Captains Courageous

Captain Nickels built the house for his wife. There’s a widow’s walk on the roof…though Elizabeth may not have used it much. She frequently sailed with Captain Nickels. In fact, she gave birth to five children at sea.

Rob Rosenthal, on the Captain A.V. Nickels Inn

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Legendary Searsport

You’ve heard of captains of industry? Of all the coastal towns on the eastern seaboard, only Searsport, Maine could stake a claim to the moniker “Industry of Captains.” To cash in that claim, all you have to do is do the math. In the 1800s, ten percent of the captains sailing ships allegiant to the United States of America came from Searsport, Maine – a total of approximately 300 commanders all told.

Amy Lent of The Maine Maritime Museum drew a modern parallel: “Today if you want a top tech engineer you're going to go to Silicon Valley. Back in those days, if you wanted a sea captain you were going to go to Searsport, Maine.”

Searsport, Maine

So why were so many sea captains gathered in one place? Not to go all Don Corleone here, but it was all about taking care of the family business.

“Your grandfather went to sea and your father went to sea and so you go to sea,” Amy Lent explained. “It’s where a community grows up around a certain type of industry. And in Searsport they raised a lot of really successful sea captains and it became a family tradition.”

If it was the early to mid-1800s and you wanted to raise a fine, seafaring family, there wasn’t a better location. Searsport would have been a maritime real estate agent’s dream, beginning with ten sparkling miles of prime Penobscot Bay coastline. Add to that an armada of stunning wood or brick mansions featuring arched windows and spacious rooms, many furnished with exotic treasures of the seafaring trade. And, of course, the views. Nothing less than spectacular.

And speaking of views, Searsport is home to the Penobscot Marine Museum, Maine’s oldest maritime museum. The museum is a re-creation of a seaport village from the great age of sailing. They can’t equip you to captain a ship to the Orient, but they can give you an excellent feel for what it would be like to return home at the Fowler-True-Ross House and Barn. It’s a 19th century sea captain’s home furnished with export Chinese and Japanese furniture, textiles porcelain and paintings.

While it may have been good to be the king in some countries, in America it was great to be the captain – as Sea Grant’s Natalie Springuel detailed: “Boat captains tended to be fairly comfortable financially and had these big, beautiful houses with the widow's walk at the top of the roof. It was the area where the wives kept a lookout to see if the ship was coming back. To see the sails on the horizon.”

It would be a welcome sight to be sure, with a great family reunion to follow. But soon enough the adventure would begin all over again. Because the horizon never ceases to call, nor a courageous captain to answer.

The Maritime Spirit of Searsport:

Listen to Episode 5