When the Portland Pipe Line opened in 1941, crude oil began arriving in Portland, to be transported underground to Canadian refineries. The industry has supported a plethora of related businesses, including shipping agents, supply companies, shipowners, pilot boats, measurers, surveyors, boom operators, ocean cleaning companies environment and others.
When Canada began to develop its own oil supply, ship arrivals at the pipeline began to slow and shoreline businesses here were significantly affected. An example of this can be seen in the field of naval hardware. In the 1950s, some of these companies included Brown Ship Chandlery, WS Jordan Company, Sargent Lord & Company, the Harris Company, Bernstein & Jacobson, AL Griffin, Inc., Dragger Management, and Nordic Ship Supply.
Only one ship supplier remains in operation in the Port of Portland today: AL Griffin, which serves ports in Maine and New Hampshire, with most deliveries concentrated from Searsport in Portsmouth.
Seeking to know more about the company, I contacted Mark Usinger. Mark and his wife, Margo Greep Usinger, jointly own and operate AL Griffin. Mark graciously met with me to help us better understand the current state of Portland Harbor and, more specifically, what the job of a ship chandler really looks like.
AL Griffin was founded in 1955 by Arlton L. Griffin. Arlton had previously worked for the Harris Company, then for Brown Ship Chandlery, before establishing his own chandelier. It was a family business. His son Arlton, Jr. and daughter Betty also worked there.
Around 1974, the company was acquired by Orrin W. Valente of Milo, Maine. It was while Valente owned the company that Mark Usinger started working there. His father also worked there. In the late 1990s, Valente decided to sell the business; Mark and Margo Usinger took the plunge and bought it.
Since its inception, AL Griffin has operated from space on Custom House Wharf. Around 2001, the Usingers moved the business to Hobson’s Wharf. When the lease was renewed 10 years later, they decided to move again, to the building at 8 North Kelsey St. in South Portland, around 2012.
Mark Usinger was from New Jersey. When he first moved to Maine, he started in the recycling industry. Other early work included working at a marina in Freeport, at LL Bean, as a clerk for the Marine Resources Committee (a state legislative committee in Augusta), and as a model (a noted gig represented a fisherman in advertisements for the Discovery Channel. Deadliest Catch.)
So what exactly is a shipchandler?
In a nutshell, they supply tankers, container ships, cruise ships, or any other large vessel that has arrived in port. Although there are “supply companies” that locate and purchase supplies for ships, these companies generally do not deliver the goods. Ship chandlers can do their own supply, but the difference is that they also deliver. If a vessel is moored to a dock, this could be done by vehicle. Most often, however, AL Griffin delivers by water – they own a 40-foot, 12-ton launch that they load at Turner’s Island with a boom truck. Once at the receiving vessel, they will direct the crew to transport the pallets on board using the vessel’s crane.
There are many challenges in this profession. It is normally a ship’s head office that will request a quote for any product required. Since ships will stop at multiple ports, unless it is an emergency, they can stock up at any stop.
The ship chandler must not only find the product, but must also find it at a competitive price and have it on hand by the time the ship arrives in port. Even if they are chosen as the supplier, and after finding and purchasing the products, there is always a risk that the ship will be re-routed to another port, and there is no protection for the ship chandler when this happens.
There is no limit to the types of products a ship chandler can supply. In addition to the ordinary items needed by a ship’s crew – items like food, coffee filters, toilet paper, laundry detergent – there will often be orders for parts or specialized tools. Food requests can vary greatly since captains and crew come from all over the world.
Since AL Griffin has been in business since 1955, they know the products used on ships that come into Portland Harbor. There are certain types of cleaning brushes, radiator brushes, gloves, navigation lamps/bulbs, sawdust bags (used for spills) and other supplies commonly used on ships, but which could be difficult to be found in the short term. Ships carrying fuels may require safety-related items, such as spark-proof flashlights.
AL Griffin will keep these types of supplies on hand so they can quickly respond to a supply need.
Perhaps the most interesting orders come from the crew members themselves. The ships’ crews come from faraway countries, and sometimes from countries where purchasing items is not as easy as here. So when an order from a ship comes in, personal items are often added to it. These can be specialty foods, laptops, or any other item imaginable. A single ship could generate thousands of dollars in personal shopping needs. A team member once wanted a Dreamhouse Barbie to bring her daughter home for Christmas, so Mark and Margo hit up local stores to fulfill that special request.
AL Griffin also has a sideline that helps drive business forward. Mark has a permit for the treatment of international waste (garbage). There are strict rules for disposing of garbage from a ship that comes from overseas. If a ship wanted to get rid of its waste, it could hire Mark to oversee that process.
In the past, AL Griffin has also helped transport the crew. If a ship’s crew needed to go to the airport, for example, Mark would be the one to take them. He would also follow them through security checkpoints to make sure they got on their flight. If there was a problem, he would help negotiate the process.
Mark has had some interesting experiences with crew members trying to bring laundry detergent home (the detergent on ships is so much better than the detergent some had at home). However, white powder laundry detergent in plastic bags was not included at a security checkpoint. So Mark had to make sure the detergent was thrown away so the person could catch their flight on time. Crew transport is less common these days, as the types of ships in Portland Harbor have changed. Container ships have smaller crews, sometimes only 12-13 people, so crew requirements are not as heavy as before.
At first there was a lot of business in Portland Harbor and AL Griffin employed several people. Today, there isn’t enough volume to support a larger team, so it’s just Mark and Margo working alone. When I asked Mark what his definition of a ship chandler would be, he had a simple answer: “We help people”.
It’s a great mindset to have in this business. I’m sure the captains and crew are grateful to still have the Usingers here. They fill a need and sometimes even bring a little joy and comfort to crew members who have been at sea for a long time and are far from their homes and families.
Note: The South Portland Historical Society offers many conferences, author talks, and other programs scheduled during the winter months and into the spring. Historical Society programs are free to current members, so if you are a South Portland resident and not already a member, we hope you will take this opportunity to begin your membership, take advantage of one or more of our programs, and know that your dues help support the historical society and its mission to preserve our local history.
A one-year family subscription is only $25. Donations can be made through our online museum at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline.com, or if you prefer to donate by check, please make it payable to South Portland Historical Society and mail us at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. Thanks. If you need to contact the company, we can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 207-767-7299.
Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society. She can be reached at [email protected]