We awoke to such a promising morning that we decided to take a walk here in Portland. My personal history in this city runs only thirteen years deep, but that is enough time for me to have seen major changes and to learn a little of the city’s history. We set off intending to take photos for our travel blog, but because of the COVID-19 restrictions, we found ourselves locked out of many favorite old haunts. As a result, I have dug into our photo archives and this blog entry has itself become something of a historical composite.
Most visitors driving into Portland are likely to cross Veteran’s Memorial Bridge, which spans the Fore River and is part of U.S. Route 1. The four-lane highway immediately constricts to two lanes and follows the river into the Old Port. Four years ago Portland Yacht Services moved their operation to this location and their open house gave us an opportunity to appreciate the size and scale of their operations. Since then they have added two more structures, and as we drive past, we love to see the array of boats they have tie up and in dry dock for sales and service.
Just beyond the traffic light and around the curve is the International Marine Terminal where container shipments are offloaded from huge ocean-going cargo ships and stacked ready for transport by trucks and trains across the country. Portland is one of the few deep water ports in New England and is less congested than Boston or New York harbors, so this facility is becoming busier each year.
Further proof that Portland is still a working wharf comes as you pass the next four wharves…but as you drive past there is little indication of the wharves themselves. From the street there are only a few buildings with rather dull faces that give little hint of the wharves, the fishing boats, small boatyards, storage facilities and other marine businesses that lay behind.
At the end of this line of wharves is the City of Portland Fish Pier (a wholesale market operation) and the U.S. Coast Guard’s docking area. Their cutters are frequently seen coming and going along the Fore River and in Casco Bay. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute is also in this stretch. They are a non-profit that does research to help support and maintain the resilience of the waterways. They work closely with fishermen and environmentalists to understand issues and to help develop realistic responses.
At this point there is an enormous construction project underway on the left side of the street. This used to be Deering Lumberyard with an entire block of open-faced storage sheds full of boards. Two years ago the sheds were demolished and construction was begun on Hobson’s Landing, a seven-story condominium complex. The old lumberyard office now houses models of the condos, and a hotel is under construction at the far end of the block.
The Swasey Pottery building has always been one of my favorite Portland landmarks, but this large brick building with its historic painted sign is becoming dwarfed by the boutique hotel being built adjacent to it.
Ebson Swasey began producing pottery, glassware and crockery in this building back in 1890. The firm made items that were useful in the days before refrigeration became common in home kitchens….back in the days when “foods such as butter, salted meats, and pickled vegetables were kept in crocks made of durable, non-porous, glazed stoneware.” The business flourished until the Great Depression when it closed its doors in 1935, and now this old pottery-making facility houses commercial and residential units.
The firm’s “brown-over-cream colored crocks, jugs, bean pots, and oyster jars [are] emblazoned with the block-print Swasey name [and] filled pantries across the country.” The Swasey markings are easy to spot in antique markets and these old crocks and bean pots make a fun and practical collectible, especially with the current culinary fermenting craze. Their prices are usually affordable except for rarer items (Bottero).
From this point on, Commercial Street slows to a crawl in the summer and fall with the all the tourists adding to its already heavy traffic load. The only practical way to explore this area is on foot, so you probably want to pull into the paid parking lot across the street on Merrill’s Wharf or there is a larger lot two blocks ahead on Chandlers Wharf. Two-hour meter parking is also available but it is usually hard to find an empty space.
The 300-foot long brick building that dominates Merrill’s Wharf was “built in 1884 as a spice mill, candy factory, and later operated as a commercial cannery. It was converted to cold storage mid-1960s” (Merrill’s). A massive 2011 conversion project reopened the building’s bricked up windows and Pierce Atwood LLP, the largest law firm in the state of Maine, moved their headquarters into a large portion of this extensively renovated space.
Many of the brick walls and old hand-hewn beams were kept exposed in the remodel and are reminders of the building’s history. The windows in Pierce Atwood’s reception-area provide an excellent view of the working wharves below.
King’s Head Pub, a ground-floor tenant of the Pierce Atwood building, is a welcome addition to the neighborhood. They offer an excellent selection of craft beers as well as delicious food. Located right on the waterfront, they are just a few steps away from the hubbub of the Old Port. This has become a favorite among locals and is a warm, welcoming place for those who want to spend a little time enjoying good food and drink in a quieter historic setting. King’s Head is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the English monarch whose actions inadvertently helped build Portland into the regional center it is today. According to their website, “The wharf we are on was created with refuse and debris created by King George III’s shelling and burning of the Old Port of what was then Falmouth, Mass. The charred remains were pushed into the water to create the foundation for our space.”
This is probably a good time to tell you a bit more about Commercial Street’s history and the Old Port.
As Logan Nye tells the story, the English did inadvertently contribute to the creation of Commercial Street. “In 1775, the Royal Navy sent a fleet to Falmouth, Maine, the site of modern-day Portland, and rained heated shells down on it for eight hours, burning nearly the entire town to the ground – but also pouring tinder onto the burgeoning flames of American rebellion.”
This action was in response to the kidnapping of Lt. Henry Mowat who had been taken captive in May of 1775 and held for ransom by some local rebels and smugglers. At the townspeople’s urging, he was returned to his vessel a couple of days later, but the damage was done. An enraged Mowat returned to the city in November of that same year as the commander of one of the 26-ships in the fleet that had been sent by the crown to “cow the rebels into submission” and to “back up the revenue collectors: who had been attempting to collect England’s taxes from uncooperative residents in the colonies. The fleet had been ordered by the British senior command to eliminate “whatever rebellious sea port towns that the Royal Navy could reach.”
For eight hours the ships fired red-hot cannonballs on the wooden structures that comprised the town and “in the end, over 400 buildings were destroyed, many of them homes or places of business. 1,000 people were left homeless and destitute.” The British may have celebrated their success, but the flames they lit in Portland set ablaze the passion for independence in more than just that city. Outraged colonists began joining militias and “by the start of 1776, it was clear that the American rebellion had grown from an effort by an angry minority to throw off a perceived yoke to a growing revolution that would eventually hamstring the British Empire” (Nye).
The citizens of Portland began rebuilding. When things began to settle down after the American Revolution, the rubble from the fire made excellent landfill for the ambitious project that created Commercial Street. This time the waterfront buildings would be in brick and much more elegant than the wooden hodge-podge that had previously characterized the city. Greek Revival and Italianate architecture were the fashion of the day so as you tour this area, remember to look for characteristic features of these styles: “tall granite posts and lintels often ornament the street level, while taller, narrower windows, frequently capped by fanciful brick cornices, articulate the upper stories” (portlandmaine.gov). Portland’s next great fire, the fourth in its history, in 1866 spared Commercial Street but destroyed almost all of the buildings in the area behind it…but we will get into that area another day.
The need for the landfill project was further advanced by the arrival of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad (later the Grand Trunk) in the 1840’s, which “made Portland the winter port for Canada, bypassing the frozen St. Lawrence River. This development triggered an unprecedented period of prosperity and growth. Grain elevators, storage buildings and new railroads followed and hence, the need for a broader thoroughfare to accommodate all the traffic.” Prior to this time narrow Fore Street, just a short block above Commercial, had served all the wharves, but something much more substantial was needed now to meet the new demand.
Portland’s “Waterfront Historic District is one of the few intact east coast historic waterfronts, and today looks substantially the same as it did in the period 1850 to 1875.” It is nice to know that this central area of the waterfront still supports traditional fishing.
Across the street from Union and Widgery Wharves is a handsome block of buildings with interesting shops. Old Port Wine and Cigar Merchants is an excellent stop for wine enthusiasts and gourmets. A conversation with Jacques is always fun and enlightening, and could well provide a memorable souvenir to enjoy later in memory of your historic visit…but don’t lug your bottles along, Jacques will be happy to hold them for you to pick up later.
The most colorful wharf in Portland is directly across the street from Jacque’s shop. Widgery Wharf was built in 1777 by William Widgery, who was born in England but immigrated with his parents and was raised and educated in Philadelphia. He became a shipbuilder and a privateer during the Revolution. By 1780 he was a practicing lawyer and politician in Portland. Since the 1970s, Peter Kelly has owned the wharf and he keeps rents low and rejects frequent attempts by developers to buy his property. “I tell them that this has always been a fishermen’s wharf, and as long as I’m around it’ll stay a fishermen’s wharf” (Shorr). I greatly appreciate Kelly’s support of the traditional fishing industry.
Next door, in sharp contrast to Widgery Wharf, is Chandlers Wharf, which represents the kind of development that Peter Kelly is trying to stave off. Chandlers Wharf is a seven building, ninety-six unit condominium complex that was built in the mid-1980s and became an alarm bell for preservationists and others who wanted to maintain the character of Portland before it went the way of other major cities that had lost their historic waterfronts. Since that time, zoning has been enacted that precludes the building of hotels and residential projects on the water side of Commercial Street.
Portland Lobster Company is uniquely positioned between Chandlers and Long Wharves. Behind the modest white-sided building there is a long roofed, open-air space where you can enjoy good food and live music.
It is a great place to eat a lobster and drink a beer while watching the action on Commercial Street and the coming and going of the boats in the channel. Across the way, visitors can sign up for whale watching or lobster fishing tours at the ticket offices on Long Wharf.
Lucky Catch is a personal favorite of ours. Captain Tommy Martin is a native Maine lobsterman who takes people out into Casco Bay to learn about lobster fishing in Maine. Tommy has two boats running, and he and his crew make this an entertaining and educational hands-on adventure for all ages. It is also a wonderful way to get out to see some of the lighthouses and forts in Casco Bay and to enjoy a fine view of Portland’s waterfront and skyline.
At the end of Long Wharf is DiMillo’s…a truly unique floating restaurant. Tony DiMillo was a Portland restaurateur with incredible foresight. Back in the 1970s, the Old Port was just beginning to change character from a place that was rundown to a place that would be a joy to visit and shop. Tony already had been a restaurateur in the area and saw promise in the waterfront. His imagination was fired when he learned that there was a new way to clear out the old pilings left behind after wharves caught fire and burned, leaving only charred stumps firmly planted deep into the sediment and underlying land.
Most people thought he was crazy when he bought an old burned out coal wharf in 1978. Long Wharf was nothing but rotting pilings but that was soon to change. A construction vessel with a special crane floated into the channel and in no time was pulling out the pilings. It apparently had a device that clamped onto the stubs and vibrated them out of the muck. Tony had a new wharf built with a seemingly vast parking lot surrounded by a 120-boat marina…then he topped off his efforts by adding a 206-foot retired car ferry that had been commissioned in 1941. During her active career, she plied the waters between Delaware to New Jersey, around Norfolk, Virginia and in Rhode Island until she was demoted to use as a club house and finally just storage space. Tony saw promise behind her much faded hull and had her repaired, rebuilt and installed as the jewel of the Portland waterfront.
The DiMillo family is still hands-on in the running of the restaurant and marina, and year-round DiMillo’s is a great place to enjoy a fine meal and soak in the atmosphere and history of Portland’s waterfront. Of course two-hour complimentary parking for diners makes the visit even more enticing.
Let’s pause here in our walk…I got carried away again and have realized that this ramble has turned into too big a hike for one reading. Portland’s wharves are so full of fascinating history, businesses, and stories that I’ll leave you comfortably settled at DiMillo’s for a fine meal and a scenic view of the waterfront and I will pick up again next week to finish up the walk.
Bottero, John. “Holding Patterns.” Maine Homes.com. December 19, 2018.
Commercial Street Portland Waterfront (Old Port) Historic District, portlandmaine.gov.
Merrill’s Wharf Building. North River Company, northriverco.com.
Nye, Logan. “That time the Royal Navy burnt an American city to the ground.” We Are The Mighty (wearethemight.com) October 18, 2018
Shorr, Chris. “How Portland’s lobstermen preserve the working waterfront.” Fighting the Tides, tides.bdnblogs.com January 12, 2015