Viewed from a distance, Maine’s history mirrors that of its progenitor, England. This coastline rose from a sparsely populated, inhospitable place to a place of tremendous historical importance in a relatively short time, thanks to its tremendous natural resources (such as white pine trees for ship’s masts, and endless schools of fish that could be caught offshore). For a time, Maine captured a good deal of America’s overseas trade and became a legitimate industrial and marine powerhouse—not to mention a center of literary and creative thought and even fine art.Don’t believe me? That’s because the party ended almost as suddenly as it began, when commerce and culture sought more fertile grounds to the west and south.To this day, Maine refuses to separate itself from the past. When you walk through downtown Portland, layers of history pile up at every turn: punk-rock wannabes taking selfies in front of fine colonial church steeples; modern buses rolling through oceanview parks; elaborate mansions by world-class architects that speak to the refined sensibilities of the late Victorian era.History is even more inescapable as you proceed up the coast and off the beaten track. Travelers in Downeast Maine—an overlooked, economically depressed area today—can still find clues to what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “the irrevocable past” in everything from stone walls running through the woods to the handsome Federal-style homes built by wealthy merchants.Here’s a brief overview of some historical episodes and trends that have shaped coastal Maine.
THE COLONIES: In 1604, some 80 French colonists spent winter on a small island on what today is the Maine–New Brunswick border. They did not care for the harsh weather of their new home and left in spring to resettle in present-day Nova Scotia. In 1607, 3 months after the celebrated Jamestown, Virginia, colony was founded, a group of 100 English settlers established a community at Popham Beach, Maine. The Maine winter demoralized these would-be colonists, as well, and they returned to England the following year. In 1614, Captain John Smith, of Jamestown fame, is said to have spent a Yule night off of South Bristol while exploring the Maine Coast, at the spot now called Christmas Cove.The colonization of the region began in earnest with the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The Pilgrims—a religious group that had split from the Church of England—established North America’s first permanent European colony, although it came at a hefty price: Half the group perished during the first winter. But the colony began to thrive over the years, in part thanks to helpful Native Americans. The success of the Pilgrims lured other settlers from England, who established a constellation of small towns outside Boston that became the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Throughout the 17th century, colonists from Massachusetts pushed northward into what is now Maine (but was then part of Massachusetts). The first areas to be settled—such as York, Kittery, and what’s now known as Cape Elizabeth—were lands near protected harbors along the coast and on navigable waterways.The more remote settlements came under attack in the 17th and early 18th centuries in a series of raids by Native Americans conducted both independently and in concert with the French. These proved temporary setbacks; colonization continued throughout New England into the 18th century.
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: Starting around 1765, Great Britain launched a series of ham-handed economic policies to reign in the increasingly feisty colonies. These included a direct tax—the Stamp Act—to pay for a standing army. The crackdown provoked strong resistance. Under the banner of “No taxation without representation,” disgruntled colonists engaged in a series of riots, resulting in the Boston Massacre of 1770, when five protesting colonists were fired upon and killed by British soldiers.In 1773 the most infamous protest—dubbed the Boston Tea Party—took place in Boston (and, at the time, Maine was still part of Massachusetts). Hostilities reached a peak in 1775 when the British, seeking to quell unrest in Massachusetts, sent troops to seize military supplies and arrest high-profile rebels John Hancock and Samuel Adams. The colonists’ militia exchanged gunfire with the British, thereby igniting the Revolutionary War (“the shot heard round the world”). Hostilities formally ended in February 1783, and in September Britain recognized the United States as a sovereign nation.While no notable battles were fought in Maine, a number of forts were established along the coast of Maine—first for the purpose of defending the British from the French, and then for the purpose of defending the new America from, well, the British. Many of these forts remain well preserved today, as state parks. Kittery’s Fort McClary was garrisoned during the Revolutionary War; on the Pemaquid Peninsula, the Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site has a replica of a fort from 1692 (the replica itself is more than a century old).
FARMING & TRADE: As the new republic matured, economic growth in New England followed two tracks. Residents of inland communities survived by farming and trading in furs. On the Maine coast, however, boatyards sprang up anywhere there was a good anchorage, and ship captains made tidy fortunes trading lumber for sugar and rum in the Caribbean. Trade was dealt a severe blow following the Embargo Act of 1807, but commerce eventually recovered, and Maine-ported ships could be encountered everywhere around the globe. Entire towns such as Searsport, Thomaston, and Bath developed almost solely as exclusive (at the time) hometowns for shipbuilders and the sea captains who stayed at sea for long months on these difficult journeys; many of their homes contained distinctive “widow’s walks,” from which their wives could watch for their returns.The growth of the railroad in the mid-19th century was another boon. The train opened up much of the coast to trade by connecting Maine with Boston. The rail lines allowed local resources—such as timber from the Maine woods, floated downriver to the coast via log drives—to be much more easily shipped to markets to the south.
INDUSTRY: Maine’s Industrial Revolution found seed around the time of the embargo of 1807. Barred from importing English fabrics, New Englanders simply pulled up their bootstraps and built their own textile mills. Other common household products were also manufactured domestically, especially shoes. Coastal towns such as Biddeford, Saco, and Topsham became centers of textile and shoe production. Today, however, industry no longer plays the prominent role it once did—manufacturing first moved to the South, then overseas.
TOURISM: In the mid– and late 19th century, Mainers discovered a new cash crop: the tourist. All along the eastern seaboard, it became fashionable for the gentry and eventually the working class to set out for excursions to the mountains and the shore. Aided by the dramatic paintings of the Hudson River School painters, Acadia and the downeast coast were suddenly lifted by a tide of summer visitors; this tourism wave crested in the 1890s in Bar Harbor. Several grand resort hotels from tourism’s golden era, like Southport’s Newagen Seaside Inn and Rockland’s Samoset Resort, still host summer travelers in the area.
ECONOMIC DOWNTURN: While the railways helped Maine to thrive in the mid–19th century, the train played an equally central role in undermining its prosperity. The driving of the Golden Spike in 1869 in Utah, linking America’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts by rail, was heard loud and clear in Maine, and it had a discordant ring. Transcontinental rail meant manufacturers could ship goods from the fertile Great Plains and California to faraway markets; the coastal shipping trade was dealt a fatal blow. And the tourists, too, began to set their sights on the suddenly accessible Rockies and other stirring sites in the West.Beginning in the late 19th century, Maine lapsed into an extended economic slumber. Families commonly walked away from their farmhouses (there was no market for resale) and set off for regions with more promising opportunities. The abandoned, decaying farmhouse became almost an icon for the Maine coast, and vast tracts of farmland were reclaimed by forest. With the rise of the automobile, the grand resorts further succumbed, and many closed their doors as inexpensive motels siphoned off their business.
BOOM TIMES: During the last 2 decades of the 20th century, much of Maine rode an unexpected wave of prosperity. A massive real-estate boom shook the region in the 1980s, driving land prices sky-high as prosperous buyers from New York and Boston acquired vacation homes or retired to the most alluring areas. In the 1990s, the rise of the high-tech industry also sent ripples from Boston north into Maine. Tourism rebounded as harried urbanites of the eastern seaboard opted for shorter, more frequent vacations closer to home.Travelers to more remote regions, however, will discover that some communities never benefited from this boom; they’re still waiting to rebound from the early 20th-century economic downturn. Especially hard hit have been places such as Downeast Maine, where many residents still depend on local resources—lobsters, fish, farmland, maybe a bed-and-breakfast or crafts business on the side—to eke out a living. Interestingly, the pandemic of 2020 and 2021 brought many new residents to Maine, people who now could work from anywhere. How they will influence the state is still to be seen.
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