A group of twenty people of varying ages climb aboard a trolley parked at the entrance of the Maine Maritime Museum. We’re headed down Washington Street to the naval shipyard at Bath Iron Works, which occupies 50 acres along the Kennebec River.

For security purposes, we showed identification at the reception desk, signed our names, and noted our countries of origin. Cell phones, cameras, and large bags were left behind. We reserved our spots well in advance. A garden tour this isn’t.

Fred Elwell, a retired Army man from Phippsburg, Maine who retains the accent of his native state, greets us. He spent 20 years at BIW in various capacities, his last as Front Line Supervisor. A kind of lieutenant, he says with a touch of pride: someone who sees that the job gets done.

Now retired, he is one of seven docents who narrate trolley tours of the shipyard. “I love the waterfront, and I spent a good part of my life at BIW, so I volunteer to help out the shipyard and the museum,” he explains.

Once aboard, we trundle past the museum’s yard, Bath’s public boat launch, and neighborhood houses along Washington Street, stopping briefly to get a broadside view of the shipyard and Maine’s largest beyond. At the South Gate, the driver hands a faxed list of our vehicle occupants to the security officer. We are motioned in.

The work at BIW doesn’t stop just because tourists have arrived. Welding sparks fly inside cavernous bays. Clangs, beeps, grinding noises, blowers, even a siren when something is being lifted overhead are typical sounds, so that Elwell has to use a microphone, and sometimes even that isn’t enough. At one stop we catch a whiff of industrial paint.

We weave among the gargantuan buildings as our docent describes the methods by which four or five thousand ton vessels, or parts of vessels, get transferred from the Land Level Transfer Facility to a “big blue thing” – the enormous dry dock that was built in China and has been in operation since 2001.

A flat-bed truck makes a delivery of steel right next to us, and Elwell explains how pipes, ducts, lockers, and the like are fabricated at the Hardings plant in Brunswick. He describes the modular, upside-down construction of the Arleigh Burke class destroyers and how “everything is programmed to come together at a certain time.”

For the most part, people on the grounds pay no attention to us. All wear hard hats that are color coded to indicate their job. A pipefitter wears dark blue. A shipfitter wears brown. A gray hard hat denotes a painter. Welders wear black. You tell a supervisor by the white hard hat. The workers in orange are the “VIPs of the shipyard,” claims Elwell, who once sported such a color. These are the riggers. They make sure whatever is moved around the shipyard is securely fastened.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Maine Maritime Museum conducted walking tours of the shipyard twice a year, with nearly 350 participants, explains Dave Garrison, the museum’s Director of Marketing and Communications. Those tours stopped after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Based on the popularity of those events and frequent requests from museum visitors, the Board of Trustees approached BIW in 2006 to reestablish tours of the facility. The trolley tours began in the summer of 2007.

Our docent provides history, lore, and facts during our hour-long visit. We learn about Superintendent of Ships, the U.S. Navy’s on-site inspectors. A group of seamen is gathered on the deck of a nearly completed destroyer. Several months in advance of a ship’s delivery, the Navy brings in a crew to run trials at sea. Bath Iron Works provides lifetime service on the ship, says Elwell.

We motor by the three ways where ships were built and launched before the dry dock’s arrival ten years ago. The carpenter shop used to build a cradle with 4,000 pounds of wax and plywood and rods in order to send a new destroyer down the ways. The last ship to be launched at BIW in this manner was USS Mason (DDG-87) on June 23, 2001. Now surveyors come in and, by means of a system of multiple transports, the ship gets lifted off the concrete and driven onto the dry dock, a method that takes about three hours to go a distance it might take two minutes to walk.

As we motor along, our old-fashioned trolly is dwarfed by massive open-air buildings, including the Ultra Hall, which facilitates construction of huge ship sections. Picture an airplane hanger multiplied many times. Alongside one building we view a giant sonar dome up close. The unit will rest under a ship’s bow and hold all the electronic systems. As our trolley passes in front of a destroyer, we see how the ship’s graceful curves have been created by large, faintly visible squares of welded steel. It’s a stunning view.

Most of the shipyard’s landscape is utilitarian-even gritty. But this tour allows a vivid and grand picture of an operation that employs 5,000 people. You seldom see anything made on such a large and systemized scale, with so much specialization and coordination. And you can’t help but marvel at how these imposing ships get from plans to production to the open ocean, just a few miles down the deep Kennebec.


Maine Maritime Museum’s BIW Trolley Tours run Monday through Saturday at 12:30 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on Saturdays, until October 11. The popular tours sell out quickly, so advance reservations are encouraged. For more information, visit www.mainemaritimemuseum.org or call 207-443-1316 ext 0.

Nancy Heiser is the former senior editor of Port City Life.