- 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
Unfortunately nothing is left of this vital eighteenth-century port, for the town met its third apocalypse in 1775. That was the year of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, and Maine seethed with resentment against George III. In Falmouth a committee of inspection refused entry to supplies for a new mast ship being built by a local royalist. The shipbuilder called on Capt. Henry Mowatt of the Royal Navy to compel delivery. One day when Mowatt was taking a stroll on Munjoy Hill, Brunswick minutemen who were camped there took him captive. Even though he was let go, the incident rankled, and Vice Adm. Samuel Graves, Mowatt’s commander in chief, ordered the captain to teach Falmouth a lesson.
On October 17, 1775, a vengeful Mowatt gave warning “to remove without delay, the human specie out of the said town.” The next morning his ships opened fire with bombs and cannonballs heated red hot. Throughout the day fires raged, destroying 414 of the town’s 500 buildings, including every structure near the water, the new courthouse, the town hall, and the customshouse. Although no one was killed, the bombardment left nearly two thousand people homeless and destitute as winter approached. George Washington termed Falmouth’s devastation “an Outrage exceeding in Barbarity & Cruelty every hostile Act practised among civilized Nations,” and the sufferings of the residents acted as a rallying cry to patriots everywhere.
As it had done in the past and would do again, the town rebuilt itself, and in the 1780s it began to enjoy a prosperity that would continue with only few interruptions through the nineteenth century. As if to symbolize its renewed vigor, the peninsula separated from Falmouth and became Portland on July 4, 1786. That same year Gen. Peleg Wadsworth and his wife, Elizabeth, finished building the new city’s first brick house, now the Wadsworth-Longfellow museum and the oldest structure on the peninsula. Today it is dwarfed and hemmed in by office buildings on Congress Street; back then it sat alone on top of the hill with views to both the harbor and the Back Cove. After the Wadsworths raised ten children there, the house passed to their daughter Zilpah and her husband Stephen Longfellow, parents of eight, including Portland’s most celebrated literary figure, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
This was a prosperous time for Portland. During those years—and on into the 1820s and 1830s, the town’s merchants and bankers built many large houses inspired by London’s suburban villas. Among the most elegant are the Hugh McLellan House, on Spring Street, known today as the McLellan-Sweat House and now part of the Portland Museum of Art; the Stephen McLellan House, around the corner at 116 High Street, now home to the Cumberland Club; and the Richard Hunnewell House, on State Street, designed by the celebrated New England architect Alexander Parris.
The Embargo Act of 1807 temporarily ruined the party. With American ships forbidden to leave port, trade plummeted. Banks and insurance companies failed, and several of Portland’s mercantile fortunes withered. Then, in the War of 1812, the British overran eastern Maine. When no assistance was forthcoming from Massachusetts, Mainers decided they’d had enough of their faraway government. In 1819 they drafted Maine’s constitution in the old First Parish church known as Old Jerusalem. (You can visit the church’s replacement today on Congress Street; built in 1826, it is Portland’s oldest surviving house of worship.) The constitution was a progressive document for its time, guaranteeing religious freedom and requiring no property qualifications for either voting or running for office. Statehood came in 1820, and Portland had a fling as state capital until Augusta became the permanent capital twelve years later.
In the early 1800s leading merchants built big houses inspired by London’s suburban villas.
In 1821 Portland opened the state’s first—and the nation’s second—free high school (for boys; girls weren’t admitted until 1850). In many ways the city was setting the pace for progress in northern New England. One of the benefits of foreign trade is familiarity with other lands and peoples and ideas, and while Portland was no Boston or New York, it was surprisingly cosmopolitan and had its share of literati, reformers, educators, and social progressives. I have particular affection for John Neal, who was known in his day as an original and prolific writer (his first novel, published in 1817, had the arresting title Keep Cool ). Neal was also a promoter of the arts, an athlete who started the first gymnasium in Portland (but lost interest when the club refused to admit some African-Americans he had proposed for membership), and a fierce champion of women’s rights.