One of the most exciting days in Camden
It was 70 years ago, Feb. 8, 1943, when Camden had a day that many of us will never forget and many of you readers never witnessed. The story came to my mind as I watched the Inauguration of our 57th president, Barack Obama, and also as a new movie is being shown about Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
During World War II, it was very difficult to get coal to New England for fuel to keep the people warm. Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was very concerned about it, even though he had many other problems to deal with at that time. He saw a string of wooden barges being towed up Hudson River and thought, “This is the answer to that problem.” The government then contacted some of the wooden shipbuilding yards in Maine and when Camden heard the request they said,”We can do it.”
Of course, they really did not know how but started up Camden Shipbuilding & Marine Railway Co. to build wooden vessels for the war effort. They had already hired men and needed some contracts. A Naval architect found a half-model, built to scale, barge that had been built in the Civil War hanging on someone's wall. He drew plans from it and the yard was ready to go.
The first barge of four, MCC851, was ready to be launched in February. On Feb. 2, 1943, the Maritime Commission announced that first lady Eleanor Roosevelt would be in Camden on Feb. 8. The whole town was excited as it was her first visit to Camden. It was also the first barge of the first contract and the largest wooden vessel launched in the United States for the past 23 years.
The Chamber of Commerce was called by Associated Press, Wide World, International News Service, Fox Movietone, Paramount, Hearst and many others. The press started arriving Sunday night and Monday became one of Camden’s most memorial days. A press conference was set up in the shipyard conference room, with E. Hamilton Hall ( then Camden Herald owner and editor) in charge. Many of the reporters’ stories were written before the launch, then verified by a phone call.
Camden did not have nor need a police department, so members of Camden Fire Department all reported for duty by the main gate in dress uniform by 12:20 p.m. Orders were stated that the public would not be allowed on or near the outfitting dock. From noon forward, no cars would be allowed on Sea Street south of Atlantic Avenue — except official cars, cars belonging to Sea Street residents, work cars and cars on legitimate business. Eaton Field Parking area would be available from the High Street entrance.
Workers would have reserved “seats” anywhere on the deck on hulls 9, 10 and 11, etc. It was a tight schedule, reading: "Main Gate open 12:45 p.m., Invitation cards read 1:15, On the air 1:30, APc62 launches 1:35, Indian ceremony 1:40, “Pine Tree” launches 1:50, Presentation 1:55, Off the air and back to work 2:00, Final whistle and drinks were on the house 4:15." No time was wasted, they had work to do for the war effort.
Cary Bok, vice-president of the yard, brought Mrs. Roosevelt and the WACC that accompanied her to Camden from Portland and upon arriving here at 11:05 a.m., she was escorted to the Army-guarded shipyard gates.
Steel-helmeted infantrymen from the Camp Camden Army Reservation stood at attention as Mrs. Roosevelt entered the main office to meet the officials. (These men were stationed at the state park beneath Mount Battie, as the CCC Camps were there previously and their barracks were already there.)
She then began her tour of inspection of the busy yard. She climbed the ramp of the Pine Tree I and saw workers in action. In one of the offices we were eating our “brown bag” lunches, never dreaming that she would visit us, but very informally she did.
I noticed that she was wearing grey cotton stockings. I was just old enough to wear the lovely real silk stockings and earning money enough to buy them but production stopped because the silk was needed for parachutes. I was devastated but felt so much better when I saw that even the first lady did not have silk stockings.
At noon the first lady attended a luncheon at the Chestnut Street home of Richard and Louis Lyman. The guest list included Maine Gov. Sumner Sewall and his wife, and about 30 people in all.
The yard filled up with people prior to the launch. The APc62 was launched and then everyone one in the two parties moved across the yard to where the Pine Tree I was waiting to have its holding plates cut, to slide in the water. The Camden High School Band furnished the music. How happy I was to get a pass to “launch aboard” on the 192-foot barge, looking down on Eleanor Roosevelt and her party, as she smashed the bottle. She was immediately covered in champagne. Gov. Sewall handed her a handkerchief, so she could wipe her face and view the launching. I was sure the large barge would beach herself on Curtis Island, but when she finally hit the water, she slowed down. Mrs. Roosevelt was presented with a scale model of the Pine Tree I.
Following the launching, Eleanor Roosevelt was made an honorary member of the Penobscot Tribe, who made the life boats for the barges. The ceremony began. “Hear me, my friends,” said Poolaw. “We are to hold council. Light the council fire, Muscrat. Now light the pipe of peace and give it to Great Bear. I will sing to the Great Spirit of the North, the East, the South and the West to ask the Great Spirit’s protection for the big war canoe.”
Notes of "The Woman’s Song," sung by Princess Watawaso, were then heard. The dance of the braves by Little Deer was followed by Little Beaver and Muscrat.
“All join the victory dances” said Poolaw. The voice of the Bear said, “As Governor of the Penobscot Indians, I, the Bear, deem it great privilege to make you Eleanor Roosevelt, an honorary member of our tribe. I will ask Princess Watawaso to place the band of wampum, upon your head. Your name in the tribe is Ow-du-sees-ul (meaning many trails)."
How appropriate for the first lady, who was at that time making many trails. He spoke in Indian tongue but his words were interpreted by Poolaw. It certainly was colorful and a half dozen newsreel cameras were filming it. She was presented with a sweetgrass basket and then shook hands all around. As the party moved toward the gate, the newly named “Indian Princess”(Eleanor Roosevelt) was given two Knox Mill blankets.
The crowd estimated at 5,000 or more left and a reception was held for the honored guest at The Officer Club (10 Sea St.).
Rev. Bukleman of the Methodist Church had taken his small daughter to the launching. As they walked back, she was crying because so many people were in front of her, she hadn’t seen Mrs. Roosevelt. A guard, stationed on the porch at the reception, asked why she was crying. Her father told him. The guard took her by the hand. She went in and sat on Mrs. Roosevelt’s lap, while she fed her milk and cookies. The small child and her father hurried over to the church because he was to have a service. The minister’s daughter ran down the aisle and loudly stated to the whole congregation, ”I just sat in the government’s lap!”