It was dark and dry when we left Maine at four in the morning. We made it around Boston and all the way through Hartford to Danbury before the rain started. With all the rain there wouldn’t be any bold displays of fall color as we drove along the steep ridge above Wilkes-Barre. We’d be lucky to stay on the road when the spray of the passing 18-wheelers hit our windshield and overwhelmed our wipers.
Over the years, we have spent a lot of time on this route and usually when we get to Virginia I put aside my knitting and simply enjoy the fields and pastures that spread across the broad, rolling landscape and climb on up to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I can tell you from memory that the cheapest gas along Route 81 is to be found at exits 279 and 17. Those are usually our only stops, but this time we were going to turn off the highway for a visit with former neighbors from Arizona.
I was especially curious to see their home because they had lived just down the road from me in the northern reaches of Scottsdale. Theirs was a stucco-sided ranch-style house with walls that resembled an aging hacienda. The land between our houses grew mesquite, palo verde, saguaro cactus and creosote that scented the air after the monsoon rains. Coyotes and javelinas ran in our washes and a great horned owl hatched her young each year in a burrowed hole in a tall saguaro at the curve of the road.
Thankfully, the rain eased up by the time we got to New Market and we were ahead of schedule so we stopped to take a quick look at this historic town in the Shenandoah Valley. New Market is the birthplace John Sevier, Revolutionary War hero and the first governor of the state of Tennessee, but it is remembered for the Civil War battles that took place here, especially the one in May of 1864 when the students from the Virginia Military Institute grabbed weapons and fought along with the Confederate soldiers. Together with the troops, they broke the Union line, captured several cannons and sent the Union Army back north in retreat. If you are so inclined, there are two Civil War Museums to explore in addition to the battlefield.
In town, Jon Henry’s General Store and the Strayer House (on the right) anchor opposite corners of the street at the town’s only stoplight. “On May 21, 1862, Confederate Gen. Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson watched from the building’s stoop [Strayer House] as his ‘foot cavalry’ turned east toward New Market Gap to surprise the Federals at Fort Royal.” He returned two weeks later and stayed for a while at the Strayer House after the tent he had been sleeping in got washed out in a “torrential downpour” (Historic Marker).
We took a little time to walk the streets of New Market where every building seemed imbued with such a strong sense of history. #shenanoahvalley, #virginiaforlovers
One of the things we noticed was that most of the buildings had a “stoop” like the one Stonewall Jackson had stood on to watch his men parading past.
A sign in the window of the Calvert House dates the bricks in the house and the sidewalk back to 1770, giving it a solidly pre-Revolutionary history.
The sign on the Henkel House dates its back brick portion to 1802 and said that the two-story front had been added in 1855. “A metal plate nailed on the right beside the latch covers the holes broken into panels by the rifle butts and bayonets of irate Yankee soldiers who had been doused with hot water thrown from the upstairs window.” A sign like that leaves a lot of story to be imagined.
The Henkel Press came into existence in 1806 when Ambrose Henkel “began publishing Lutheran devotional materials, newspapers, song books and children’s books” in German and later in English. “The Henkel family believed it was a way to preserve their culture, language, and religious beliefs” (Historic Marker).
People also come to this area to enjoy subterranean touring in the Endless Caverns and nearby Luray and Shenandoah Caverns that are all part of a vast underground network that runs through the valley. New Market lies in a gap in Massanutten Mountain, which caused it to be an important battle in the Civil War. Today it is also known for the hiking trails that cross the mountain’s ridges, giving those who like to travel on foot a challenging piece of the Appalachians to explore.
If your wandering take you down the aisles of antique markets, this area has a lot to offer for you as well. Burt Long Antiques is just one example of a shop selling furniture, collectibles and memorabilia that have come from homes and families in this area.
We’d now used up our spare time so we turned our GPS on to find the way to Grand Oaks for our visit with Mark and Kathy.
We have some friends who live in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. When the highway narrows down to two lanes we know it is time to turn down their road and then we drive for a couple of more miles on a narrow, curving road with no shoulder. Once we get to the dead end and come through the gate there is a barn and beyond that a herd of Black Angus grazes in a broad expanse of land, a miracle of flat meadow surrounded by forested hills rising steeply on all sides.
For the first time in miles the road in front of us is straight.
The scene is so beautiful that I always want to stop just to drink in the view, but maybe everyone doesn’t have that same feeling because there is a sign nailed to a fencepost with a 21 mile per hour speed limit. The sign has been there so long that the wood is now dark, the paint faded and moss grows around the edges.
When I started this travel blog a year ago, I made a commitment to myself that I would post an entry every week for a year. I just read the blog’s “Mission Statement” and “About Traveling Toni” and to my surprise I had more sense than to make public mention of that goal. But here we are a full year later with fifty-two postings that somehow managed to appear every Thursday evening over the course of that time.
It started with that road trip from Maine to Glacier National Park with stops in Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Ohio. Then we chased around Tennessee for a while before we took a meander through a swatch of the South on our way to Orange, Texas, to visit a Western art museum. Once things warmed up in Maine, we spent the summer along the southern coast and ended up walking much of Portland…and of course the last several months of this travel was done under the strict constraints brought on by COVID-19.
With the fifty-two week goal met and travel still somewhat constrained, we are going to slow our pace a bit and post on a little more leisurely basis. Our bags are at the ready, but we are going to take time to get our Honda FIT an oil change and a tire rotation and do a bit of planning before we take off again.
For those of you who have been followers since week one (this means you Mom), we appreciate your interest, kind words and faithful support. I look at the big three-ring binder filled with all the red edits on the final drafts and am reminded of how grateful I am of my husband Don’s editing, driving and patience. This truly has been a gift for us to be able to relive our adventures and to have these treasured memories to share with each other as well as our family and friends.
We look forward to seeing where the road leads next, and we invite you to continue to travel with us albeit at the new reduced speed.
Now that we have rambled in other parts of the city, we will return to the Old Port with its quaint streets, mid-19th century buildings and layers of Portland history. Boothby Square, just a block up from the waterfront is bordered on one end by the Customs House. It is quintessential Portland with cobblestone streets, colorful old buildings (spared by the Great Fire of 1866) and an old stone horse fountain. The grey building was Samuel Butts home and store and it dates to 1792.
The other end of the square is anchored by the Portland Regency Hotel, which was built in 1895 as an armory for the Maine National Guard. After it was decommissioned in the 1950s, it was use as a warehouse until 1984 when developers with a vision of what the city was to become converted it into a luxury hotel.
Instead of moving further into the Old Port right away, we’ll take you on a little detour one block beyond Franklin Arterial to India Street and into what used to be the Italian neighborhood. Walk past the horse fountain toward the Customs House and on to Fore Street Restaurant. Depending on the time of day, you may see the staff stacking the daily supply of wood for their oven fire. Take the landscaped stairway on your right and you will arrive at the front door of Standard Baking (as good place for coffee and a snack). Turn left on Commercial Street, cross Franklin and walk one block to India Street with the Grand Trunk Railroad building on the corner.
In Portland’s early days, India Street was the main access leading down to the waterfront and it was lined with homes and businesses. As the city grew and the congested neighborhood became less desirable, the area became populated by immigrants with India Street becoming a predominantly Italian neighborhood. The close-knit residents even built St. Peter Parish Church, but for us the most significant reminder of that era is Micucci’s, a flourishing Italian food business that was established 1949 when Emilio (Leo) Micucci opened his food business. The business is still family owned and run, and it holds fast to its heritage and the tradition of providing the finest products and service for both its retail and wholesale customers.
This plain-front brick façade gives no hint of the vibrant and delicious offerings inside, from the deli counter with a wide range of cheeses and meats to the aisles of pastas, olive oils, canned tomatoes, capers, etc., to their wine selection and up a short flight of stairs to the spices and cold cases filled with fresh and frozen ingredients as well as separate case of tempting sweets. If the line isn’t too long, be sure to queue up for a slab of their delicious Sicilian pizza. That will help sustain you on your walk, but you will probably want to come back later to do the rest of your shopping. Before you leave, be sure to go out the parking lot door and take a glance at the mural of Casco Bay and tall-masted ships on the wall of the opposite building.
If you are interested in beer, a tour of Shipyard Brewery (just a block away) may interest you and for English majors, there is a boulder in front of the Marriott Residence Inn that marks the site of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s first home.
For those of you heading back into the Old Port, Middle Street (right outside Micucci’s) will take you into the heart of things. First you will pass a row of restaurants whose names will be familiar if you have been reading Portland dining and travel magazines: Duck Fat, East Ender, Ribollita, Honey Paw, Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Co. A local favorite just a few steps off this stretch is Tomaso’s Canteen, a former workingman’s bar who’s location and good food has made it a favorite casual meeting place for friends.
Follow Middle Street past the police station and enjoy the varied architecture that characterizes the Old Port. At the corner of Exchange Street you will come to Post Office Park, the former site of a beautiful marble post office that was built quickly after the Great Fire out of white marble, a material not suited for northern winters. It was eventually demolished and the empty lot gave rise to this popular urban park. The only post box in residence these days is an interesting red post-style that was a gift from Shinagawa, Japan, Portland’s sister city.
Across the street at Tommy’s Park, Mark Gatti has been selling steamed hotdogs at this location for 37 years now. In spite of all the fancy food restaurants, his cart is one of the most enduring and endeared food venues in the city (Pierce). At the back of the park is a new mural that, due to the building’s renovation, recently replaced the trompe l’oeil mural (1985) of the old post office that had stood in the park across the street.
The new 4-story tall mural was selected from 47 applicants and was completed in 2019. In the words of the artist Will Sears the design was inspired by “the color found about an hour before sunset incorporating only hues found locally” (Harry).
Standing on the corner between the two parks, you can look up Exchange Street to catch a glimpse of Portland’s City Hall. Across the street, opposite Starbucks, is the Exchange Building. Originally, this was the site of the Customs House. The present rich architecturally texture building was built in 1884 as the home of the First National Bank (“Ruins”).
Before turning down Exchange Street, take a few extra steps past Mark’s hotdog cart to visit the “Lobsterman” in front of the Nickelodeon Theater. We love going to the Nickelodeon on Tuesdays for their $5 movie special. For now, ignore the snow on the bronze statue, we’ll talk about that later.
This summer Exchange Street got a whole new look when the City blocked the street to vehicle traffic and encouraged the restaurants to create open-air dining venues, allowing them to comply with COVID-19 regulations. The street is also home to a bevy of boutiques and galleries. Remember to keep an eye open for interesting architectural details while you are shopping and dining.
Besides window shopping, remember to keep watch for unique trade signs and other interesting architectural and historical details.
If you have a taste for Irish fare or just want to stop for a beer or some other beverage, you might consider Bull Feeny’s on Fore Street. According to their website the restaurant was named in honor of Hollywood director John Ford (nee John Martin Feeney), who was a Portland high school hero known for lowering “his leather helmet like a bull and charg[ing] through the line.”
The building itself dates to 1867 and over the years it has had a variety of businesses housed within its walls. Some time in the early 1940s it “became the Seamen’s Club to attend of the needs of the thousand of sailors in town during World War II.”
The owners wanted their pub to reflect Portland’s strong Irish heritage so they incorporated a lot of that history into the design. While you are there be sure to explore both levels to see all the old advertising signs and other pieces they have included in the comfortable décor. While you are upstairs, remember to pause for a moment to look down toward the harbor through the beautiful arched windows. John Ford would have approved of this set.
Across Fore Street from Bull Feeney’s are two shops we especially enjoy when looking for authentic Maine gifts. Skordo offers freshly ground, small batch spice blends and rubs as well as cookbooks and beautiful items for the kitchen and the table. Their four-jar spice packs are beautifully packaged and always a welcome gift.
Next door Maine Potters Market offers fine handmade pottery pieces from local potters. They handle a wide variety of styles and price ranges, making it easy to find the perfect gift or souvenir to bring home as a reminder of your stay in Portland.
Fore Street’s curving path follows Portland’s original shoreline and was the main access road to the wharves before the major landfill that began in 1853 to make way for the arriving railroads and create Commercial Street. The basement walls in many the businesses on Fore Street have waterlines that bear witness to the tides and wakes that slapped against their old reinforced stone seawalls. The street with its 1850s- and 1870s-era buildings looks much as it did back in the days when huge ships were being loaded and unloaded just a half block below on Wharf Street.
The cobblestones on Wharf Street slow down your pace but that is fine because it gives you time to take in the unique character of the buildings, shops, and restaurants in this stretch. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see what this stretch would have looked like, filled with tall-masted ships and sweating, swearing men moving the ship’s cargos. The dirt and grime are mostly gone, but not the character. Street and Company, the acclaimed seafood restaurant, is a wonderful choice for a candle-lit dinner in a space that has long been lit by candles and lanterns, and newcomer Central Provisions’ small plates menu is an excellent choice if you are able to score a reservation. If a beer and a burger are more to your liking, Gritty McDuff’s Brew Pub has been a favorite for locals, as well as tourists, since 1988.
Many visitors to Portland spend most of their time in the Old Port, which is understandable, but something you might like to consider is a visit to the Victoria Mansion (a few blocks away at 109 Danforth Street). Built in 1858-1860, the mansion was “the summer home for Ruggles Sylvester Moore and his wife, Olive. They were both from Maine originally, but Morse made his fortune in New Orleans where he operated luxury hotels” (vistoriamansion.org). Their summer home had all the newest conveniences of the day with “hot and cold running water, flush toilets, central heating, gas lights, a servant call-bell system, wall to wall carpeting, and a 25 foot long stained glass skylight.”
One of my favorite rooms is the Turkish smoking room with its walls painted like a Bedouin tent. During a special tour, we were delighted to be able to climb the house’s tower and discover that at the very top, the observatory was also painted in the same tent motif but it was still in unrestored condition.
The month of December is an excellent time to visit the mansion. A bevy of local florists decorate its lavish interior and turn every room in the home into a holiday tour de force.
I’m guessing that several readers are questioning my sanity in suggesting a visit to Portland, Maine, in the winter, but it is can be a magical experience. Yes, it is cold, but nothing that a good down coat, boots and proper layering can’t combat. The waters of Casco Bay help moderate the temperatures compared with those inland.
One of the best reasons to come off-season is that the hoards of summer tourists are gone and it is much easier to get reservations at any of the finest restaurants. Snow gathers on the architectural details of the buildings and the Old Port takes on the look of a scene out of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol.
Bringing in a contemporary perspective to the city streets, local luminary artist Pandora LaCasse’s creations festoon building fronts and parks from the waterfront all the way up to Longfellow Square. I’m actually eager to pull on my coat, boots, muffler and all that goes with it to walk out into the night and view these bold-colored, geometric designs. The experience is especially magical when a light snow is falling. Remember that there are an inviting number of restaurants and pubs that make excellent warming spots along the way.
The snow doesn’t stop the lobstermen who come down to the harbor to warm their boats in the pre-dawn hours and shovel the snow off their decks into the icy channel before they take off for a day of fishing.
Hearty joggers and walkers still take their daily walks along the shore and the stark contrast between the dark snow-lined tree limbs and the white snow is stunning.
On certain mornings when a light wind blows very cold air into a warmer layer of air above the water, Sea Smoke, really a kind of fog, rises over the harbor, creating a magical cloudy effect.
No matter what time of the year you come, Portland is a beautiful city with a vast array of opportunities to explore. We hope to see you on the streets some time soon.
Harry, David. “Portland historic preservation panel endorses Tommy’s Park mural.” December 10, 2018. PressHerald.com
Pierce, Kathleen. “How a 34-year-old hot dog cart has survived Portland’s fancy food explosion.” June 13, 2017. Bangor Daily News .com.
“Ruins of the Merchant Exchange.” Maine Historical Society)
After the leisurely walks we have been taking for the last couple of weeks, we are going to drive down the rest of Congress Street so fasten your seat belts and come along for a colorful narrated ride….
The first thing we see as we cross Franklin Street (also known as the Arterial) is Lincoln Park, a lovely green space that was part of the redesign of the city after the Great Fire of 1866. Today, the park is only about two-thirds the size it was originally, the remaining third with its truncated walkways was given over for the construction of Franklin Arterial.
The Central Fire Station is just beyond the park. The station was built in 1925 to replace an earlier fire house.
The handsome “Fireman Statue” dates back to 1898 and was moved from his lonely home in one of the city’s cemeteries to this location in 1987.
Behind the fire station is one of the two remaining horse fountains in the city. What a lovely tribute to the animals that contributed so much to the building and growth that took place during the first two hundred years of the city’s history.
The old Gannett Building (1923) housed the workings of the Portland Press Herald from the editorial office to the printing presses. Instead of news trucks pulling in for deliveries, valets now greet guests who are staying at The Press Hotel or coming to enjoy its Ink Bar and Union Restaurant. It is fun to poke into the hotel to look at the décor with a whole wall of vintage typewriters and lots of reminders of the days when the smell of ink permeated the building. This boutique hotel offers “modern lodgings in posh newspaper-themed rooms and suites” conveniently located right at the edge of the Old Port so everything is in walking distance.
The magnificent Beaux Arts building across the Congress Street is Portland’s City Hall, which was completed in 1912 and was designed by Portland’s most famous architect, John Calvin Stevens. This is Portland’s third city hall…the other two having been destroyed by fires in 1866 and 1908. Be sure to note the galley-style sailing ship weathervane atop the building.
It is no wonder that the Portland city seal depicts a phoenix rising majestically at the top since the city was burned down three times during the Indian Wars, by the British in 1775, and in the Great Fire of 1866.
We recently did a lot of research on the city seal since Don has a very old locally-made Portland Police Badge in his collection that he believes is the city’s first badge and dates to mid-1850s. William Berry’s article “Portland and the Phoenix” explains that “the Phoenix motif was woven into militia banners; dropped in speeches, orations and toasts; carved into facades; and carted around during parades” starting as early as 1785. Portland became a city in 1832, but was without an official seal until 1835 when the “Resurgam” with its phoenix perched on an anchor, a ship and two dolphins was adopted as the city seal.
Just a block beyond City Hall is the stately old First Parish Church. The earlier wooden church was moved to this location in 1740, and this granite building replaced it in 1826. The granite construction meant it was spared during the Great Fire. The church has been the setting for many major events in Maine’s history and its numbered and boxed church pews have been the religious homes for many illustrious families. Outside, its garden offers a lovely quiet space within the heart of the city.
Following Independence, “Congress Street began to be more actively developed. Market Square was a commercial hub where farm products destined for residents of the booming port were bought and sold” (Congress Street). In 1891 “Our Lady of Victories was erected on the site of a former city hall and Market Square was subsequently renamed Monument Square [it is one of the three major squares on Congress Street].
In spite of its new name and statue, the produce kept arriving and this square houses one of the oldest continually running farmers’ markets in the U.S. On Wednesday mornings all summer long, local farmers drive their trucks into town bringing fresh produce, flowers and other products that they unload, creating colorful displays. It is fun to listen to snatches of conversation while contemplating your purchases and learn of the beans’ growth patterns or what a local chef is planning to do with the eggplant he has just purchased.
Surrounding the square, are the commercial buildings that rose to impressive heights in later years, the tallest among these is the fourteen-story Time and Temperature Building with its updates flashing from the rooftop day and night.
The Portland Public Library was established in 1867 and the main library moved here to the square in 1979. “The Little Water Girl” continues to greet visitors. Even after the library underwent a major renovation in 2010, she has held fast to her post. In addition to the traditional lending and research services, the library’s art gallery provides regularly changing exhibits and the auditorium, with its book-stack podium, is regularly filled with audiences who come to listen to guest authors and other speakers.
The library is only a few steps away from acclaimed author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home. The brick house was completed in 1786 and was “[o]ne of the first private homes to rise after the Revolution… [and is] now the only remaining example of a single family residence on this downtown section of Congress Street.” Up to the mid-1800s this area was Portland’s most prestigious neighborhood. Congress Street was originally known as Back Street, but in 1823 the street was renamed to honor two residents who had served in the U.S. Congress (Stephen Longfellow, father of Henry being one of the two men honored).
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow eventually moved to Boston to teach at Harvard University, but his sister, Anne, remained in the family home until her death at the age of 94. She left the residence filled with family artifacts and essentially unchanged, with the exception of adding a new cook stove at one point. This trove of history is now overseen by the Maine Historical Society, which has its offices and museum next door, and offers tours of the home.
The property was much larger when the family first took residence and the Brown Research library (behind the house) is located near where the cow barn used to sit. One of the best kept secrets in Portland is the beautiful, historic garden behind the house. Since 1924, the Longfellow Garden Club has been maintaining this secluded space, cultivating plantings based on the handwritten list of plants discovered in a family cookbook. Whenever the gates are open, visitors are invited to tour the garden (no charge) or even take time to sit for a while and enjoy its quiet beauty. The lilac bush in the lower garden is reputed to date back to the days when young Henry was playing in the garden.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, fashionable shops and large department stores filled the stretch from Monument Square to Congress Square. “The 1920s roared up Congress Street as electric trolleys and increasing number of automobiles brought visitors to the compact downtown that included restaurants, theaters, department stores, movie houses, an historical society and an art museum” (Congress). The Art Deco style arrived bringing changes to the fronts of some of the stores and many of the new apartment buildings that arose on side streets off Congress.
Today, this stretch is the home to MECA (Maine College of Art) and a mix of galleries, boutiques, jewelers and restaurants. The old department stores are long gone but Reny’s Department Store moved in to fill the gap. Reny’s is a family-owned, seventeen-store chain that serves customers throughout the hinterlands of the state. Its commitment to service and wide range of well-priced products that fit the Maine lifestyle make it the place to go for everything from winter boots to breakfast cereal.
Congress Square doesn’t have any significant statuary, but it is still easy to spot with the pie-shaped H.H. Hay Building (1826) on one corner and the Portland Art Museum on another.
At street level across the street in a glass-encased pavilion, is the Union Station Clock (1888) that stood above the grand old Portland Union Station. It is a sad reminder of the days when wrecking balls swung unobstructed here in the city. The square itself, with its newly painted surrounding walls and freshened planters, has been a center of preservation controversy for the last couple of years and the outcome has produced a much more attractive and well-used space than was previously the case.
The Portland Museum of Art was founded in 1882 and is the cornerstone of the city’s vibrant art culture. After residing in several impermanent locations, it finally found a home in the McLelland House in 1908. When a generous Maine art collector offered the seventeen Winslow Homer paintings, he recognized the museum’s need for expansion and added an $8-million-dollar gift to help cover those costs. The Post Modern style wing, designed by I.M. Pei and Partners, was completed in 1983.
Fired by the expansion, the collection grew and today “includes more than 22,000 artworks, dating from the 18th century to the present. “ In addition to an outstanding collection of Maine-based artists, the museum has a large collection of European works. It is not stuck in history but is forging ahead with modern and contemporary artists’ works being added to the collection and being introduced in major exhibitions.
Now we are going to pick up speed or we will never get to the airport. Longfellow Square is just a couple of blocks ahead. During the cold of Portland’s winter our distinguished poet is usually seen on his perch above the swirling traffic with a knitted cap and muffler.
Beyond the square and interspersed with businesses are, a few of the more historic and “substantial single family homes” that were “designed by the city’s leading architects” (Congress Street). On the left is the Neal Dow House Museum (1829). Dow was a prominent politician, a General in the Civil War and is best known for his passion as a prohibitionist, which brought him to leadership in the Temperance Movement. The house is now the headquarters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
If you have a bit of extra time, you may want to turn up Dow Street and drive into the West End.
After passing a few more modest homes, the streets become lined with the grand residences that the wealthier residents of Portland began building here, far from the dirty wharves and the rubble and ashes of the Great Fire.
You can even catch glimpses of some lovely back gardens by driving down some of the alleyways. One of our favorite houses has such a lovely back entrance that we wonder if any of the family’s guests ever use the front door.
The Western Cemetery was established in the 18th century and was acquired by the City of Portland in 1829. In its earliest years this area was not nearly so elegant and was the home of many poor people and especially the Irish Catholic immigrants who fled the Potato Famine in Ireland. It is no longer an active burial ground and its twelve peaceful acres has become a favorite place for people to take quiet walks.
Back on Congress the neighborhood quickly changes as we drive past the Maine Medical Center, the state’s largest medical facility, and arrive at Haddock Field, the home of Portland’s beloved Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliates of the Boston Red Sox. Faithful fans and lots of families come to enjoy the games where Slugger, the team’s mascot, leads activities during breaks in the game, and the snack stands serve up tasty and reasonably-priced hot dogs and whoopee pies.
From here on there are very few points of interest along the drive. Unless you are looking carefully, you will pass the pre-Revolutionary War home of Deacon John Bailey (built sometime between 1730-1756) at 1235 Congress Street. The home is privately owned.
Just before the airport we come to Stroudwater, an early village that is now part of Portland. Located at the juncture of the Fore and Stroudwater Rivers, it was first settled in the 17th century and abandoned after Indian attacks in the 1680s. Colonel Thomas Westbrook resettled the area in 1727. He was a mast agent for King George II and under his direction, roads were built to haul mast timbers here from where they were cut. They were then launched down the Fore River on their way to Portland and from there they would be shipped to England (Stroudwater Historic District).
The Tate House (1759) was built by Captain George Tate who was the Senior Mast Agent for the British Royal Navy. He oversaw the cutting and shipping of white pines from Maine to England, and his home reflects the prominent status he held in the community in that day. The two-story, unpainted clapboard house has been carefully restored and can be toured during the summer months (tatehouse.org). The back yard has herb gardens as well as some old apple trees. The yard slopes down to the river where I spotted several large white geese feeding in the water.
When they became aware of my interest they paddled upstream to safety. As we pulled out of the neighborhood and back onto Congress Street, I noticed a “goose” mailbox that seems to indicate the house that the geese must call home.
At long last, just four miles from our starting point today, we have reached to entrance to the Portland Jetport. Keep a lookout for the interesting wrought iron sculptures that are integrated into the landscape along the entry drive.
If you are not catching a plane and are going to be staying in Portland a while longer you may want to go back to Congress Square and visit the lounge at the top of the former Eastland hotel, which is now the Westin Portland Harborview.
Take the elevator to the top floor before sunset to enjoy one of our favorite views of the city as well as a snack and a beverage while gazing out to Casco Bay.
Berry, William. “Portland and the Phoenix” Filed under V. F. Seals in the Portland Room, Portland Public Library Main Branch.
“Congress Street Historic District Designation Report” portlandmaine.gov
The longest continuous street in Portland is Congress Street and it runs from Casco Bay all the way out past the Jetport for the entire length of the city. The American Planning Association designated it one of the “Great Places in America.” As they tell the story, the street began “as an access road for farmers bringing their goods to market” and developed into “a prestigious residential neighborhood and then Portland’s commercial and cultural center” (Congress Street). That much change comes with a lot of interesting history.
They go on to describe the street’s rich and layered character that has evolved over time. “The result is an area which is a delightful mix of historical architectural styles from 18th century Colonial and 19th century Federal to 20th century International and 21st century Post Modern.”
Who knew what an illustrious stretch of pavement we had selected for our next walk?
For those of you who have been following our rambles around Portland, you will already have been at the foot of Congress Street when we described the Cleeve-Tucker Monument with its surrounding bevy of food trucks. Today, we will start at that intersection and walk up into the Munjoy Hill neighborhood.
Sara Donnelly, one of the Hill’s residents wrote “The Cool on the Hill,” an excellent account of her neighborhood for DownEast Magazine. She explains that Munjoy is not a slurring of Mount Joy, as is sometimes reported, rather the area was named “for George Munjoy, who came from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659 to settle the land on the eastern point of the peninsula that his father-in-law had bought from one of Portland’s founders, George Cleeve”…no less than the honoree on the obelisk!
Munjoy may have had naming rights, but according to Greater Portland Landmark’s account he didn’t stay around long enough to really have much impact on the Hill’s development. He and his family settled close to the shore of Casco Bay and “fled Portland after an Indian attack in 1676 and never returned” (Munjoy Hill).
Captain Lemuel Moody is the man who has left the most lasting legacy of any here on Munjoy Hill. In 1807, Moody decided to “quit his work as a sea captain after he was kidnapped and held briefly by pirates” (Donnelly). He built “the 82-foot Portland Observatory tower” at the top of the hill and climbed its 103 stairs three times a day to its “lantern” to scan through his powerful telescope for approaching vessels. He was able to see twenty miles out…beyond Casco Bay all the way to the Atlantic.
Merchants paid Moody to keep an eye on the horizon for incoming vessels. For a $5 annual fee, anyone who had their own ships could supply Moody with flags to match those of their vessels. When he spotted a ship flying one of their flags, Moody would raise a matching flag on a pole atop the observatory, giving his customers notice to send men and wagons to the docks so they would be ready to unload when the ship arrived in port.
Moody used his time well atop his lofty perch. He kept daily record of the weather and, using his skill as an accomplished cartographer, he created charts of Casco Bay and maps and drawings of the Munjoy Hill. On the land around the observatory he built a dance hall and a bowling alley, and he charged 12½ cents to those who wanted to climb up its the six levels to enjoy the unparalleled view from the top. [The U.S. had ½ cent coins from 1792 to 1857.]
From April to mid-October for a somewhat higher fee, visitors can still climb those steps for a spectacular view and to learn more about the history of octagon-shaped tower. If you visit be sure to look at the enormous boulders inside the ground-level base of the tower. The structure was built without a dug foundation; instead these massive stones anchor the observatory firmly to the hilltop even through the strongest nor’easters.
At age 79, on the last morning of his life, Lemuel Moody climbed those steps once again and died suddenly after he returned home. His son took over the daily climbs until radio communication made the business obsolete. The structure was left to fend for itself until the City of Portland took over in 1939 and in 1984 Greater Portland Landmarks (GPL) took over and began the extensive repair and restoration necessary to preserve “the only remaining historic maritime signal station in the United States.” As GPL describes it, the Portland Observatory is “an intact survivor from the Golden Age of Sail” (Portland Observatory).
Even after the building of the observatory, Munjoy Hill went largely undeveloped, serving as little more than a cow pasture with a few scattered residences. When the Great Fire of 1866 destroyed most of the city of Portland its flames died out at the base of the hill. Suddenly, its summit was filled with a quickly built tent city to help house the “ten thousand people made homeless” (Varney). But this population explosion was only temporary, “those residents only stayed long enough to rebuild their houses, in brick or stone, usually on the posh West End”…farther away from the sights and smells of the working harbor (Donnelly).
A new Portland emerged within ten years after the fire with wider and straighter streets and “more roomy, convenient and handsome” structures. With the ongoing port activity and the arrival of the railroads, Portland needed workers to support its tremendous growth. Around the turn of the 20th century, the city attracted “working-class blacks, Jews, and immigrants from France, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Canada, and, in particular, Ireland.” These hard-working newcomers “built the single-family homes and three-story tenements that make up most of the modern-day housing stock” on the Hill. The neighborhood became filled with “close-knit boroughs often divided by ethnicity” and the area “developed a reputation for toughness and inter-Hill loyalties among the residents, who lived in houses so close together that clotheslines were strung between them” (Donnelly).
By the 1960s the area had become “downright seedy. Boarded up houses and absent landlords were common, and drug related crime made walking the streets at night dangerous.” A lot of artists moved in to take advantage of the affordable rents, and finally a neighborhood group organized and created a community center and two parks. The spark was lit for renewal, and in 2000, “the St. Lawrence, a crumbling Queen-Anne-style former church [built in 1897], was converted into the St. Lawrence Arts Center, a theater and community hub for the creative, eclectic neighborhood that by this time Munjoy Hill had become“ (Donnelly).
The movement began slowly, but one by one the modest little houses began to be bought and restored by their new owners until these days when Munjoy Hill has become one of the hottest real estate markets in town. Houses like these three at the foot of Vesper Street are being snapped up at elevated prices…depending on the size of their lot they can easily close at over a million dollars nowadays.
Some of these homes are being restored and frequently reconfigured while others are being torn down and replaced with larger modern structures that cover most, if not all, of the lot. A hot battle is raging in city planning board meetings with residents, new buyers, developers and preservationists fighting over the future of this neighborhood.
Take some time to wander into the neighborhood, but be careful of your step. The housing stock may be improving but the tree-speckled light makes it difficult to navigate some of the sidewalks, which old tree roots and winter freezes have turned into heaving brick rollercoasters. On quiet summer afternoons, feline residents seem to find it entertaining to watch from their screened windows for people tripping down the street.
We love to attend Good Theater performances at the St. Lawrence and beforehand enjoy dining at the charming little Blue Spoon restaurant just up Congress Street. “Chef/Owner Will Lavey and his wife Liz Koenigsberg have been in the Portland restaurant scene for many years” and the restaurant’s menu is based on “fresh market ingredients.”
Across the street, Rosemont Market is one of “six locally sourced markets conveniently placed throughout Greater Portland that supply fresh and tasty food to a community of loyal customers.” The European-styled market offers fresh local ingredients, delicious prepared items and their own baked goods for customers who like to shop within the neighborhood. Rosemont has remained loyal to both its suppliers and its customers with “over 60% of the products in our markets are grown or produced in the state of Maine” (Rosemont).
Willa Wirth’s silver shop is a reminder of the days when so many artists used to populate this area. The colorful little façade, with its eye-catching displays, makes it difficult to pass without a stop to see what is new within. As Willa describes the process on her website, “I use silver wire. I form it. Forge it. Solder it. As it begins to take shape, something special is captured.”
We have now reached the top of the hill and are standing at the base of the Observatory. The western border of the Munjoy Hill neighborhood is a bit murky. Many declare Washington Street as the marker, but I feel like the vibe of the Hill really extends all the way to Federal Street.
At the intersection of Congress and Washington Streets is the Eastern Cemetery, which opened in 1668. As Portland’s “oldest public burial ground and is a vital link to the City’s early English settlement.” The clustering of grave sites “suggests the social stratification in early Portland: Anglo-American residents, African Americans, the poor, and impoverished outsiders are all clustered in different locations” (Portland Landmarks).
Captain Lemuel Moody, builder of the Observatory, is buried here. Two other especially interesting side-by-side graves are those for Commander Samuel Blythe of the H.M.S. Boxer and Lieutenant William Burrows who commanded the U.S.S. Enterprise. In September 1813, the two warships engaged in battle in Casco Bay. Blythe was prepared for a fight to the finish and had his flag nailed to the ship’s mast…and for him it was the finish. He died in battle and Burrows was severely wounded. The injured man was brought to shore and housed with local residents who nursed him for weeks, but the valiant Lieutenant ultimately succumbed to his wounds. The two foes now lay next to each other for eternity…their names unknown to most Portland residents…but the opening of Blythe and Burrows, a local bar and restaurant on lower Exchange Street, has brought the story alive. It is a fun place to have a drink and some fresh oysters when you are done touring. If you go be sure to try to find the “secret passage.”
Across from the Eastern Cemetery is the colorful “Clam Diggers” mural that runs the length of a sixty-foot building. Artist Susan Bartlett Rice’s work is a tribute to the men and women of Maine who trudge across the tidal flats when the water is out, wearing hip waders and carrying their clam hack in hand. They bend and push the hack down into the sodden soil and pull out live clams that they toss into their baskets…then straighten up and move on (Gagne).
Around the corner from the mural is an eclectic series of shops. Right at the corner is Otto Pizza. The original Otto opened in 2009 and now there are several locations in Maine and Massachusetts. They offer a wide variety of pizzas with standard and unusual toppings. “The Masher,” with mashed potato, scallion, and bacon is one of their most popular pies. If you are feeling a bit peckish by now, you will be happy to know that they sell whole pizzas as well as pizza by the slice.
On the other side of Otto Pizza is a thrift shop, used book store, yoga studio, hair salon and KnitWit, one of my favorite yarn shops. The store originally opened as the flagship store for Quince & Co. yarn. They carry a lovely selection of Maine-based yarns as well as a variety of other yarns and supplies. Their staff is helpful and friendly so this is a pleasant stop if you want to pick up supplies for a new knitting project or to buy a gift for a knitter you may know.
In the block-and-a-half stretch from here to Federal Street there are three houses of worship. The first is Etz Chaim Synagogue, which was founded in 1906. The congregation “flourished through the 1950’s when it served more than 125 families….however, by the 1970’s, membership had dwindled to about 25 families, [and it] no longer had a rabbi or offered Hebrew school.”
The synagogue and its congregation are now once again thriving, welcoming “all types of Jewish families, from orthodox to reconstructionist” (Etz Chaim website).
That sense of rebirth and outreach extends to the greater Portland community as well. Their well-tended garden is a quiet place to rest, contemplate and pray; and their museum space offers interesting exhibits throughout the year.
Print: A Bookstore is a much more recent arrival. It is an independent bookstore that inserted itself here on Congress four years ago. The store offers a wide range of contemporary titles and the friendly and knowledgeable owners and staff welcome questions and requests.
St. Paul’s Anglican Church is Portland’s oldest church. It was established in 1763 “under the oversight of the Bishop of London, St. Paul’s was founded as a mission church, the first non-Puritan church in what is now Portland.” This Gothic stone building, with its beautiful rose window and attached rectory was built in 1867 after the original church structure was destroyed in the Great Fire. I found it interesting that “since the War of 1812, St. Paul’s has enjoyed serving as the Maritime Church for the local seagoing community, including all who serve and work on the world’s seas and their families” (St. Paul’s website).
We have now arrived at Federal Street and the back door of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. I’ll pause here, in part because I don’t have photos of this historic building, whose walls were just being built in 1866 when they were destroyed in the Great Fire. Undeterred, construction was resumed and the cathedral was completed in 1868. You will have to go online to see photos of this impressive Gothic structure and its beautiful restored interior.
Feel free to join us again next week…we will cross Federal Street and come into the civic and commercial heart of Portland.
“Congress Street: Portland, Maine.” Great Places in America: Streets. American Planning Association. planning.org.
Donnelly, Sara Anne. “The Cool on the Hill” DownEast Magazine downeast.com
Gagne, Jessica. “Clam Diggers.” News Center Maine. October 11, 2016.
“Munjoy Hill, Portland, Maine.” Greater Portland Landmarks website.
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.
Cleeve-Tucker Memorial. Maine Historical Society.
Fort Allen Park. Portlandmaine.gov.
Fort Gorges. Greater Portland Landmarks. greaterportlandlandmarks.org.
Loring Memorial. Public Art Portland publicartportland.org
Maj. Charles J. Loring, Jr. Nationalmuseum.af.mil. May 8, 2015
Even though Portland is the largest city in Maine, it is possible to leave it behind by taking a short walk along the shore of Casco Bay. A great place to start is the corner of Commercial and Franklin Streets, one of the busiest traffic intersections in the city, and it is also where the Portland Ocean Terminal is located. This building used to be the access point for all of the large ships coming into the city, but now its pier is usually populated by a cluster of red tugboats.
These tugboats escort tankers, cargo carriers and cruise ships to their docks, and one day each summer these hard-working vessels are scrubbed and dressed with fluttering flags. Cheering fans in team-colored T-shirts line their decks and the tugs participate in races on the Fore River and tests of strength where they come nose-to-nose mid-river in pushing and shoving games to see which one is the most powerful or skilled.
Although there aren’t rail lines evident now, this area was the result of an “enormous landfill project that created Commercial Street [and] also made way for the expansion of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad (later the Grand Trunk) that had arrived in the 1840’s [and] 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 and storage buildings sprang up and new railroads laid their tracks so that they could come into the city. Suddenly there was “the need for a much broader thoroughfare to accommodate all the traffic” (Commercial).
A block further along, the Grand Trunk Railroad building stands as a reminder of this era when railroads were a driving force of expansion across this country.
With the St. Lawrence River frozen over in the winter, eastern Canada needed a reliable year-round transportation system. The Grand Trunk’s headquarters were in Montreal, its corporate headquarters in London, and their main line ran from Montreal to Portland. Other branches of the system served Quebec, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut (Grand Trunk).
After years of growth and prosperity, the railroad was “nearing bankruptcy in 1919, [and] the entire system was nationalized” with the Canadian government merging the Grand Trunk with other lines to form the new Canadian National Railways, however, the Grand Trunk lines in the United States kept their distinctive name. For any of you who are Downton Abbey fans, you might remember Episode 1 in Series 3, which “takes place during the spring of 1920, Robert, Earl of Grantham, learns that he has lost most of the fortune that he received from his wife Cora, which Lord Grantham had largely invested in Grand Trunk Railway stock” (Grand Trunk).
Portland’s changing times are also reflected in the Ocean Gateway Marine Passenger Terminal with its much longer dock and larger facilities. Completed in 2011, it was built to accommodate the increasing number and growing size of the cruise ships that bring visitors to Portland in the summer and fall months. The new terminal is able to accommodate three cruise ships at the same time. On days when these vessels are scheduled to arrive, vendors line this stretch of sidewalk to greet passengers with their handmade sea glass jewelry, paintings and other creative Maine souvenirs like duck tape hats and wallets. Most of the passengers head for the historic “Old Port” area of the city, while others board buses that will take them to the L.L. Bean store in Freeport and on other excursions.
Just past the Ocean Gateway is a small waterfront park with its “Moontide Garden” whose rocky plantings are set in a shifting landscape that is based on the water levels that the tides bring to this scene. There is also a nine-foot propeller from the tugboat Stamford, which will give you a better understanding of the power that drives those special working boats.
The pink building beyond is the ticket office for the Narrow Gauge Railroad, which takes passengers for rides in historic railcars along the shore of Casco Bay.
“Starting in the latter part of the 19th century, Maine had a unique system of railroads that ran on rail only two feet apart,” while the Grand Trunk Railroad lines were the standard U.S. gauge of 4 feet 8 1⁄2 inches. “From the 1870s until the 1940s, some 200 miles of narrow gauge lines served many of Maine’s smaller communities. Eventually there were five of these railways.”
This system transported passengers and freight, and “connected the less populated rural areas of Maine with the larger cities and thus were an important part of the economic development of the interior of Maine” (Narrow Gauge).
On the left side of the walkway is the Portland Company. According to the “Sutherland Report,” which is a historical assessment of the company’s site, the Portland Company has been of enormous significance “within the city of Portland, the state of Maine, and beyond; especially in the context of national trends in manufacturing and transportation during the company’s years of operation (1847-1982).”
John A. Poor was “the individual most responsible for Portland’s successful bid over Boston to become Montreal’s winter port via rail.” He was also responsible for the establishment of the Portland Company “in 1846 in conjunction with construction of the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad.” This alliance meant that the Portland Company grew with and was closely aligned to all aspects of the railroads’ construction and operations.
The company would become famous for the “use of cast metals, particularly iron” to produce a broad range of products that would be “central to the rapid industrialization and expansion of the United States in the nineteenth century.” In addition to forging component parts, the company put “all of the stages of production for large machines, like steam locomotives, in one place [which] was a radical advance over traditional practices.” They also combined the “use of patterned cast iron parts, as opposed to individually hand-crafted unique parts,” an advancement that “laid the foundation for Henry Ford’s next step in the progression of efficient production, the assembly line.”
Here in Maine, “their locomotives, railroad cars, marine engines and boilers, and maritime navigation aids” were essential to the state’s “development of rail and maritime transportation.” They also produced a myriad of products from equipment for paper mills to steam fire engines, and during the 19th century, their cast iron facades began changing city streetscapes. “The Portland Company cast storefronts, man hole covers, parts for lighthouses (lanterns, lamp decks, spiral stairways, doors and sashes, walkways, railings, vents, spindles and markers, upper sections of light tower), lamp posts, ornate gates, and industrial boilers.”
The military’s needs during WWI pushed the company to diversify even more. “Tens of thousands of brass shell casings were produced by the Portland Company, packed in pairs, and shipped to another factory to be filled before being sent to the US Army between 1917 and 1918.” At this point women joint the company workforce since so many men were serving in the military.
Today, “the Portland Company appears to be the only surviving pre-Civil War locomotive manufacturing plant in the nation.” Its remaining buildings are being restored and given new life as part of the major hotel development that is just getting underway.
The shoreline along this stretch has also undergone quite a few changes with the recent opening of the Park at Amethyst (the name of the park is not yet permanent!). The city transformed a pothole-filled parking lot into a park with raised, granite-bound flower beds, two large swings and a turnaround with a small parking area for visitors who want to pause and take a few photos. [Long term parking is available in the block between the two terminal buildings.]
Partially burned pilings are reminders of the wharves and piers that would have been a part of this busy waterfront area. Back in 2015, South Portland artist Andy Rosen made great use of this space for his temporary art exhibit “Unpack.” People flocked to the waterfront with their cameras to take pictures of the realistic appearing canine pack he created out of PVC and fake fur.
SailMaine keeps its fleet of sailboats just beyond this area and it is fun to watch their classes in session. Students navigate their little numbered sailboats as they attempt to follow the leader, their sails often luffing and a chase boats hovering close by in case help is needed. Classes are available for all ages and the sail school is responsible for introducing many to safe sailing practices.
Those little boats are like baby guppies compared with the enormous yachts that are tied up at the newly established Fore Points Marina.
A whole new string of temporary seeming buildings has mushroomed up beyond the sailing school. Word is that these will eventually be replaced with permanent facilities as part of the hotel complex. This area has long been a marina, but this year it has been redesigned with 150 slips and it is able to accommodate twelve mega-yachts (maximum length 630′).
One of our favorite visitors is this large white yacht with a side bay for storage. The storage space appears to be about as wide across as a five-car garage and is used to accommodate miscellaneous smaller water craft.
This summer EVO, with its spectacular views of the marina and Casco Bay, has become a popular place for friends to meet for a drink or a light meal.
The walkway (the Eastern Promenade Trail) continues to follow the narrow-gauge tracks and this is where it really leaves the city. The buildings and all the history fall behind when a sheer wall of rock rises up on the left and there is a swatch of grass bordered by dense growths of wild roses that lines the rocky shore. Sometimes woodchucks can be seen before they scurry back into the undergrowth on the other side of the tracks. A flock of goldfinch may fly up into the trees and once we even saw a red fox trot across the path and head down toward the water. In the spring, spikes of lupine bloom above the roses.
When the land begins to rise along the shore it is time to take a detour from the path and head for the water. This little beach at Fish Point is one of our favorite places in Maine. Shells, pieces of sea glass and seaweed mingle among the wave-washed stones, and rocky outcroppings offer the opportunity to take a seat and settle in for a while to enjoy the rhythm and the sound of the waves.
You might find some cairns…or build one of your own to mark your trail. Take your time to breathe in the ocean…there is no need to hurry on.
From here you can even watch the beach area beyond the rocks where dogs run and chase sticks into the water in the early morning. People walk on the sand or ankle deep in the waves, and later in the day others sunbathe and a few will swim in the bracing water.
On the far side of the beach there is a portage where people offload their skiffs then row out to their moored boats.
Portland Paddle offers the opportunity to explore this stretch of coast in a kayak or on a paddle board…or you can simply continue walking and soak in more of the beauty of the Maine coast.
Commercial Street Portland Waterfront (Old Port) Historic District, portlandmaine.gov.
Grand Trunk Railway This page was last edited on 18 September 2020, at 05:33 (UTC).
[NOTE: I am resuming the waterfront walk I started last week. Hopefully, you are refreshed and ready for more of Portland’s colorful history and current events.]
“May You have Fair Winds and Following Seas” are the words on the sign above us as we leave DiMillo’s parking lot to finish our ramble through Portland’s wharves and history.
Before traveling too far, I want to point out La Roux on the other side of Commercial Street. This is our favorite kitchen store with its two floors chock-full of culinary tools and gadgets, infused vinegars, and lots of temptation for anyone who likes to cook. This is also an excellent place to look up, past the florescent lights, and appreciate the old hand-hewn beams and solid structure that is characteristic of these old former-warehouses that have been renovated and turned into storefronts, restaurants, and offices here along the wharves.
Crossing back over Commercial Street to Portland Pier we come to J’s Oysters, a long-held local secret that savvy visitors have begun to scent out. If you eat at the bar, you are as likely to be seated next to a lobsterman as a lawyer or you can choose to eat at one of the few cozy tables…in either case, the oysters and seafood are always fresh and the vibe authentic.
At the end of the Portland Pier is a newcomer to the waterfront, Luke’s Lobster. Due to my husband’s active curiosity, we found ourselves the first guests when Luke’s opened their doors on June 5, 2019.
Luke is a local boy who went off to New York City to make his career in finance, or something like that, and along the way he opened a little lobster roll “shack” in 2009 in the East Village, which quickly became a hit. From there he has expanded…Luke’s is now here in Portland and there are also other U.S. locations and he is also selling is lobster rolls in Japan and Taiwan.
The view from Luke’s is unparalleled and it is a great place to watch lobster boats coming right up to their dock to offload the fresh catch. With Maine’s rigorous standards for lobster fishing, this is truly traceable and sustainable seafood. From a window inside the restaurant, you see a large room where fresh ocean water is continually pumped into a swimming-pool size holding tank. A company processing plant in nearby Saco handles about 32,000 pounds of lobster a day to be served in “the company’s 29 shacks across the country” (Kramar).
Instead of going back to Commercial Street, we like to take a shortcut that keeps us along the water’s edge. This old brick and cobblestone walkway extends from Portland Pier to Custom House Wharf…along the back side of the block-long Thomas Building. Later, on your way back to your car, you may want to take a look at the building’s unusual curved facade, which must have stood out in its day when compared to its other mid-nineteenth century neighbors.
The exterior of the low grey-sided frame building ahead is the back side of Harbor Fish. Fishermen have been pulling up to deliver their fresh catches to a fish market at this location since the late 1880s and this building dates back to the 1930s. Around the corner is the colorful, much photographed entrance to the market that has the best and freshest fish around.
The Alfiero family has been selling fish here since the 1960s and the business is now in the hands of two sons who took over from their father in the 1980s. The building may be old but the market has new fish cases and coolers that are stocked with fresh fish from local waters as well as imported seafood from all around the globe. Harbor Fish’s wholesale business supplies the finest fish to restaurants, and locals line up here at the market to pick up lobster, a handful of scallops or a fresh haddock filet for dinner. Their friendly and knowledgeable staff members are always ready to answer questions (Secret).
But Harbor Fish isn’t the only interesting business on the wharf. Seabags was started in 1999 by Hannah Kubiak who had the idea of using old sails to make totes and bags (Newenglandstory.com). Boat owners are happy to be paid for their old sails and the resulting bags are incredibly sturdy. Over the years new designs and graphics have been added to the bags, but the quality has not altered. The finest rope is used for the handles and the sewing thread even comes from a U.S. manufacturer. The bags are designed, cut and sewn right here on the wharf. As the company website proclaims, their bags are experienced: “Sailed around the world, recycled in Maine” (seabags.com).
If you really want to get the smell and feel of the working waterfront, you can take a walk down to the very end of Custom House Wharf to view Commercial Bait Company. This is where boats offload chopped fish parts, fish fluids and other refuge that is used for bait by commercial fishermen. Most visitors do not venture down this far because they are put off by the smell and also because the buildings look like they have been used as movie sets for harbor mystery murders.
You’ll get a much more pleasant peek into harbor life with a visit to the Porthole Restaurant. Local fishermen, fish mongers, and dock workers sit on the old naugahyde stools at the counter in the morning drinking coffee and wearing the high rubber boots that announce their watery professions.
One winter when we came back to Portland for a visit, we found the Porthole closed and a building permit in its window. We were most concerned that this longtime favorite might be getting a facelift or worse, being converted into a trendy new bar…but when we came back in the spring we were relieved to find that everything looked the same except for an improved washroom and some kitchen updates. A large deck has been added on the channel side of the restaurant where there is live music, food and drinks at the end of the day.
Right at the corner of Custom House Wharf and Commercial Street is Solo Italiano Restaurant, which is one of our favorite places in this entire foodie city. Executive chef Paolo Laboa’s menu is filled with his contemporary interpretations of classic Genovese cuisine. The finest farm-fresh produce and meats, local seafood and handmade pastas go into his award-winning recipes. The menu changes with the season but a year-round favorite is his handkerchief pasta with his unique basil pesto.
Across the street you can’t miss the handsome old Customs House. Ever since the British settled this area, a customs tax has been levied on all goods coming into Portland’s harbor. According to the U.S. Custom’s website, “As early as 1730, a British naval officer was stationed in Falmouth [now Portland] to collect the customs.” The first British customhouse was built in Portland in 1775 and located a couple of blocks from here…ironically, it was destroyed in 1775 when King George III’s fleet set fire to the city.
After the American Revolution, the U.S. Congress wasted little time in establishing their own revenue stream: “The Fifth Act of the First Congress of the United States was signed on July 31, 1789, which created an organization of customs collection districts.” Portland officially became a “port of entry and residence of the collector of customs.”
Other customhouses have been built here in the city over the years, but they did not fare any better than the first until in 1872 a new “Fireproof” U.S. Custom House was built covering the entire block between Commercial and Fore Streets. Due to the steep slope of the lot, the “entrance to the Customs business room [was] at the two-story end facing on Fore Street, and the entrance to the warehouse and appraiser’s stores [was] at the three-story end facing on Commercial Street and the wharves.” Although it may not have been taken down by fire, by the turn of the 21st century, the building was dilapidated, leaking and uninhabitable. A major restoration took place and the doors have been reopened for tours sponsored by the Portland Landmarks (a local preservation society).
From top to bottom, the stunning structure stands as proudly as it did at its 1872 opening. One of the most interesting features in the “business room” is the tall wooden structure in the center of the room, which is topped with a four-sided round clock. The slanted surfaces at its midpoint fold out to create writing surfaces where documents could be completed. It is not hard to imagine clerks sitting at desks piled high with papers or scurrying to and from the thick-walled vault in the areas behind the elegant marble counters,
Almost as old as the Custom House is Boone’s Restaurant, which originally opened in 1898. As Colin Sargent tells the story, “In its salad days, it was one of the most famous seafood bistros in the world.” Ingrid Bergman, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and other luminaries dined at Boone’s…but it lost its luster and closed its doors when the rest of the Old Port fell into decline, leaving its tall, fading, unlit neon sign as a sad reminder to much happier days. Now the restaurant has finally received a much-needed remodel and its sign lit again when it reopened in 2013as Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room…and this really is a room with a view with tables at water’s edge on the wharf and also an outdoor stairway leading to tables on its scenic second- floor scenic gallery. In the winter months, a fire burns in the restaurant’s fireplace and it is a wonderful place to escape the ice and snow.
If you are looking for something a little less grand, next door is Gilbert’s Chowder House, which is located in the former Portland ferry terminal. Theirs is truly a no frills menu where you can always count on finding a good cup of chowder.
The Irish have long history here in Portland going back to the 1830s, even before the potato famine forced so many people to leave their country. At that time, Portland’s docks, factories and businesses needed workers. In addition to being a large part of the labor force that helped build the city, these immigrants have left behind strong imprints of their Irish culture. If you have a taste for pub fare and maybe a Guinness, there is no place better than RiRa. The restaurant serves traditional Irish dishes as well as seafood and hamburgers, and it has an authentic, antique wood-paneled Irish pub interior imported from the Old Country. This is an especially lively place to be during International Champions Cup soccer playoffs.
If you are beginning to feel tired, it is little wonder…but don’t quit just yet. Around the corner from RiRa is the Maine State Pier where the Casco Bay Island Ferry Terminal is located. This is where you catch the ferries that transport residents and visitors to the islands in Casco Bay. Throughout the seasons and even in the worst weather, these boats are a vital lifeline that provides transportation and brings goods and services to island dwellers.
These sturdy, colorful boats also offer a wonderful way for visitors to catch a glimpse of island life, wildlife, sea birds, historic lighthouses and the forts that were built in Casco Bay to protect the entrance to Portland Harbor from invading enemies.
This dock is also where the Portland Fire Department has boats tied up, ready to serve in rescue operations and to fight fires along the waterfront.
Just this last week we saw them called into action when a twenty-foot fishing boat caught fire while tied up for a fueling stop. When life is quieter, it is a lovely sunny spot for the resident cat to keep watch on passersby.
I may have saved the best for last…but as I write this I am also chagrinned that by the time you cross the street and arrive at Standard Baking Company they may be sold out for the day. Having found this amazing gem I know you will return, possibly early in the morning to buy a cup of coffee to go with a blueberry scone, sticky bun, croissant or one of their many other delectable and delicious offerings (our favorite is a small raisin-nut roll). You will also want to nab one of their famous baguettes or a country boulé or a focaccia as well. Of course this reminder is totally unnecessary; once you see their baskets and wooden shelves overflowing with fresh bakery, the biggest problem becomes making up your mind which ones to buy.
As Karen Watterson tells the story, Alison Pray and Matt James, the owners of Standard Baking Company, took a trip to Europe years ago and were inspired by bakeries they visited in France and Tuscany. They loved not just their breads, but they also found that these little businesses were central to the heart of their neighborhoods and they helped maintain a sense of community. When the travelers returned home, Pray began a three-year apprenticeship at a bakery in Massachusetts where she learned to bake European-style breads. James, already well familiar with kitchens, also learned to bake bread. He had worked in Portland at Street & Co., so when in 1995 when they felt ready, they came to Portland’s Wharf Street and opened a small bakery, at first making baguettes to supply that restaurant and a couple of other commercial accounts.
But the aroma of their bread wafted out through the open door and brought more and more customers to buy their bread, so they began baking rosemary focaccia, morning buns and scones. They had started small and within three years they outgrew their space, so they bought a bigger oven and moved to a former pool hall at the back of a parking lot on Commercial Street with Fore Street Restaurant upstairs.
They have achieved a loyal following of both commercial and retail customers. While remaining a major force at the heart of Portland’s culinary scene, their impact has expanded far beyond their original concept in that they have become leaders in the use of local grains and have become champions of the whole grain movement here in Maine. Many of their handcrafted breads are made from 100 percent Maine-grown, stone-milled grains that they buy from Somerset Grist Mill in Skowhegan. They have developed partnerships that are building on New England’s “rich history of producing grains such as oats, rye, wheat, corn and buckwheat” (Urein).
Even with a larger space, customers frequently have to line up outside waiting to make a purchase, and when we hear that the baguettes are sold out for the day, we use that as an excuse to try something else with the anticipation of it becoming another favorite.
It may seem like you have walked and I have talked forever, but you are only about six or seven short blocks from where you parked your car. I will leave you here knowing that you have the option of many fine dining and shopping opportunities…and don’t forget to stop back to pick up the wine you may have bought from Jacque…or you may want to go back to The King’s Head Pub and enjoy a relaxed meal on the waterfront.
There is much more of Portland’s story to tell so I will pick up here next week.
Kramar, Andrea. “How a 25-year-old turned his ‘passion project; into a global business with $30 million in sales.” CNBC.com. July 3, 2018.
Merrill’s Wharf Building. North River Company, northriverco.com.
Sargent, Colin, W. Portland Monthly “Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room “Boone’s – A room with a View. October 2013.
“Secret Recipes of Harbor Fish Market.” DownEast Magazine (downeast.com). September 7-13, 2020.
Urein, John. “A New Standard.” Bakemag.com. October 8, 2015.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection – cbp.gov “Did You Know…Fires, Ships, Railroads and a Year-Round Ice-Free Harbor made Portland the Premier Port of Entry in Maine? December 20, 2019
Watterson, Karen. “Standard Baking Co.” Portland City Magazine. Oldport.com. January 3, 2018.
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
Winslow Homer’s paintings with waves crashing onto the rocky shore of Prouts Neck are among his most famous works and they were done just a twenty-minute drive from Portland, Maine. On the day we decided to go looking for Homer, the sky was clear of any clouds and the weather was beginning to hint of an early New England Fall. Within minutes of leaving the city, we were driving past small old farms with pumpkins in their fields. The tide was in, so the pools in the saltwater marshes were filled to the brim and our route gave us a refreshing transition into the quiet of Prouts Neck Peninsula in Scarborough, Maine.
Parking is an issue to know about before you go, but there are two easy solutions. Public paid parking is available at Ferry Beach for $15 a day in summer (free in the winter). This gives you a full day at the beach with bathrooms and showers nearby as well as the option of taking the mile-plus Cliff Walk around the perimeter of the peninsula. One helpful tip is to check the tide chart before you begin so you can best plan your day (Hiking Maine).
The other option is to book a stay at Black Point Inn or, as we chose, to make reservations for lunch at the Inn. Do not even think of parking anywhere along the road or at the end of Winslow Homer Road!! If you do, you are guaranteed an introduction to a Scarborough police officer.
Black Point Inn was built in 1878 and was the first of the beachfront hotels that would be constructed on land that had been an old farming community. The Inn’s website explains that it was originally named the Southgate House and is “the last remaining hotel on Prouts Neck, and a true historical Maine hotel.” The rest of the resorts were either destroyed by fire or torn down to make way for the largehomes that have been built in the private, gated community that makes up the rest of the peninsula.
Part of the inn’s good fortune came when it “was sold in 1923 to the Sprague family who increased its size and added guest cottages built for rail [road] barons. After Prohibition, Black Point Inn’s Oak Room became Prouts Neck’s first speak easy.”
As we approached, my eyes were immediately drawn to the inviting white Adirondack chairs on the sweeping lawn and the large, rounded, flower-decked porch. The soft grey, wood-shingled exterior doesn’t seem large enough to hold “Twenty-five spacious guestrooms and suites, all with private bath and individual heat and air conditioning. Each guest room offers its own distinct character with individual furnishings and interesting architectural detail.”
On clear days, light pours in through the inn’s many large sun-filled windows and dining on the porch is a delightful option, especially with the uninterrupted view of Saco Bay.
On stormy days, it is nice to dine inside in the Chart Room.
There is always the opportunity to sit by the welcoming fireplace in the lobby and enjoy the many architectural elements in the handsome pubic areas.
Our lunch of fish tacos and a Cubano sandwich, coleslaw and hand-cut fries was delicious. The sun was so bright during our visit that the sand bars and the deeper channels in Saco Bay were easy to see because of the varying shades of blue they created in the water.
After lunch, we took the Inn’s private path that leads to the Cliff Walk. [Note: You may want to change into sturdy walking shoes before starting this adventure.]
Where the path meets the shore, the Inn’s inviting beach is on the left, but the path to the right looked to be a more promising place to find Homer. Don had taken the walk many times before and he knew that I would be doing a lot of meandering on my mission today, so he headed back to the car to run an errand and promised to pick me up at the other end of the trail when I called.
After only moments on the trail I came upon the old Ocean Pump House, built in 1919. Just beyond it, I came to the Cliff Walk sign that warned of “Rough terrain, loose rock, erosion and dangerous conditions.” With an introduction like that, could Homer be far away?
Although the first portion of the path doesn’t show it, this terrain is definitely not child friendly nor is it good for anyone unstable on their feet. There are gates at both end of the walk and it is closed at dark and in bad weather.
I was following the Cliff Walk because I wanted to see the shoreline of Winslow Homer’s paintings. For years, as we have wandered through galleries in museums across the country, we have always been excited when we found one of his works. This was my chance to experience the landscape that captured his interest and served as such an inspiration.
[With regard to Winslow Homer’s life and work, I have used extensive material from Barbara Weinberg excellent essay on Homer, which is available on the Metropolitan Museum website.]
Winslow Homer was born in Boston in 1836 and raised in “rural Cambridge.” He became a printmaker, working first in Boston then moving to New York City in 1859. In October of 1861, he went to Virginia as “an artist-correspondent for the new illustrated journal Harper’s Weekly.” From his war-front vantage point, Homer sent illustrations of Civil War battles as well as scenes of the soldiers’ lives… images that would later become the subject of some of his major paintings (Weinberg)
After the war, Homer returned to New York and “the late 1860s and the 1870s were a time of artistic experimentation and prolific and varied output” (Weinberg). He began following the newly built railroads and ranging out to paint in rural areas in the Adirondacks of New York State and New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
In 1866 he traveled to France, “motivated probably by the chance to see two of his Civil War painting at the Exposition Universalle” (Weinberg) and spent almost a year in Paris and the French countryside…where I assume he ran into other artists who were pursuing their own techniques.
At this point he was expanding his work in oil paints and was also experimenting with watercolors. His watercolor paintings became popular and allowed him to give up work as a freelance illustrator. We had just seen two of his paintings from this period at the Portland Museum of Art (PMA). Both “An Open Window” (1872) and “Returning from the Spring” (1874) are wonderful examples that fit Barbara Weinberg’s description of his focus in the early 1870s on “women at leisure and children at play or simply preoccupation by their own concerns.”
Homer also returned to Virginia “at least once during the mid-1870s, apparently to observe and portray what had happened to the lives of former slaves during the first decade of Emancipation” (Weinberg). “Uncle Ned Returns Home” (1875) is another PMA painting that clearly relates to that period of travel.
As Homer began seeking more solitude, he went to England in 1881 where he settled in the North Sea village of Cullercoats. He stayed there for over a year and “became sensitive to the strenuous and courageous lives of its inhabitants, particularly the women, whom he depicted hauling and cleaning fish, mending nets, and most poignantly, standing at the water’s edge, awaiting the return of their men.”
When he “returned to New York, both he and his art were greatly changed.” After spending the remaining winter in New York, he moved to his family’s home in Prouts Neck. “Except for vacation trips to the Adirondacks, Canada, Florida, and the Caribbean, where he produced dazzling watercolors, Homer lived at Prouts Neck until his death in 1910 (Weinberg).
A few years ago we took a trip to Bermuda and in our pre-trip research we learned of Homer’s love for the islands. At the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art in Hamilton we were even taken into the subterranean storage area and shown one of his watercolors.
Back in Prouts Neck, Homer enjoyed the privacy the peninsula provided and also the inspiration he drew from its rocky, sea-battered shore. He translated this coastline into “the great themes of his career: the struggle of people against the sea and the relationship of fragile, transient human life to the timelessness of nature.” According to Weinberg, his works from the 1880s focus on “men [who] challenge the ocean’s power with their own strength and cunning or respond to the ocean’s overwhelming force in scenes of dramatic rescue.”
Weinberg also posits that by about 1890, he left these stories behind and began “to concentrate on the beauty, force, and drama of the sea itself.” This is exactly why I was here on the Cliff Walk. I wanted to explore the rocks for myself, to look for boats and to watch the crashing waves as I trod this narrow path that Homer would have traveled hundreds of times.
Shortly after coming through the entry gate I caught sight of the roofline of an old house, but it was not the shape I had in my mind for Homer’s studio. It turned out to be the Sprague house, the summer home of a well-known New England family and former owners of Black Point Inn.
There were no other hikers on the path, but I wasn’t alone. I could see a fisherman standing on the rocks, rod in hand, casting his line into the waves. I could also hear a mother duck calling out to her young.
Grasshoppers took wing in front of me, flying into the scrub along the trail.
The path changed and became a massive bed of rounded rocks that produced an unusual hollow clinking with each of my steps. There were two women along the shore who were enjoying the unique sounds the rocks made when the waves washed over them. I also came upon an old lobster trap, evidence of another form of fishing that goes on in this area.
Again the rock texture changed and looked promising…but these were not yet the Homer rocks I had in my mind.
By now, I had been walking for quite a while with glimpses of some homes, but the tall, dense brush ahead blocked any hint of what lay beyond. I was getting worried that I had passed the studio. This sighting of craggier rocks kept my hope alive that I would eventually catch sight of the studio.
At the next bend, a chipmunk dashed across the path and I spotted surf boards tucked behind some brush. This modern encroachment and all the new homes would have infuriated the reportedly irascible Homer. I remember reading an article that said he hated being disturbed by nosey people when he was painting so he would post “SNAKES…SNAKES…SNAKES!!!!!” signs around him when he was painting to keep them away.
Suddenly I saw Homer’s rocks and spray!!!
In my excitement I lost the path for a while and eagerly scrambled across jagged, deeply striated rock formations where I imaged Homer must have set up his easel. Even on this sunny, rather calm day, the waves broke, shooting plumes of stray over the rocks. I could only imagine what it would be like to be here in a real gale. Homer knew this stretch of land so well that he could translate its many moods into his paintings. As Weinberg writes, “in their dynamic compositions and richly textures passages, his late seascapes capture the look and feel (and even suggest the sound) of masses of onrushing and receding water.”
But the studio was still missing. I had no idea how far I had come or how much further the path went, but I was running out of hope. Again the terrain changed and I crossed another little bridge that had been built over a steep inlet. I was seeing more and more houses, and I feared that I was losing Homer.
After yet another curve, the path became promising again…
There it was!!!! I knew that roofline!!!!
Just around a bend…. THERE IT WAS!!!!
Here was Homer’s home and studio…almost at the end of the Cliff Walk trail.
By the time Winslow arrived in Prouts Neck in 1884, his family had already been spending summers in the area for about ten years and had built a home. Although Homer and his father had a “difficult relationship,” Winslow “created a home and studio out of the carriage house on the family’s property,” hiring the famous architect John Calvin Stevens to convert the structure into a 1,500-square-foot studio where he worked and lived until his death. From his second story balcony he had a constant view of the sea. This solitary refuge with its dramatic coastline must have been a perfect setting for the man who said: “The sun will not rise, or set, without my notice, and thanks” (Graves).
It was time for me to meet up with Don again, so I continued down the path. In just a short distance I arrived at this tall pine and the other Cliff Walk’s other entry gate. Had I started my walk from this end would I have found the studio right away…but would I have seen so much or had such an exciting experience…probably not.
In the past, before this area became a gated compound, it was easier to see and tour the studio. If you wish to do that today, you must reserve a tour through the Portland Museum of Art. Visitors meet at the museum and are driven to Prouts Neck for the tour and returned to Portland.
Homer might have liked the gate at the end of his road, but I have a feeling he would have had strong feelings about the rest of the changes on Prouts Neck.
Black Point Inn. History. blackpointinn.com.
Cliff Walk at Prouts Neck (Scarborough, Maine). hikinginmaine.blog. August 1, 2020 update.
Graves, Anne. “Virtual Visit: Prouts Neck in Scarborough, Maine.” New England and Today Travel. newengland.com. May 31, 2019.
Weinberg, H. Barbara. “Winslow Homer.” Metropolitan Art Museum. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays. October 2004. Metmuseum.org.