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History Happened Here

Down To The Sea

June 2024
6min read

There’s a lot more to the often overlooked mid-coastal Maine than lobster. but the lobster is amazing.

Among the elaborate Victorian houses on Congress Street in Belfast, Maine, is a bed-and-breakfast called the Mad Captain’s House. The name doesn’t entirely spring from B & B whimsy but reflects a maritime disaster woven into the region’s rich seafaring heritage. Capt. Edwin Horace Herriman, whose home it was, was master and part owner of the P. R. Hazeltine, launched on May 25, 1876. At 233 feet, the schooner was the largest vessel ever built in Belfast. Two years later word came that the Hazeltine had been wrecked off Cape Horn. The captain and his wife and son were aboard and did survive, but the cargo, worth $500,000, did not. In 1893 the captain died in an Augusta mental hospital, driven insane, it was thought, by the loss of his beautiful ship.

In the 1800s Maine shipbuilding was synonymous with the neighboring towns of Belfast and Searsport. Ten percent of the state’s sea captains came from Searsport, which had more shipyards per capita than anywhere else in Maine. Capt. John McGilvery owned one of the town’s busiest yards. His expansive 1874 home, now a bed-and-breakfast called the Carriage House Inn, is where I stayed in great comfort for several days last June. It later was owned by Waldo Peirce, a successful genre and portrait painter of the mid-twentieth century and a great friend to Ernest Hemingway, who often visited him there.

Across the street stands the gleaming white Homeport Inn, built around 1861 by another member of Searsport’s seagoing aristocracy, Capt. John P. Nichols, the prosperous commander of five vessels. When I was there, a sadder sight next door to the Homeport was the Captain A.V. Nickels Inn, its elegant lines still evident, despite an air of present-day neglect and a wan sign offering it for sale at a newly reduced price. It has since been sold. The passion to run a bed-and-breakfast is a complete mystery to me, but even with a constant turnover of owners it seems there are always new takers. And staying in one of these houses is a good way to start absorbing the history that shaped coastal Maine.

A walk along Searsport’s quiet Main Street, its brick commercial buildings spanning about two blocks, gives little hint that the town still is Maine’s second-largest deep-water port. Among the captains who thrived here in the era of the great schooners was Lincoln Colcord. In his vivid letters he portrays his hometown at its peak: “Just think, I have been down there and seen two full-rigged ships, three barks and two schooners at one time; and when I was a boy, there was most always one or more square-rigged vessels at anchor in the bay.” By 1899, when American shipping had declined there and elsewhere, Colcord saw a different place: “Searsport will quiet most anybody down. It must be a fine resort for nervous people; though one has to be a native, I think, to enjoy it thoroughly.”

Maine has a thing about natives. Anyone not born there is considered “from away,” even if carried in as an infant. But one of Maine’s great treasures that should resonate with native and stranger alike is the Penobscot Marine Museum, in Searsport. It is the state’s oldest maritime museum, founded in 1936 when a local man noticed that people were discarding the magnificent sculptural half-hull models used by shipbuilders. In a dozen historic structures crammed with artifacts, and set on three acres, the museum explores the growth of Maine’s sailing vessels, starting in the seventeenth century and going on well into the twentieth.

You already get a whiff of the character of the seafarers when you inhabit their homes that have been converted to inns, and the museum gives you another way to envision life at sea. There’s a hypnotic effect merely from gazing at a high wall filled with portraits of solemn faces representing 150 years of Searsport captains. Among the more informal family photos is one, blown up large, of Capt. William Blanchard and his clearly pregnant wife, Clara, hosting a party aboard the Electric Spark off the coast of Peru, in the 1870s.

A group of half-hull models is a reminder of what started the museum. Delicately painted porcelain from the China trade tells of the riches that were gained in the maritime trade, and so does a handsomely furnished captain’s home. An exhibit on the rough-edged life of the working sailor posts the blunt rules a captain laid down in 1865: “No grog allowed and none to be put aboard by the crew; and no profane language allowed, nor any sheath knives permitted to be brought in or used on board.” Crews were only part of the problem. With rueful amiability, Lincoln Colcord sized up his Hong Kong trading partners: “They can handle Americans like children and rob us easily, leaving us with the opinion that we are smarter than they are, and that they like us as we do them. At all events I like them.”

Ten miles north of Searsport stands the immense granite Fort Knox (known in these parts as the first Fort Knox), commanding a strategic stretch of the Penobscot River. Named for Maj. Gen. Henry Knox, Washington’s artillerist and a local in his later life, the fort took 25 years to build, starting in 1844. It was never entirely completed and there was never a shot fired in anger, despite America’s long-lasting wariness of the British, who in the Revolution and again in 1812 controlled much of the Maine coast north to Canada. Civil War troops maintained a presence at the fort, and later, during the Spanish-American War, a Connecticut regiment was garrisoned for a month. The structure is always undergoing restoration, not to make it war-ready but for the tourists who come to climb its ramparts, picnic on its grassy riverbanks, or marvel at the visible power of its 15-inch Rodman cannon (four of these behemoths are still here; the rest succumbed to World War II scrap drives or were incorporated into small-town war memorials). The cannon needed 12 men to load and could fire a ball a distance of close to three miles. Fort Knox now hosts a variety of activities, including Civil War encampments, artillery demonstrations, and a popular Halloween event called “Fright at the Fort,” which is described as a “tremendously frightening experience for those brave enough to wander the Fort passageways, as any number of ghosts, ghouls and other macabre beings do their best to scare the unwary.”

You get a whiff of the character of the seafarers when you inhabit their homes that have been turned into inns.

I walked from one end of Searsport’s main street to the other in less than five minutes. Belfast took considerably more time. Set on the complexly named Passagassawaukeag River (shortened to Passy by locals) and with a web of three historic districts—two residential, one commercial—this is a fine place for strolling, good restaurants, and interesting locally owned galleries and shops. Colburn’s, which dates from 1832 and lays claim to being Maine’s oldest shoe store, occupies an attractive Greek Revival building on Main Street. Belfast’s first prosperity accompanied the burgeoning shipbuilding industry. Later, when that faded, shoe manufacture and poultry processing fueled the economy. After various ups and downs the region’s latest rebirth is based on a much more modern concept, the credit card. A giant of the industry, MBNA, set up a white-columned regional headquarters in Belfast in 1995 and quickly became the area’s largest employer.

But it is the bright vocabulary of late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century building in all its variety that makes Belfast shine. Three nicely chatty walking-tour pamphlets, available at the visitor information center on the waterfront, fill in the story. Stopping in front of a Federal-style building on Church Street, I read, “Supposedly, during the War of 1812 a British soldier rode up the front granite steps into the home, watered his horse in the kitchen sink and went on.” And the Samuel Jackson House, also on Church, “as is common in many Belfast homes, has a dirt-floored basement with a stream running through it.”

Belfast’s attractive harbor offers many waterborne activities. You can kayak from the city pier, find out about the bay’s ecology during a leisurely cruise, or sail on the Amity, one of the oldest surviving Friendship sloops, most likely named after the town of Friendship, where many were built, and originally used for lobstering. Lobster, served straight from the sea, is or course one Maine offering impossible to miss. I indulged in it every meal I could, except breakfast. There are many great options for this indulgence, including the Lobster Pound, a relaxed Lincolnville Beach establishment operated by the same family for three generations. It has wonderful views of the bay and provides picnic tables for those who insist that lobster is best consumed outdoors.

That Penobscot Bay continues to serve up such bounty is no accident, nor can it ever be taken for granted. Melissa Terry, the young captain of the excursion vessel Good Return, comes from a long line of local fishermen, and on her trips she explains the need to have competing shipping and fishing interests to join together in maintaining these waters, “because we have to understand how important our bay is to our livelihood and our history.” Marcia Markwardt, owner for the past two years of the Carriage House Inn and a newcomer to Maine, shares this philosophy. She has signed on with a project run by the Marine Museum that will qualify her as a bay steward. This requires her to spend 80 hours in classroom work and out on the water, plus a further commitment to work on other museum projects. On the path to her stewardship Markwardt has participated in a count of clams, horseshoe crabs, and tiny oysters. All of which is meant to help keep track of the bay’s health, not only for the fishing industry but to attract the visitors that everyone hopes will continue to arrive in great numbers on the heels of those tiny oysters.

When you cruise the Passy as it opens onto the expanse of Penobscot Bay, time seems to relax its hold. The air, a rich brew of fish and salt, and the gentle, wind-ruffled swells of the sea, whether enveloped in ashen fog or sparked by bright sun, serve to bring one’s thoughts back to the adventurers who first explored Maine’s indented shores and staked so much on its waters, those who won, or, like the mad captain, lost. In the elegiac summation of Capt. Lincoln Colcord, “We must dream quickly and surely, the season lays on us a stern but kindly hand. We have both learned and inherited some wisdom. We know that life is glad and hard.”

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