By Cipperly Good
The riches that the British, French, and Dutch explorers found in Maine came not from gold, but in the form of fish and lumber. Having depleted those resources in Europe by the 1700s, they sent work parties and eventually colonists to extract these materials vital for feeding and shipping goods back to the motherland. One highly prized resource was Pinus rigida (pitch pine), which provided the tar that preserved the watercraft. Tar prevented rot in the ship timbers and standing rigging (ropes holding up the masts, yards, and booms). It sealed the cracks between deck and hull planks from rain coming down and seas washing over them.
When a donor gifted the Penobscot Marine Museum with a roll of tarred oakum, the evocative sweet smell transported me back to tall ship voyages and the attendant memories of fresh sea air, sun, and the mix of peace and adrenaline of sailing. Oakum is the tarred strands of picked apart rope, wedged into gaps in the planking and sealed with a seam of pine tar to prevent deck and hull leaks.
To extract the pine tar, shipbuilders put pitch pine logs into a kiln, where the lack of oxygen and high heat inside resulted in tar and charcoal. The oozing tar was collected. If the tar was boiled, it became pitch, which when spread on hulls hardened into a watertight seal. Pitch pine could also be tapped, with the resulting “sap”, when distilled, becoming turpentine.
Like the Europeans before them, Maine depleted its stores of pitch pine, despite conservation measures to prohibit the cutting of trees under 12 inches in diameter. The industry moved to the southeastern US, especially to the Carolinas where longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) was the tar tree of choice. Mainers stayed in the market by transporting tar in Maine-built ships to markets throughout the world.
Cipperly is curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine.