The Working Waterfront

Even schooners relied on tugs

Capt. Bill Abbott collection featured in event

Posted 2022-05-18
Last Modified 2022-05-18

The photo accompanying this month’s column shows the Ross Towing Co. tug Walter Ross with a four-master in tow down the Penobscot River, seen from the Stockton Springs shore, off Verona about three miles above Fort Point. Blue Hill is barely visible through the haze in the background. A fish weir is seen at lower left.

Although we think of tugboats guiding large combustion-powered cargo vessels and tankers into and out of ports, they played a vital role in the era of commercial schooners. Tugs would tow several sailing vessels at a time up or down the Penobscot River.

Before ship captains, pilots, and tugboats were efficiently connected by modern communication systems, pilots might wait for ships at Port Clyde on the peninsula outside Rockland. When a vessel entered Penobscot Bay, pilots would race out to meet the ship to offer their services; the first to arrive would get the job of guiding the vessel.

This photograph is from the Captain William Abbott Collection at the Penobscot Maine Museum in Searsport. Capt. Abbott spent 50 years guiding vessels into port, notably through the challenging waters of Penobscot Bay and River. He was a graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, the founder of the Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association, and a mentor to countless port pilots.

Tugs would tow several sailing vessels at a time up or down the Penobscot River.

He was also an avid collector of photographs and was known to spin a good yarn. When Abbott passed away in 2014, he left his treasured collection to the Penobscot Marine Museum where it is being digitized and preserved.

During the month of April, the Camden Public Library will host the exhibit Up River: Selections from the Captain Bill Abbott Collection in the Picker Room Gallery, presented by the Penobscot Marine Museum.

The exhibit is part of the library’s long-standing partnership with PMM to highlight Maine’s rich maritime history in April as it celebrates “Maritime Month.” The exhibit was researched and curated by PMM Volunteer Liz Fitzsimmons and will return to the PMM campus for the summer season.

The exhibit will be complemented by a narrated slideshow event on Zoom, presented by Capt. David Gelinas on Tuesday, April 26, at 6:30 p.m. Gelinas will discuss the history of the Pen Bay pilots and how Maine’s state pilotage system is practiced on Penobscot Bay. He will also share stories about Abbott, who mentored Gelinas when he was new to the work.

For more information about the Penobscot Marine Museum’s photography collections, see