passed down by generations of boat builders.
So when East Boothbay’s biggest shipyard, Washburn & Doughty Associates, was destroyed by a fire July 11, it struck at the heart of this village about 30 miles up the coast from Portland.
“Boat building is Boothbay,” said John Anderson, manager of the Town of Boothbay, which includes East Boothbay. It has been the town’s dominant industry for about 150 years. “The impact of this on the local economy, the people, is huge.”
Ensuring that Washburn & Doughty reopens is also crucial to the state: it is one of the biggest boat builders in Maine, which has spent the past few years marketing its boats worldwide. According to Maine Built Boats, an industry group, boat builders in the state generated $355 million in sales in 2006 and employed 2,500 people.
“It’s the No. 1 manufacturing sector, and that’s something we don’t want to lose like we lost paper mills and like we lost lumber mills,” said Ted Smith, a spokesman for neighboring Hodgdon Yachts. “It’s not easily exported. You can’t send this to Iowa or Pennsylvania. This is part of Maine’s heritage.”
For the East Boothbay General Store, the five boat builders nearby are its livelihood, too. The store’s manager, Crystal Theall, said the shipyards’ workers kept the store open in the winter, dropping by for hot coffee, meatball subs and good conversation.
“Every day there’s a routine,” Ms. Theall said. “A coffee break at 9, lunch at 11:30 or 12, when the regulars pile in. You know all their names, what they order.”
“The company is a part of East Boothbay,” she added. “The shipyards are the end-all and be-all here. That’s what East Boothbay is known for.”
No one was hurt in the fire and propane tank explosions that destroyed Washburn & Doughty, which is now reduced to twisted, charred metal and black pieces of wood that look like charcoal.
The state fire marshal ruled the fire accidental, caused by sparks from a machine. Damage to the company was estimated at $30 million. The day before the fire, the company, the only steel tugboat manufacturer in Maine, received permission from the town to start a $5 million expansion.
The men and women who build boats in East Boothbay would rather be doing just that. Before the fire was extinguished, company executives were devising a plan to stay in business. It is using an adjacent park as a base of operations, where about 35 employees are working on a tugboat that was not damaged.
About 65 employees were laid off, the company said. Other boat builders in town, including Hodgdon Yachts, as well as local construction companies, have offered temporary work to some of them. The town has set up a fund to help the laid-off workers, and Maine’s senators, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins, issued a statement saying, “The family-owned shipyard is integral to the Boothbay community’s economy and history, and we pledge to provide all available aid and assistance to help this company rebuild.”
The company hopes to rehire workers as demolition and repairs begin.
“The desire is to get everyone back to work as soon as possible,” said Washburn & Doughty’s operations manager, Lee Smith. “This is over $4 million annually in payroll. It directly affects all of the business here. The local community understands, and their willingness to help has been tremendous.”
With their combustible mix of wood, solvents, other chemicals and propane, East Boothbay’s shipyards have always worried local firefighters. In 1944 a major fire roared through Rice Brothers, a boat-building company on the site of what is now Washburn & Doughty, which moved here in 1985.
Capt. Dave Pratt of the Boothbay Fire Department said that in the July 11 fire “the minute the call went out, we knew what we were up against.”
“It’s on the water, you can only fight it from three sides,” Captain Pratt continued. “It was the biggest fire I’ve ever seen and probably will ever see.”
Ms. Theall, whose general store was closed because of the thick smoke, said the fire was something she and everyone else here never wanted to see again.
“For people in this area it’s just too close to home.” Ms. Theall said. “It’s right in our backyard. Everyone loves everyone else here. It’s just so sad.”