Maine maritime buff catalogs vast US marine history


WINTERPORT, Maine – Thousands of ships over hundreds of years have navigated the rolling waters of Maine’s Penobscot River across the street from Jon Johansen’s home.

Inspired by that history, Johansen set about documenting every ship ever built along the shores of the state’s largest river. What started as a modest endeavor has turned into a gargantuan undertaking: Johansen is attempting to create a database of virtually every vessel built in the United States.

So far, the maritime history buff says he has catalogued more than 50,000 vessels – from 20-foot lobster boats to modern-day warships.

But that’s only the start. In time, he plans to create a Web site with his gobs of information and call it the International Maritime Library. It’s his way, he says, of helping preserve a part of the nation’s rich maritime past.

“We aren’t a maritime nation any more. We still move a lot via the oceans, but we aren’t like we used to be,” Johansen said. “Everything was done on the water. If you wanted to go from Bangor to Boston, you didn’t hop in your car and drive Interstate 95. You went on steamer. But unfortunately, that ended.”

The country’s seafaring history can be found in many places – museums, libraries, books, personal papers and photographs, old magazines and newspapers, ship registries, Jane’s Fighting Ships and people’s memories, among others. But what’s lacking is a single spot where people can access information about the history of all the ships and boats that have plied the nation’s oceans, rivers and lakes for hundreds of years.

That’s where Johansen comes in. For years, he’s been collecting facts about every vessel – their names, when and where they were built, their tonnage and dimensions, and the captains who sailed them – he could find. He has scoured libraries, museums and ship registries. He has made audio recordings of some of the old boat builders themselves.

Little by little, the lists have grown – and grown and grown. You won’t find mass-produced boats in his database, but you’ll find small lobster boats, schooners, steamships, ferries, warships, fishing boats, merchant ships and even the latest luxury megayachts.

“We’re not going to do rowboats. But we’re going to try to do everything from 20 feet on up,” he said.

Johansen, 56, got the bug early. He grew up next to a boatyard in Mattapoisett, Mass., and moved as a teenager to Maine. For the past 23 years he’s published a monthly newspaper, Maine Coastal News, and owns a tugboat, built in 1907 and berthed about 10 miles upriver from his home.

Thousands of newspapers and books about ships and the sea are stacked waist- and chest-high throughout the rooms and hallways of his home in this riverfront town downstream from Bangor. For now, all his ship information is stored on his home computers, he said, probably more than 10,000 hours of work.

“This is a passion. I tell people I’ll never get it done – because it’s so massive,” he said.

Johansen, of course, has his skeptics and some people half-jokingly think he’s crazy, he acknowledges. Whether he pulls off his dream or not, others admire his tenacity.

For all the power the Internet has in spreading information, somebody still has to organize the material to create a clearinghouse of all that knowledge, said Kurt Hasselbalch, curator at the Hart Nautical Collections at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Mass.

If Johansen brings the International Maritime Library site together, it would be of use to museum curators, researchers, educators and historians. But the rank-and-file public should also have an interest because so many Americans have ancestors who once sailed on the ships that Johansen is documenting, he said.

“It’s not just for research,” Hasselbalch said. “It’s part of our collective heritage.”

It’s fitting that Johansen lives in Maine, where shipbuilding has been a part of the state’s culture and history for more than 400 years. More than 20,000 boats have been built here – more than in any other state, Johansen said. In all, he estimates at least 100,000 vessels, and probably many more, have been built in the U.S.

Maine’s boatbuilding history ranges from the fast-sailing clipper ships of the 19th century and World War II Liberty ships to the present-day high-end yachts and Navy destroyers built at Bath Iron Works.

The oldest ship in Johansen’s database is the Virginia, a 30-ton sailing ship built in 1607 by a group of English colonists who settled at the mouth of Maine’s Kennebec River. Every state has a boat-building history of some sort, Johansen insists – even those inland states in arid regions such as the Southwest.

“Basically they needed to move, sometime, across bodies of water,” he said. “So they built all sorts of vessels, whether to run across the lakes or whatever.”

Johansen has a business plan for the International Maritime Library, to offer “maritime information at the push of a button.” Besides ships, it would include indexes of vessels, voyages, shipwrecks and the like, biographies of sea captains and other marine-related people and a general marine encyclopedia that he calls a “Mari-pedia.”

He’s still trying to figure out how the site would sustain itself financially, but he envisions membership fees, ads or sales of materials. He believes he’ll have the site up and running this year.

The task is daunting but if anybody’s up to it, it’s Johansen, said Phineas Sprague, who owns Portland Yacht Services boatyard and marina in Portland.

“Jon’s got a great idea, and nobody else in his right mind would do it,” said Sprague, who runs the annual Maine Boatbuilders Show in Portland. “But it’s Jon’s thing, and the reality is the greater good of the community will come out of it.”

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