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In 1900, Capt. Lincoln A. Colcord of Searsport, Maine, stands at the taffrail of the 216-foot State of Maine off the Cape of Good Hope. The taffrail log (the ship’s speedometer) is spinning fast, and Colcord’s pride is evident as he drives his ship hard across the giant waves. The square rigger had been built at the Haggard yard in Newcastle, Maine, in 1878 and was in transit to Hong Kong to deliver a load of kerosene. Colcord had married Jane French Sweetser, the daughter of another Searsport captain, in 1881 and delivered their children, Joanna and Lincoln, at sea. The photograph was taken by 18-year-old Joanna using glass plate technology. A female photographer was a rare thing at the time, and it was no small feat to take an action shot on the swaying deck of a tall ship with the slow, cumbersome photo equipment of that era. The Colcord photo is widely considered an iconic image, but not by the captain’s wife. She hated it because her husband wasn’t wearing his teeth.

Maine once had 70 sardine canneries that employed thousands of people. In 1951, the Maine Sardine Council was formed to promote and set standards for the industry. In the late 1950s, a 40-foot wooden sign of a sardine fisherman was installed near the Maine Turnpike in Kittery. It would be lit up at night and could be seen from a half-mile away. This photo was published in 1959. By then, Americans were already switching to canned tuna, and sardine plants began to close. In the 1980s, the sign was taken to the Stinson plant in Prospect Harbor. When it closed in 2010 it was the last sardine cannery in the country. A lobster processor took over the plant and painted a lobster trap over the sardine can.

Maine once had 70 sardine canneries that employed thousands of people. In 1951, the Maine Sardine Council was formed to promote and set standards for the industry. In the late 1950s, a 40-foot wooden sign of a sardine fisherman was installed near the Maine Turnpike in Kittery. It would be lit up at night and could be seen from a half-mile away. This photo was published in 1959. By then, Americans were already switching to canned tuna, and sardine plants began to close. In the 1980s, the sign was taken to the Stinson plant in Prospect Harbor. When it closed in 2010 it was the last sardine cannery in the country. A lobster processor took over the plant and painted a lobster trap over the sardine can.

In the mid-19th century, Searsport, Maine, had a population of 2,500 people that supported at least 13 shipyards and supplied 10 percent of the nation’s deep-water captains.

In the 1800s, Searsport’s captains commanded some of the world’s largest sailing vessels, but by the 1930s the sailing era was over. Aware that the town’s maritime past was about to be lost, in 1936, descendants of the town’s sea captains founded the Penobscot Marine Museum (PMM).

Kosti Ruohomaa was a Maine photographer who traveled the world for the famed Black Star agency in New York. Fearful that Maine’s way of life was disappearing, he devoted himself to capturing it. In January 1957, he spent 10 days living on Monhegan Island with brothers Douglas and Harry Odom to capture winter life on the island. Aboard the Odoms’ boat, Ruohamaa was frustrated that his lens wasn’t wide enough to capture the two men at work. When he saw the gulls coming he fired away, praying that they would be in the right place. The photo appeared with other Ruohomaa images in the February 1959 issue of National Geographic. Ruohomaa died in 1961. The Monhegan Island lobster fishery still exists today.

Kosti Ruohomaa was a Maine photographer who traveled the world for the famed Black Star agency in New York. Fearful that Maine’s way of life was disappearing, he devoted himself to capturing it. In January 1957, he spent 10 days living on Monhegan Island with brothers Douglas and Harry Odom to capture winter life on the island. Aboard the Odoms’ boat, Ruohamaa was frustrated that his lens wasn’t wide enough to capture the two men at work. When he saw the gulls coming he fired away, praying that they would be in the right place. The photo appeared with other Ruohomaa images in the February 1959 issue of National Geographic. Ruohomaa died in 1961. The Monhegan Island lobster fishery still exists today.

From the beginning, photos were part of the museum collection—mostly prints, cabinet cards and family albums—but eventually entire sets of negatives were donated. One of those collections was shot by Joanna Carver Colcord. Joanna was born in 1882 to Jane French Sweetser Colcord and Capt. Lincoln Alden Colcord in the South Pacific aboard the bark Charlotte A. Littlefield while en route from Australia to Japan. Joanna’s brother, Lincoln, was born the next year while the ship rounded Cape Horn in a storm. Both were schooled aboard by their mother while they traveled to the Far East. It is believed Joanna learned to take photographs from her uncle, Frederick Ross Sweetser, an early adopter of glass plate technology, whose photographs are also part of the museum’s collection and whose house is now part of the museum’s campus.

Joanna died in 1960, but in 2001 her niece donated Joanna’s 700 glass plate negatives. Her photos show tall ships at sea and in port, life aboard, and intimate portraits of the local people and their junk-rigged sampans, which serviced the ships in foreign ports.

In 1963, three “Gloucester Boys” strain to brail bluefin tuna from a net aboard the seiner Sea Rover out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The image was made by Martin Bartlett who worked on research vessels out of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and who also spent time as a guest photographer on commercial fishing vessels that seined and longlined for swordfish and tuna. Bartlett eventually bought his own boat, the Penobscot Gulf, which he used in the Gulf of Maine to fish for swordfish, tuna and groundfish until stocks began to disappear in the 1980s. Among his photos are images of giant swordfish (which are rarely caught today), enormous hammerheads and fishermen working in heavy seas. 

In 1963, three “Gloucester Boys” strain to brail bluefin tuna from a net aboard the seiner Sea Rover out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The image was made by Martin Bartlett who worked on research vessels out of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and who also spent time as a guest photographer on commercial fishing vessels that seined and longlined for swordfish and tuna. Bartlett eventually bought his own boat, the Penobscot Gulf, which he used in the Gulf of Maine to fish for swordfish, tuna and groundfish until stocks began to disappear in the 1980s. Among his photos are images of giant swordfish (which are rarely caught today), enormous hammerheads and fishermen working in heavy seas. 

“She and Ruth were remarkable,” PMM photo archivist Kevin Johnson says about Colcord and one of her contemporaries, Ruth Montgomery, who sailed from Boothbay to South America aboard her father’s ships. “The equipment they were using was rudimentary. They were using a glass plate camera on a moving vessel. And they saw these unbelievable things from these very different worlds.”

Johnson and Matt Wheeler, the digital collections curator, oversee a small, dedicated crew of volunteers who help them scan, caption, catalogue and publish the photo collection online. It is no small chore, especially since they are aggressively expanding the museum’s photo collection by locating forgotten treasures.

One of those treasures is the work of Kosti Ruohomaa, whose photos of the sardine industry in the 1950s caught Johnson’s eye while he was going through the museum’s Maine Sardine Council photo collection. Johnson learned that Ruohomaa had shot for Life and other major magazines. The photographer died in 1961 at age 46, but Johnson contacted Ruohomaa’s New York photo agency, Black Star, and asked for access to the negatives, which were in a storage facility in Fort Lee, New Jersey. “His life’s work was locked away and nobody had access to it,” Johnson says. “They said, ‘come and get them.’ So, I drove a van down there. It will add 20,000 images to the collection.”

Carrol Thayer Berry was a marine engineer, muralist, freelance illustrator, oil painter, soldier, architect and draftsman. He is known for his woodcuts, but in his later years he was an avid photographer. Berry often focused his camera on Camden’s burgeoning windjammer industry, which had been started by Frank Swift during the Depression. Swift would buy old working schooners, fix them up and provide inexpensive vacations for working people. When the cost of repair became greater than the purchase of another vessel, Swift would strip a schooner and burn it. By 1957, when Swift went to burn the Enterprise, Berry knew it had become an unusual practice and ran out to record it. Two of Swift’s windjammers still sail today.

Carrol Thayer Berry was a marine engineer, muralist, freelance illustrator, oil painter, soldier, architect and draftsman. He is known for his woodcuts, but in his later years he was an avid photographer. Berry often focused his camera on Camden’s burgeoning windjammer industry, which had been started by Frank Swift during the Depression. Swift would buy old working schooners, fix them up and provide inexpensive vacations for working people. When the cost of repair became greater than the purchase of another vessel, Swift would strip a schooner and burn it. By 1957, when Swift went to burn the Enterprise, Berry knew it had become an unusual practice and ran out to record it. Two of Swift’s windjammers still sail today.

But as the archive grows, it brings new challenges. It costs time and money to scan everything, and some collections must be purchased. Johnson relies on donors to buy important images before they are lost. Sometimes it’s also a race against time as negatives begin to deteriorate, or the photographers who took the photos near the end of their lives, potentially taking valuable caption information to their graves.

Johnson is currently working with Martin Bartlett, who worked out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and in the 1950s and 1960s took photos when a lot of seining and longlining research was being done on swordfish and tuna. Johnson found Bartlett in nearby Searsmont, and a couple of days later Bartlett showed up at the museum with boxes of photos. “Marty is amazing,” Johnson says. “In 1960, he shot Super 8 footage of swordfishing and tuna fishing that is incredible. He comes in once a week. He’s 89, but he wants to get all his stuff down.”

Lobsterman Glendon Lowe of Corea, Maine, is seen in a December 1953 photograph that appeared in the Atlantic Fisherman. The publication was founded in Boston in 1919 as “a paper for fishermen—producers—the men who actually fish for a living.” Its photo collection was donated to the Penobscot Marine Museum in the 1990s and provides an unmatched look at fishing on the Maine-Massachusetts coast in the 50 years after engines replaced sails. Atlantic Fisherman eventually morphed into National Fisherman and was then bought by Maine Coast Fisherman. In 2012, the owners of National Fisherman donated their pre-digital photo archive to PMM, thus giving the museum a visual timeline of American fisheries in the 20th century.

Lobsterman Glendon Lowe of Corea, Maine, is seen in a December 1953 photograph that appeared in the Atlantic Fisherman. The publication was founded in Boston in 1919 as “a paper for fishermen—producers—the men who actually fish for a living.” Its photo collection was donated to the Penobscot Marine Museum in the 1990s and provides an unmatched look at fishing on the Maine-Massachusetts coast in the 50 years after engines replaced sails. Atlantic Fisherman eventually morphed into National Fisherman and was then bought by Maine Coast Fisherman. In 2012, the owners of National Fisherman donated their pre-digital photo archive to PMM, thus giving the museum a visual timeline of American fisheries in the 20th century.

The museum now has about 120,000 photos online, but they have at least another 200,000 to be scanned. “We put our first images online in 2010 and have been adding to it ever since,” Johnson says. Ordinarily, the archives are open to the public, but the pandemic has put a stop to that as well, which makes the online access even more important. The digitization of the original negatives, especially the larger negatives, is bringing out details in the photographs that have never been seen before.

Wheeler is fascinated by that phenomenon. “When they took a 5-by-7 negative and made a contact print for a 5-by-7 postcard, nobody was privy to the detail,” he says. “There’s an image of Stonington Harbor that was shot in 1915 or 1916. In the postcard you only see a panorama, but when you scan it in and blow it up, you see kids pointing toy guns at the camera.

A 1981 photograph by Everett “Red” Boutilier shows the 68-foot steel stern dragger Amy W. slipping down the ways at the Edward T. Gamage Yard in South Bristol, Maine. For about 40 years, Boutilier, a freelance photographer and journalist, shot every boat launch in Maine’s Midcoast region. Some of the Gamage Yard’s most celebrated builds were Harvey F. Gamage’s wooden sailing vessels from the 1950s and 1960s, including the 108-foot square topsail schooner Shenandoah, the 94-foot schooner Bill of Rights and Pete Seeger’s Hudson River sloop Clearwater. Boutilier died in 2003 at age 85. The Penobscot Marine Museum bought his 20,000 negatives and prints from his son and has digitized the collection and put it online.

A 1981 photograph by Everett “Red” Boutilier shows the 68-foot steel stern dragger Amy W. slipping down the ways at the Edward T. Gamage Yard in South Bristol, Maine. For about 40 years, Boutilier, a freelance photographer and journalist, shot every boat launch in Maine’s Midcoast region. Some of the Gamage Yard’s most celebrated builds were Harvey F. Gamage’s wooden sailing vessels from the 1950s and 1960s, including the 108-foot square topsail schooner Shenandoah, the 94-foot schooner Bill of Rights and Pete Seeger’s Hudson River sloop Clearwater. Boutilier died in 2003 at age 85. The Penobscot Marine Museum bought his 20,000 negatives and prints from his son and has digitized the collection and put it online.

“Now that we digitize photos,” Wheeler says, “there’s a whole world in there that people back then couldn’t see.” 

This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.

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