MLA business member: Chase, Leavitt & Co., Portland

It all started with a loss. In 1854 Captain William Leavitt left Portland aboard the Andrew Scott, carrying 250,000 feet of lumber, a crew of 13 and 12 passengers to San Francisco. The California gold rush was in full swing and the need for construction lumber high. Captain Leavitt was the first captain to sail a full-rigged ship on this route, reaching port six months later only to face disappointment.

Chase, Leavitt & Co. founder William Leavitt. All photos courtesy of R. Leavitt.

“They were paying a lot for lumber when he left Portland,” explained Jonathan Leavitt, the captain’s great-great-grandson. “Unfortunately when he got there the bottom had dropped out of the market.” Leavitt sold his ship for scrap and found a way to sail east to Panama. He crossed that country by horse and then found a berth on another ship traveling the East Coast. “When he finally got back to Portland he took what money he had and bought into the firm,” Leavitt said.
The business William Leavitt purchased was an established shipping agency called the Charles H. Chase Company, well known in New England. Renamed Chase, Leavitt & Co., the firm continued in that line of work, serving as ship’s agents for vessels from around the world through the transition from sail to steam power and to combustion engines.
That aspect of the company has grown less important as the number of ships coming into Portland has decreased during the past several decades. “There’s not so many coming into Portland these days,” Leavitt said. “A large part of our business now is life raft sales and service.” The company also continues to keep a well-stocked selection of marine charts for sale in its Chart Room.

Chase, Leavitt & Co. in the early 1900s.

Life rafts and safety equipment were once only needed by large vessels. That changed in the 1980s when the Fishing Vessel Safety Act was passed by Congress. Afterward commercial fishing vessels were required to carry a variety of safety equipment and they turned to Chase, Leavitt & Co.

Fifth-generation owner Jonathan Leavitt.

Today lobstermen comprise the bulk of the company’s customers, Leavitt said. Other types of vessels, such as ferries, tugboats, and whale watch boats, also come to the company for life raft and inflatable products. To meet that demand, Leavitt opened a second store in Ellsworth in 1997 to provide life raft packing and inflatable sales and services.
Like many, Leavitt is well aware of the changes going on in the Gulf of Maine as a result of climate change. “In 25 years the lobsters may all be up in Canada, but I hope not,” he said. Steering a 166-year-old company into the future calls for business savvy and an eye toward opportunities. “I’m the caretaker for the business while I’m here. My job is to keep it healthy and growing,” he said.

The old Chase, Leavitt building on Dana Street in Portland.

In Leavitt’s office hang portraits of his forbearers: William Sr., William Jr., Ralph, who helped found the Maine Maritime Academy, and his own father William. His son, who attended college to become an engineer, currently works for a construction company and has an interest in the firm as well. “He’s tech savvy. He’ll bring it into the 21st century,” Leavitt said with confidence.