The Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine, celebrates the life cycle of historic ships with a new photography exhibit. Titled “From the Cradle to the Grave: Mining the Ed Coffin Collection,” it showcases 28 of the nearly 3,000 images that Coffin curated during his lifetime, all of New England sailing vessels, most of them from midcoast Maine. Coffin’s collection focuses on ship launches and shipwrecks, or their “births” and “deaths,” according to Kevin Johnson, the archivist for the exhibition.
Coffin was not a photographer himself, but growing up on Nantucket, he was always surrounded by the sea. He later joined the Merchant Marine. According to Johnson, Coffin’s time serving in World War II likely inspired his interest in shipwrecks. “He served on several different vessels, and three or four of them in a row got sunk,” Johnson says.
Following the war, Coffin and his wife moved to Alfred, Maine. He became a surveyor and took interest in the photos he saw while visiting houses, always clad in a mismatched suit.
“He was very charismatic, so people would trust him and send him their stuff,” Johnson says. “He would copy the material, either rephotographing it or printing the glass negatives.”
Coffin then researched the photographs and wrote details about each on the front or back of the prints. Often, he would correct existing notes to improve accuracy. Information was not readily available at that ime, so research was a labor, but he was passionate about getting the facts straight. Coffin befriended a number of captains and maritime historians who helped him with the work. In the process, the whole group became well-versed in the subject. “They could look at just the lines of a ship out at sea and be able to identify it,” Johnson says.
One of the most interesting photos in the exhibit is of the Eastern Steamship Lines vessel Belfast that crashed under the Sagamore Bridge on the Cape Cod Canal in 1919 after the captain lost steering control in a storm tide. The damage looks irreparable, but the ship was on the water for another 20 years.
Another photo shows a father and his children looking out on wrecked schooners in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Coffin’s research uncovered the events of the dim day that preceded the tranquil scene. The ships were destroyed in “The Portland Gale,” which sent hundreds of vessels to their graves. The more distant of the two ships shown in the photo was a Maine vessel whose sailors froze to death in the rigging. The next day, the weather was beautiful, and people were barefoot in the surf.
Yet another photograph is of the schooner Nathan F. Cobb—washed ashore in Florida after a gale—with bicycles parked near the hull while three women look at the damage. Maine resident Ida Cree captured the image six years after photographing the ship’s launch in Rockland, Maine. She witnessed its birth and death completely by happenstance.
Coffin died last year, just two years after he had donated about 60 years’ worth of images to the Penobscot Marine Museum. Most were 8-by-10 prints that have since been archived, digitized and prepared for display. Says Johnson, “The exhibit is a tip of the hat to Ed Coffin for his hobby and for what he contributed to the maritime history.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.