- Historic Sites
The Persistence Of Portland
Small, handsome, and often beleaguered this surprisingly cosmopolitan Maine city has had a history of clawing its wav baclk from oblivion—and today,it’s on an upswing again
April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
I moved to Portland four years ago for a simple reason: After years of living and working in New York City, I was suddenly tired of the incessant noise. Portland seemed to offer me, a nature-loving city person, the best of both worlds. It has the ocean at its doorstep and forests, lakes, mountains, and rolling farmland in its back yard. It’s a city made for walking, with residential neighborhoods downtown. Portland is still small enough that people nod hello on the street, yet its residents come from all over the world.
I moved to Portland four years ago for a simple reason: After years of living and working in New York City, I was suddenly tired of the incessant noise. Portland seemed to offer me, a nature-loving city person, the best of both worlds. It has the ocean at its doorstep and forests, lakes, mountains, and rolling farmland in its back yard. It’s a city made for walking, with residential neighborhoods downtown. Portland is still small enough that people nod hello on the street, yet its residents come from all over the world. And, for the most part, Portlanders, even those from “away,” seem to possess that most attractive of Yankee values, a can-do attitude that takes advantage of good times and perseveres in bad.
From its beginnings Portland has been defined by the sea. When I want to show visitors what makes the city tick, I take them first to the ocean, across the new Casco Bay Bridge and southeast to Cape Elizabeth. At the Portland Head Light, just fifteen minutes from the city center, Atlantic rollers crash against the rocks, raising a drenching spray when the winds and tide are right. If you could sail a boat due east on this same latitude, your next landfall would be the French coast just north of Biarritz, a connection I like to keep in mind in winter, when Maine can seem—well, a bit lacking in joie de vivre . Standing here on the southern cusp of Casco Bay, you can easily imagine why early European explorers sought shelter among its protected shores. Eventually they would make their way westward along the shore until they were staring at the three-mile-long Portland peninsula. Soon they’d have found access inland via a wide river on the south, the Fore, one to the north, the Presumpscot, and a large protected bay, the Back Cove.
Peaks Island, Portland’s busiest and most populous offshore locale, was settled in 1636.
For centuries Indians used the islands and inlets of Casco Bay as hunting and planting grounds. And it was Native Americans who inadvertently inspired Englishmen to exploit the bay’s abundant natural resources. In 1605 Capt. George Waymouth, returning to Plymouth, England, from the Maine coast, brought with him not only the story of his discoveries but also five Indians he had tricked into boarding his ship. He gave three of them to Sir Ferdinando Gorges, military commander of England’s western defenses at Plymouth, who kept them for three years. (What did they make of him? I wonder. And of England?) “The longer I conversed with them,” Gorges later wrote, “the better hope they gave me of those parts where they did inhabit as proper for our uses, especially when I found what goodly rivers, stately islands, and safe harbors those parts abounded with. ... As for the coldness of the clime,” he added confidently, “I had too much experience in the world to be frighted with such a blast.”
Though Gorges never made it to America, he financed some who did. He also persuaded the Crown to give monopoly fishing rights to the Council of New England and obtained for himself and Capt. John Mason a royal grant to the “province of Maine,” designated as all lands between the Merrimack and Sagadahoc Rivers. Many liberal-minded Englishmen in the House of Commons, as well as fishermen from the western seaports, were outraged at the idea of a monopoly on any part of the sea. Adventurous English entrepreneurs continued to make unauthorized trips to the Maine coast, loading up on fish and lumber and furs and occasionally setting up semipermanent trading posts.
One of these was George Cleeve of Plymouth, who with his family and his partner, Richard Tucker, settled on Cape Elizabeth near the Spurwink River, only to be run off by a rival trader in 1632, whereupon they put all their belongings in a boat and sailed around the cape to the eastern end of the Portland peninsula. There, at the point where Portland’s Fore Street begins its ascent up Munjoy Hill, they built the peninsula’s first house and set about farming and trading. A few years later Cleeve got title from Gorges to the whole peninsula and its offshore islands, and with the stroke of a pen he became the nascent city’s most prominent citizen.