West of Woolwich: It's just ... gone!

Posted Wednesday, July 25, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: It's just ... gone!

The BIW Machine Shop and Its History Are Scrapped

by Fred Kahrl

The oldest significant building in the shipyard has been taken down and hauled away.

And most of the machine tools … magnificent to miniscule … that produced products that were respected worldwide have been broken up for scrap.

And I am not speaking about warships now, but you wouldn’t know that because you do not know the rest of the story.

The large building with the smokestacks became the Machine Shop when Gen. Thomas Hyde moved his business from downtown Bath to the waterfront and began building ships.

When BIW absorbed the neighboring Hyde Windlass Company in 1964, it wisely kept the manufacturing employees even though the shipyard had no intention of continuing to produce the deck machinery and large propellers that were the Hyde trademark.

But BIW did create an Industrial Products Division to make use of slack time in the large Machine Shop when there wasn’t enough shipbuilding work. The two big customer names that came with Hyde Windlass were Pennsylvania Crusher and Keyes Fiber, the latter a Maine paper products manufacturer then based in Waterville.

In fact, if you are middle-aged and ate off a Chinette® paper plate as a kid, that plate would have been produced on a machine built at BIW. Likewise, the “slurry” presses at Keyes probably made the egg cartons we still use today, even though Keyes has moved most of its manufacturing offshore. They took their BIW-built machines with them.

I was at BIW only 15 years, but even in that time there was a stunning variety of fine machine tool work marketed by the Industrial Products folks for the gloomy old Shop. A book should be written about this aspect of BIW’s business, before the last of the true craftsmen that made their magic there pass on.

The Shop was torn down this year because it was literally falling down. As seen in the old picture, there was a large boiler room attached to the South side of the Shop that provided steam for heat and to drive some early machinery. Soon a large air compressor was added to drive the myriad air tools used by workers, especially the riveters.

As the shipyard grew, so did the compressor. The whole “platform” or wharf where the shipyard’s main building stood was on wooden pilings driven into the mud of the Kennebec River. The ledge under the mud dropped off so quickly that only a few of the original pilings were actually driven down to touch rock. The others were instead driven to “refusal” which was when the resistance of the mud, and the sand and gravel below, resisted the piling enough that the top began to split under the blows from the driver.

Through the years, even as the wooden piles were slowly replaced with steel piles (which were all eventually driven to ledge), the now-very-large compressor would still shake the building when it was running. And through the years it slowly shook the venerable building to pieces.

[During WW II, BIW added another large compressor at the North end of the shipyard, next to a “new” steel 3-storey materials receiving warehouse called North Stores. When North Stores was converted to office space during the 1970s, the wags in the Engineering Dept. on the top floor discovered that “their” compressor was also shaking the building. It was more like a hula, and posed no immediate threat to the building. However, being engineers, they quickly realized that the “hula” was actually a sine wave that had both null and peak points. So, when you visited the department … a large open space with typical cubby dividers … you would see a small forest of those foam “We’re #1” fingers on their wooden sticks rising from the cubbies … some of them waving happily at you, some perfectly still. The compressor, in this case, was moved.]

But long before the Machine Shop was shaken apart, some fascinating things issued from within.

In the picture, the two hulls at dockside are the Navy gunboats Machias and Castine, the first ships built by BIW. But the “new” shipyard’s first major contract was actually to assemble and install the steam engine for the large passenger steamer “Cottage City”, built in a neighboring Bath shipyard that was still stuck in the age of sail. BIW delivered the sidewheeler in 1890, and most certainly the steam engine it installed was built in the Machine Shop.

America’s Cup Defender “Ranger” slides into the Kennebec River from the BIW Machine Shop where she was built for the Vanderbuilt family. She was never defeated in competition, and was later donated to the war effort in WW II when she was scrapped for the tons of lead in her keel.

If you have seen a picture of the launching of the America’s Cup sloop “Ranger”, it is the Machine Shop from which it rushed down its short ways to the Kennebec. It was built indoors in part because of its novel hull of flush-riveted aluminum which could be more carefully assembled in a controlled space. Too, it needed to be mated to its 27-ton lead keel which was cast in a single pour … the largest of the day … and the furnaces built for the task were, yes, on the large floor of the Machine Shop.

During my tenure, I was particularly absorbed by a special project BIW did for MIT … you know, that fancy university in Cambridge, Mass. that isn’t Harvard.

Anyway, MIT was in the vanguard of nuclear physics, and had rented time in a new, very large “atom smasher”  in Germany where they hoped to push the frontier of particle physics further ahead. To do this, they needed a very large block of specially alloyed magnetic steel which, having been cast in two pieces in a hi-tech foundry elsewhere, had to be machined to fit together almost seamlessly like two halves of giant doughnut.

The two pieces had to be delivered by railcar … one of the last such deliveries into the Yard … backed into the Machine Shop (which still had the original rails inside from the pre-war era), and then be delivered to the 8-inch Horizontal Boring Mill by the overhead crane lurking up in the eaves above the Shop workfloor.

For the uninitiated, “8-inch” referred to the diameter of the shaft or piston which carried the toolholder that, when turned, did the work. The piston had a twenty-foot stroke (in and out), and the two-storey carriage rested on “tracks” … actually a grooved “base” … that allowed travel more than ten feet side-to-side. And the carriage itself had a precision lift that could raise and lower the shaft about eight feet.

This was a BIG machine tool … the largest in the Shop … so big that the operator rode ON the machine, yet it could shape steel to within one-thousandth of an inch. More in the hands of a truly skilled machinist, and BIW had many.

The job was both massive and exceptionally delicate. Temperatures had to be carefully maintained in the drafty old Shop lest the castings “flinch” out of shape while being machined. Even crating the finished Chamber was a delicate task.

Several months after the great grumbling diesel locomotive muttered out of the shipyard with its solitary flatcar, shop Foreman Roger “Duke” Duquesnoy received a large envelope from his contact at MIT. In it was a draft of the article that would soon appear in prestigious publications serving the field of nuclear … now “particle” … physics.  The new “chamber” had been inserted into the cyclotron where it proceded to, for the first time, prove the existence of  the sub-atomic particles known today as Muons and Gluons.

In so doing, MIT was the first research team to break through a horizon that had up to then only been mathematically suggested. With this proof of what had only been theory, the path was opened to what is happening today at the CERN Super-Collider in Switzerland, where the assembled army of physicists now believe they are close to discovering the “God Particle.”

But that is beyond the scope of this recollection, except that there are still a few of us who know the invaluable part played in this research by our little shipyard in Maine.

When it was installed in the 60’s, the 8-inch Mill was itself cutting edge technology, and its true capabilities were realized under the hands of BIW’s irreplaceable craftsmen. I say “irreplaceable” because they have since been replaced by technicians who let the craft and the computing be done by machines running machines. There is, in a steel building next to the empty space where the old Machine Shop stood, a marvelous big new machine tool that is controlled by a computer.

“It can even machine a perfect circle,” said Duke when we were reminiscing for this column. “We couldn’t do that with the ‘8-inch’, but we still did a lot.”

Yes they did, but no one seems interested in the story.

Duke says they planted flowers where the Shop used to be.

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