With a seafaring heritage dating back over 400 years, Maine has one of the richest maritime histories of any state in the country. World renowned for building the best ships, it’s only fitting that one of the most pristine examples of early 20th century steamboats is still sailing in the state after more than 100 years. But you won’t find this floating marine museum along the coast; instead, families looking for an extra special adventure this summer should head inland to Greenville, ME at the southern tip of Moosehead Lake where the historic steamship Katahdin has plied the lake’s waters for more than a century.
Built by Bath Iron Works (BIW) in 1914, the Katahdin (aka “Kate”) has served the region in many different capacities throughout the years. Before roads were built, steamboats (like the Katahdin) were the primary means of transportation for the region’s thriving forestry, hunting, fishing and tourism industries just as their sister steamboats were sailing up and down the coast of New England. She carried passengers, supplies and equipment to the various camps, villages and resorts that had sprung up around the lake including the famous Mt. Kineo House.
As roads were improved and automobiles became more reliable, steamboats like the Katahdin became redundant. By 1940, the lake’s 100+ year era of steamboat transportation had all but come to the end with the Katahdin being the last remaining steamboat in operation, albeit in a limited roll.
She would find occasional work over the next 35 years primarily towing log booms across the lake and into the Kennebec River where they would be “driven” to the various paper mills along the river’s winding path to the Atlantic Ocean.
Recognizing the harm these log drives posed to the environment, U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie helped champion the Clean Water Act of 1972 with the goal of phasing out log drives. As a result, the Katahdin participated in the last log drive in the Continental United States in the summer of 1976 ending over 60 years of continuous commercial service on the lake. The Katahdin’s owner, Scott Paper Co., had no further plans for the vessel and she was destined to be scrapped. The following video “The Last Log Drive” shows the Katahdin hauling massive log booms across the lake in the twilight of her commercial life:
The historical significance of the vessel and its potential draw as an educational attraction was not lost on local community members including Louis Hilton, Duke McKeil and Tony Bartley who helped form the Moosehead Marine Museum that same year to restore and preserve the vessel as a working museum. Elliott Levy would become the museum’s first executive director and helped oversee the first major round of fundraising for the vessel’s restoration. The Katahdin’s solid construction and freshwater operations allowed her to outlast nearly all ocean steamships built around the same time, but she was definitely showing her age.
Through a variety of generous donations in time and financial resources, including the donation of the Katahdin herself by the Scott Paper Co. and technical expertise provided by the staff at BIW, the Katahdin was temporarily refurbished and returned to cruising on Moosehead Lake in the summer of 1985. My dad, Captain Al Dinsmore, served as her captain in 1986.
In subsequent years, even more companies and individuals stepped forward including BIW, Cianbro and Prock Marine to lend their technical expertise to refurbish the vessel and ensure it could remain in service well into the next century. Work included a repair of the hull in 1994. As there were no shipyard facilities available on the lake capable of such and undertaking, a whole new facility had to be built to dry-dock the vessel; it was a massive community effort. In 2012 Prock Marine dry-docked the Katahdin and completed a full recladding of the hull ensuring the vessel would last for generations to come.
Today the Katahdin is stronger than ever thanks to the generosity of countless individuals and businesses including land for a permanent museum home on the waterfront donated by the Louis Hilton family. As the oldest BIW ship remaining in operation the Katahdin offers daily cruises throughout the summer months and is available for private charter for weddings, reunions and corporate functions. Cruises vary in length and some have special themes including the popular “Rock and Roll” and “Murder Mystery” cruises.
Perhaps no other symbol represents Maine’s maritime, shipbuilding, forestry and tourism industries collectively better than the Katahdin which is why she is considered one of the best maritime exhibits in the United States.
Moosehead Lake and the Moosehead Marine Museum is less than 2.5 hours from Portland and less than 1 hour from Bangor through some of the most scenic areas of the state. Tickets can be reserved online through the Museum’s website, by phone (207-695-2716), or in person at the museum’s ticket office (I recommend calling ahead).
If you’re looking for a fun family activity this summer, a cruise on board the steamboat Katahdin may be just what you’re looking for.