The South Portland Shipyards

From 1940 to 1945 BIW played an unexpected role in the construction of two emergency shipyards in South Portland. The project began in 1940, when the British government sought to build shipyards in the United States, safe from the conflict in Europe. An agreement was reached to build two new yards – one in California and one in South Portland. Each yard was assigned orders for 30 simple freighters, designed for quick mass production, known as the Ocean-class.

The South Portland operation, known as Todd-Bath Works, was a joint operation of BIW and Todd Shipyards. The yard was managed by BIW’s leadership, and used some of BIW’s facilities, such as the Hardings steel plant, to get a quick start.

Construction on the 26 acre facility at Cushing’s Point, adjacent to Fort Preble, began in December of 1940. The yard would build ships in drydock basins, rather than on inclined ways, with space for seven ships side-by-side in the basins. Given wartime urgency, the first keels were laid in August of 1941, while construction of the shipyard itself continued until the following winter.

Even before keels were laid, the U.S. Maritime Commission sought construction of another new shipyard beside the Todd-Bath facility, to build ships for the U.S. merchant fleet. Construction of the second yard, known as South Portland Shipbuilding, began in April 1941 with the filling-in of vast mud flats out as far as Bug Light and construction of four conventional shipbuilding ways.

The second yard received an initial order of 16 Liberty ships – the U.S. adaptation of the British Ocean-class design – soon followed by more. Although initially planned as a small, simple operation, the demands of wartime led to the yard’s continued expansion with two more ways, more shops, and additional steel fabrication facilities.

As the shipyards and ships took shape, the workforce grew to a peak of 30,000 employees. When the British ships were completed in late 1942, the Todd-Bath yard switched to Liberty Ships, and the two companies were merged under the South Portland Shipbuilding name. In 1943 the operation became New England Shipbuilding Company, operating independently of BIW. By that time the combined shipyards occupied the entire South Portland waterfront, from today’s SMCC and Spring Point Light in the east, across to Bug Light and the waterfront facing downtown Portland.

In four years the men and women of the South Portland yards constructed a remarkable 274 ships – 30 for the initial British order, and 244 Liberty Ships, some 10% of the total Liberty Ship fleet. Of those ships, built in haste with no expectation of a long life, two are known to survive today. One, the former SS Albert M. Boe is permanently moored in Kodiak, Alaska as a cannery ship, named the Star of Kodiak. The other survivor, SS Jeremiah O’Brien, is preserved as a fully seaworthy and operational museum ship and memorial, berthed in San Francisco.