Maine – Portland: The Eastern Promenade

Portland is full of parks, but the Eastern Promenade (or “Prom” as locals call it) is the city’s largest park and the jewel in her crown.  In the early days of the city, these 78 acres with their spectacular view of Casco Bay were privately owned and were used for grazing cattle.  In 1837 the city built “a roadway along the Promenade from Fore Street to Washington Avenue.”  Suddenly accessible, developers saw new opportunity for this stretch of land, and the “by the early 1880s the Fort Allen site was being considered for a hotel.”  

William Goold, a local historian raised the cry for the preservation of this space: “The Eastern Promenade has a more beautiful outlook than any other vacant space in the city and should be preserved as an open space.”  Fort Allen became a battlefront again, and fortunately Goold’s efforts drew the support of the citizenry.  The City of Portland purchased the Fort Allen site as well as additional land in 1890 for use as a public park.  For the design of the park, the City commissioned “the Olmsted Brothers landscape firm, renowned for creating New York’s Central Park and the Boston Commons (Friends of the Eastern Promenade). The photo below was taken from Bug Lighthouse in South Portland and has of Fort Allen on the left.

We picked a sunny Sunday afternoon to take photos along this two-mile stretch because we wanted to show the diversity of the space and to share how enthusiastically Portland residents and visitors embrace the Eastern Prom with its unobstructed views of Casco Bay from the Fore River to Back Cove.  Many grand and colorful old homes stand respectfully back from the bordering roadway and form the backdrop for the sloping green vista that runs down to the water. 

The shore walk we posted last week is actually part of the trail system of the Eastern Prom.  From where we ended at the beach and boat ramp (the upper right on this Friends of the Eastern Promenade map) there is a long sidewalk that angles up to Fort Allen Park (the “You Are Here” dark rectangle on the right side of the map). 

The original Revolutionary War fort was built in 1775 and rebuilt during the War of 1812…both are long gone, but this is an excellent place tobegin since it helps tell the story of Portland’s often turbulent history and the forts that were built here in Casco Bay to help defend the city. 

Somewhat surprisingly, the Civil War had a huge impact on Portland and the rest of the state for thousands of Maine’s soldiers did not survive the war, but that is a story for another day.  As reminders of those losses, two guns from that era stand at the base of the flag pole here in the park.

Remember the Maine.  These words appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country, giving the impression that the ship had been attacked in Havana Harbor, but the real story was that “On January 24, 1898, President McKinley sent the U.S.S. Maine from Key West to Havana Harbor.  On February 15th, an explosion aboard the battleship killed most of the crew” but public fervor was stirred to the point that this incident helped push the United States into the Spanish-American War (April-August 1898).  The U.S.S. Maine Memorial Cannon was salvaged from the battleship and placed in Fort Allen in 1915, and restored in 2014 (Interpretive Marker: Fort Allen Park).

Another ship that is honored here is the U.S.S. Portland. She was built in 1933, during the depths of the Depression and was christened during Prohibition with a bottle of sparkling water…but that didn’t slow her down.  Her nickname was Sweet Pea (after the speedy, punch-packing baby who became a character in the Popeye cartoon strip in 1933).  This sleek, powerful and fast Navy cruiser packed her own wallop.   She was out on a training mission when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  From then on she was “engaged in almost every Naval battle” during WWII from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, and “she was the only U.S. ship in all three major battles: Coral Seas, Midway and Leyte Gulf.” 

Near Guadalcanal, when a torpedo nearly ripped off her stern, she fought on, sinking an enemy destroyer and severely damaging a battleship.  Fully loaded with returning troops returning to the U.S. from Europe, she was badly damaged in a 100 mph hurricane but she still managed to limp home across the Atlantic.  Over her lifetime she rescued over 3,000 sailors at sea.  The U.S.S. Portland was honored by being the “ship singled out to accept the surrender papers at Truk, the great Japanese naval base” (Interpretive Marker: U.S.S. Portland Memorial).

Her mast, bridge shield and ship’s bell stand proudly at the crest of the hill overlooking Casco Bay.  They were brought here to her namesake city in 1959 and are silent reminders of the skill, determination and heroism of the men who served on her during her challenging career.    

There are two other memorials in this area.  One is to the more than 3,000 U.S., British, and Russian sailors, airmen, soldiers and civilians who died “convoying war supplies to Russia” during The Arctic Campaign (1941-45).  The newest memorial is in remembrance of September 11, 2001.  The names of Maine victims encircle the memorial.

Out in Casco Bay four other forts were built to help defend Portland from foreign invasion.  A sign board entitled, “Defending this Mighty Harbor” helps visitors identity these forts and provides a brief histories of each.   

Fort Scammell on House Island was built to keep English ships from entering the harbor in defiance of the Embargo Act (1808-1809). Fort Preble at Springpoint Lighthouse was also built in 1808 and was named in honor of Commodore Edward Preble, who was a hero in the fight against the pirates during the Barbary Wars. Fort Preble was a recruiting station during the Civil War and saw action when Confederate raiders tried to attack Portland. The fort was remodeled and upgraded over the years and served up through World War I.

Fort Scammell and House Island are now privately owned, and Fort Preble has been dismantled. Southern Maine Community College was built on its site and some of the fort’s later buildings are in use on the campus and a few of the old WWI gun emplacements remain.

Named after Sir Ferdinando Gorges and modeled after Fort Sumter in Charleston, Fort Gorges was built in 1861-68.  It was planned in response to “the threat of foreign naval powers, initially provoked by the War of 1812,” but by 1864 it was “deemed obsolete due to technological advancements in rifled artillery and high-explosive ammunition developed during the Civil War” (Fort Gorges).  Even though obsolete, the already provided funding was there for its completion!

Fort Williams construction at the Portland Headlight was begun in 1873.  It became a sub-post to Fort Preble and was finally named an official fort in 1899.  The guns and batteries were never actively used in battle, but it supported a lot of troop training and activity.  It was officially decommissioned in 1963 and today is the site of another lovely ocean-front park. 

In spite of all these military reminders, the park is more than a tribute to war and battle.  People from near and far come here to enjoy the breathtaking view of Casco Bay with its many islands.  On occasional summer evenings the Gazebo in the center of this area hosts concerts and people gather on the sloping lawn to enjoy the music. 

But enjoyment of the park is not limited to special occasions.  Families and friends…people of all ages are here in the park every day enjoying this beautiful open space.  In the summer parents spread blankets and chat, keeping a close eye on their children at play.  Other people read or sunbathe while still others prefer to sit on the benches that line the sidewalks.  In the winter a few hearty souls traverse the park on cross-country skies or snowshoes, and this snow-covered slope is a popular site for sledding.

The Cleeve-Tucker Monument is set at the point where the Eastern Prom begins to curve toward Back Cove.  This tall obelisk is easy to ignore because there is usually so much activity in the area.  The monument was built to honor George Cleeve and his partner Richard Tucker who are credited with being the founders of Portland.  In 1633, Cleeve and Tucker landed their boat with their families aboard just a short distance downhill from this historical reminder (Cleeve-Tucker Memorial).

Today, food trucks vie for parking along this stretch, each bringing its own unique specialties.  Their painted exteriors, inviting menus and the mouthwatering aromas they emit attract hungry customers.  

On this day, just steps away, children swing, slide and climb on playground equipment.  Beyond them a large animated group of people move or dance to music, bringing back images of the flower children of the 1960s.

On a much quieter note, there is a flag pole lower down the hill and a rectangular bed of cobblestones.  A rock in the center of this area is inscribed “Within this enclosure were buried 21 soldiers captured by the English at the battle of Queenstown, Canada, in the war of 1812 and died in hospital here on their way to Boston.”  Some of the stones bear names and others are marked “Unknown.” 

On the rise on the other side of this tribute is one of Portland’s many community gardens.  What a beautiful place to grow vegetables and flowers.  The nearby tennis courts and baseball field have spirited matches going.  Although few people probably notice the graveyard, this juxtaposition is another powerful reminder of the freedoms we enjoy and the price that has been paid by so many over the years.

The park becomes more heavily wooded in the next stretch with a variety of trees growing on the embankment and obscuring all sign of the bay beyond.  At the end of this stretch is another Eastern Prom map (you have now traveled across the entire map) and a trail head marker with its path leading down to the shoreline walk below.  We have now reached the “You are here” rectangle on the left side of the map.   

From this point the large salt-water inlet ahead is Back Cove, and it marks the end of the Eastern Prom. 

Here is another military memorial…this one honoring Major Charles Joseph Loring, Jr.  Loring was born in Portland in 1918 and raised in the Bayside neighborhood.  He attended Cheverus High School and Portland Junior College before enlisting in the U.S. Army in March of 1942.

He became an Army fighter pilot and was sent to Europe in 1944 where “he completed 55 combat missions before he was shot down” and spent the next six months as a prisoner of war. He again saw action in the Korean War, and “during a close air support mission on Nov. 22, 1952, Loring’s flight was dive-bombing enemy gun positions. He was hit repeatedly by ground fire during his dive. Instead of withdrawing, Loring aimed his F-80 directly at the gun positions and deliberately crashed into them, destroying them” (Maj. Charles J. Loring, Jr.).

Loring Air Force Base in upper Maine was named for him, and this dramatic landscape installation was created in 2000 in his honor.  At the center of the piece these words surround a circular grate, “When all our histories converge…When all our stars come together in the defining moment.” 

Five rays spread from this circle, each listing notable aspects of Loring’s life and character.  They cut through large boulders and point toward “nine foot-high, one foot-square granite ‘sentinel posts.’”  One bears the word REMEMBERING and the other four each have “a single word carved vertically in large letters into its surface. The four words, going from left to right are SPIRIT, INTEGRITY, PRESENCE, and HEART.”  At night searchlights shine up into the sky in silent tribute this brave and generous man who gave his life in service to our country (Loring Memorial). 

This point is also a beautiful place to enjoy a sunset at the close of a day in Portland.  Next week we will continue with more travels in the city and more of its history.

Recommended Resource:

Cleeve-Tucker Memorial.  Maine Historical Society.

Fort Allen Park.

Fort Gorges.  Greater Portland Landmarks.

Loring Memorial.  Public Art Portland

Maj. Charles J. Loring, Jr.  May 8, 2015

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