American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of New England
Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
PORTLAND "Nowhere fairer, sweeter, rarer, I remember the sea-fight far away,
"THE GEM OF CASCO BAY"
By SAMUEL T. PICKARD
PORTLAND enjoys a peculiar distinction among New England cities, not only by reason of the natural advantages of her location, but because of the historical events of which she has been the theatre, and the men of mark in literature, art, and statesmanship whom she has produced. Among the indentations of the Atlantic coast there is no bay which presents a greater wealth and variety of charming scenery, in combination with the advantages of a safe and capacious harbor, than that on which Portland is situated. It is thickly studded with islands which are of most picturesque forms, presenting beetling cliffs, sheltered coves, pebbly beaches, wooded heights, and wide, green lawns dotted with summer cottages. It is of the beauty of this bay that Whittier, who was familiar with its scenery, sings in The Ranger:
Does the golden-locked fruit-bearer
Through his painted woodlands stray;
Than where hillside oaks and beeches
Overlook the long blue reaches,
Silver coves and pebbled beaches,
And green isles of Casco Bay;
Nowhere day, for delay,
With a tenderer look beseeches,
`Let me with my charmed earth stay!'"
The peninsula upon which Portland is located is almost an island. It is nearly three miles long, and has an average width of three quarters of a mile, making it in area the smallest city in the United States, and the most compactly settled, for its forty thousand inhabitants occupy almost every available building spot. At each extremity of the peninsula is a hill on the summit of which is a wide public promenade, affording charming views, to the east, of the bay, the islands, and the blue sea beyond; to the west and northwest, of the White Mountain range, all the peaks of which are visible, the intervening distance being about eighty miles. The Western Promenade is the favorite resort at sunset; the Eastern has charms for all hours of the day. Both can be reached by electric railways.
In 1614, Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, came prospecting along this coast, and gave the name to Cape Elizabeth, which it still bears, in honor of the Virgin Queen, then recently deceased. The first settlers, George Cleeves and Richard Tucker, came hither in 1632, and the settlement was known as Casco until the name was changed to Falmouth in 1658; it was incorporated as Portland in 1785. There were but few settlers in the first forty years, and these lived in amity with the Indians until the time of King Philip's War.
In 1676, the settlement was utterly destroyed by the savages, and all who were not killed were carried into captivity. One of the killed was Thomas Brackett, an ancestor of the statesman who in these later days has made the name famous, Thomas Brackett Reed. Mrs. Brackett was carried by the Indians to Canada, where she died in captivity. Two of her grandchildren came back to Falmouth when the place was rebuilt after the second destruction by the French and Indians, in May, 1690. In 1689, a large body of French and Indians threatened the town. They were routed in Deering's Woods by troops from Plymouth Colony, commanded by Major Church. Eleven settlers were killed and a large number wounded. It is a curious fact that Speaker Reed is also a descendant of the first settler, Cleeves. There is something remarkable in the persistency with which the descendants of the pioneers returned to the spot where there had been complete and repeated massacres of their ancestors. There are many families in Portland beside the one mentioned above who are descended from the pioneers who were killed or driven off by the savages.
The first minister of Falmouth was the Reverend George Burroughs, who escaped the massacre of 1676 by fleeing to one of the islands in the bay. Unfortunately for him, before the place was rebuilt he removed to Salem; he was too independent, however, to suit the dominant clergy, and was hanged as a wizard in 1692, on charges incredibly ridiculocus. The speech made by this worthy man on the scaffold brought the people to their senses and ended the witchcraft craze. His descendants also went back to Falmouth and are represented in many families of the present city of Portland, who take no shame from the hanging of their ancestor.
So thorough was the second destruction of the place in 1690, that no one was left to bury the victims of the slaughter. Their bleached bones were gathered and buried more than two years after by Sir William Phips, while on his way from Boston to build a fort at Pemaquid. The settlement of the peninsula was resumed after the treaty of peace concluded at Utrecht in 1713, and for sixty years thereafter the growth of the place was rapid. When the town was bombarded and burned by a British squadron in October, 1775, there were nearly three hundred families made homeless about three quarters of the entire population. For nine hours, four ships anchored in the harbor threw an incessant shower of grape shot, red hot cannon balls, and bombs upon the defenceless town, which had shown its sympathy with the patriot cause in a practical way after the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill. The spirited citizens of Falmouth might have avoided the bombardment by giving up a few cannon and small arms; but this, in town meeting, they refused to do, even when they saw the loaded guns and mortars trained upon them at short range, and knew that Captain Mowatt had a special grudge against the place because of an insult put upon him by some of the citizens a few months earlier. The spirit of the town was not broken by the terrible punishment it received. A few days after Mowatt sailed away, while the ruins were still smoking, a British man of war came into the harbor to forbid the erection of batteries, and the demand was met by the throwing up of earthworks and the placing of guns, which forced the immediate departure of the ship. The lines of these earthworks are still to be traced at Fort Allen Park, a beautiful pleasure ground on Munjoy overlooking the harbor, and they are preserved with care as a relic of Revolutionary times. Another relic is a cannon ball thrown from Mowatt's fleet, which lodged in the First Parish meeting house, and is now to be seen in the ceiling of the church which occupies the same site. From this ball depends the large central chandelier. There was an incident of the bombardment which illustrates the simplicity and coolness of a heroine whose name deserves a place beside that of Barbara Frietchie. The fashionable tavern of the town was kept by Dame Alice Greele, and here, during the whole Revolutionary period, the committee of public safety met, the judges held their courts, and political conventions had their sessions. It was here that the citizens in town meeting heroically voted to stand the bombardment rather than give up the guns demanded by Mowatt. But after making this brave decision they hastily packed up all their portable possessions and removed their families to places of safety, some not stopping short of inland towns, and others finding shelter under the lee of a high cliff that used to be at the corner of Casco and Cumberland Streets, at no great distance from their homes. Braver than the bravest of the men of Falmouth, Dame Alice would not desert her tavern, although its position was so dangerously exposed that every house in its vicinity was destroyed by bursting bombs and heated cannon balls. Throughout that terrible day she stood at her post, and with buckets of water extinguished the fires on her premises as fast as kindled. When Mowatt began to throw red hot cannon balls, one of them fell into the dame's back yard among some chips, which were set on fire. She picked up the ball in a pan, and as she tossed it into the street, she said to a neighbor who was passing: "They will have to stop firing soon, for they have got out of bombs and are making new balls, and can't wait for them to cool!" Portland ought to mark with a bronze tablet the site of Alice Greele's tavern. The building stood until 1846 at the corner of Congress and Hampshire Streets. It was then removed to Washington Street.
Portland had a rapid growth of population and increase in wealth during the European disturbances caused by the ambition of Napoleon. The carrying trade of the world was almost monopolized by neutral American bottoms, and ship building became then, as it continued to be for a long time afterward, a leading industry along the Maine coast. Great fortunes were made by Portland ship owners. Many fine old fashioned mansions that now ornament Congress, High, State, Spring, and Danforth Streets, were built by merchants in the first years of the present century, and are reminders of the peculiar conditions of that time. A sharp check to the rising tide of prosperity was given by the embargo act of 1807. After the peace of 1815, the trade with the West Indies grew into great importance, and for fifty years was a leading factor in the commerce of Portland. Lumber and fish were the chief exports, and return cargoes of sugar and molasses made this the principal market for those commodities the imports in these lines for many years exceeding those at New York and Boston. West India molasses was distilled in large quantities into New England rum, until the temperance reform, under the lead of the Portland philanthropist, Neal Dow, closed up the distilleries; in their place came sugar factories and refineries which turned out a more wholesome product. But about thirty years ago, changes in the methods of making sugar caused the loss of this industry to Portland.
The development of the canning business has of late years been an important feature of the industrial prosperity of Maine, owing partly to the fact that the climate and soil of this State produce a quality of sweet corn that cannot be matched in other States, and also to the fact that the system of canning now in use was a Portland invention. All over the interior of Maine may be found corn factories owned by Portland merchants, and, on the coast, canneries of lobsters and other products of the fields and fisheries of Maine.
Portland is the winter seaport of the Canadas, and several lines of steamships find cargoes of Western produce at this port. For this business the port has excellent facilities, as it is the terminus of the Grand Trunk Railway system, which has its other terminus at Chicago. There is another line to Montreal, through the White Mountain Notch, which, like the Grand Trunk, owes its existence to Portland enterprise. Of late years the lakes and forests and sea coast of Maine have, to a marked degree, become the pleasure ground of the Union, and, naturally, Portland is the distributing point for the rapidly increasing summer travel in this direction. Its lines of railway stretch northward and eastward to regions abounding in fish and game; the White Hills of New Hampshire and the Green Mountains of Vermont are within easy reach. Steamers from this port ply along the whole picturesque coast to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. During the summer months, eight or ten pleasure steamers make trips between the city and the islands of Casco Bay, furnishing a great variety of pleasurable excursions. These islands, except the smallest of them, are the summer homes of a multitude of families, many of them from Canada and from the Western States.
The ancient Eastern Cemetery, on the southern slope of Munjoy, is the burying place of the pioneers, including the victims of the French and Indian massacres of two centuries ago. The graves most frequently visited are those of the captains of the U. S. brig Enterprise and His Majesty's brig Boxer, both of whom were killed in the naval engagement off this coast, September 5, 1813. By their side lies Lieutenant Waters, mortally wounded in the same action. The poet Longfellow was in his seventh year at the time of this fight, and his memory of it is enshrined in My Lost Youth:
How it thundered o'er the tide!
And the dead captains as they lay
In their graves, o'erlooking the tranquil bay,
Where they in battle died."
Commodore Edward Preble, of Tripoli fame, and Rear Admiral Alden, who fought at Vera Cruz, New Orleans, and Mobile, both Portlanders, are buried here. There is also a monument commemorating the gallant Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth, who fell before Tripoli in 1804, a volunteer in a desperate and tragic enterprise. He was a brother of Longfellow's mother, and a new lustre has been added to his name by the nephew who bore it. In this ground also, but unmarked, are the graves of the victims of the French and Indian siege and massacre of 1690, and of the eleven men killed in the more fortunate battle of the previous year.
The first house in Portland built entirely of brick was erected in 1785, by General Peleg Wadsworth, who was Adjutant General of Massachusetts during the Revolution; it is now known as the Longfellow house, and stands next above the Preble House, on Congress Street. The poet was not born in this house, but was brought to it as an infant, and it was his home until his marriage, in 1831. It is now owned and occupied by his sister, Mrs. Pierce, who has provided that eventually it shall become the property of the Maine Historical Society, which ensures its preservation as a reminder that Maine gave our country its most widely known and best loved poet. The house in which Longfellow was born is the three story frame building at the corner of Fore and Hancock Streets. Around the corner, on Hancock Street, is the house in which Speaker Reed was born.
For his services in the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts gave General Wadsworth a large tract of land in Oxford County, to improve which, he removed to Hiram, and the family of his son in law, Stephen Longfellow, thereafter occupied his residence in Portland. To the end of his life, the poet made this house his home whenever he visited the scenes of his youth, and many of his best poems were written there. The central part of the hotel adjoining was the mansion of Commodore Edward Preble, built just before his death in 1807, and some of the best rooms in this hotel have still the wood carving and other ornamentation given them by the hero of Tripoli. A grandson of the Commodore was one of the officers of the Kearsarge when that ship sunk the rebel cruiser Alabama, in the most picturesque naval engagement of modern times.
We have seen that Portland has a history connecting it with the French and Indian Wars, the Revolution, and the War of 1812. It was also the scene of a curious episode in the late Civil War, the cutting out of the United States revenue cutter Caleb Cushing, in June, 1863. The cutter had been preparing for an encounter with the rebel privateer Tacony, which had been capturing and burning many vessels on the coast of New England. A delay in fitting her out had been occasioned by the illness and death of her captain. In the meantime, the Tacony had captured the schooner Archer, and transferred her armament to the prize, which, after burning the Tacony, boldly sailed into Portland harbor in the guise of an innocent fisherman, with Lieutenant Reade in command. His purpose was to burn two gunboats then being fitted out in the harbor, but he found them too well guarded. He then turned his attention to the cutter, which was preparing for a fight with him with no suspicion that he was lying almost alongside. Captain Clarke had died the day before Reade's arrival, and Lieutenant Davenport, a Georgian by birth, was in command of the cutter. At night, when only one watchman was on deck, a surprise was quietly effected, and the crew put in irons. With a good wind the cutter might easily have gotten away from the sleeping town and slipped by the unsuspicious forts; but she was becalmed just after passing the forts, and in the morning three steamers were armed and sent in pursuit. At the time it was supposed that the Southern lieutenant had turned traitor, but the event proved his loyalty; for he refused to inform his captors where the ammunition was kept, and they had only a dozen balls for the guns, which were all spent without injury to the pursuers. The affair was watched by thousands on the hills and house tops, and on yachts which in the dead calm were rowed to the scene. At length the town was startled by the blowing up and utter demolition of the cutter; the Confederates had set fire to the vessel and tried to escape in the boats, but were at once captured by the steamers which had been circling around them. The Archer was also captured, with all the chronometers and other valuables of the vessels bonded or destroyed by the Tacony. It proved an important check to the operations of the Confederacy on the sea, and it came just one week before the battle of Gettysburg and the capture of Vicksburg.
The first British squadron to enter the harbor of Portland after the bombardment by Mowatt in 1775, came just eighty five years afterward to a day. It was sent to give dignity to the embarkation of the Prince of Wales in 186o. It was in Portland, at what are now called the Victoria wharves, that the Prince, then a young man of nineteen, took his last step on American soil. His embarkation on a bright October day was one of the finest pageants ever witnessed in this country. Five of the most powerful men of war in the British navy, in gala trim, with yards manned, saluted the royal standard, gorgeous in crimson and gold, then for the first and only time displayed in this country. The deafening broadsides when the Prince reached the deck of the Hero were answered from the American forts and men of war.
Another pageant, this time grand and solemn, was enacted in this harbor, in February, 1870. A British squadron, convoyed by American battle ships, brought the remains of the philanthropist, George Peabody, in the most powerful ironclad the world had then seen. The funeral procession of boats from the English and American ships was an impressive spectacle. It was a bright winter day, immediately succeeding a remarkable ice storm, and the trees of the islands, the cape, and the city sparkled in the sun as if every bough were encrusted with diamonds, a wonderful frame for a memorable picture. Nature had put on her choicest finery to relieve the sombre effect of the draped flags, the muffled oars, the long, slow lines of boats, and the minute guns from ships and forts.
The great fire of July 4, 1866, which burned fifteen hundred buildings in the centre of the city, also destroyed an immense number of shade trees, mostly large elms, the abundance of which had given to Portland the title of "Forest City." In a few years the buildings were replaced by greatly improved structures; but the trees could not be improvised so readily, and the scar of the fire is still noticeable from the absence of aged trees in the district swept by it. Advantage was taken of the clearing of the ground in the most thickly settled part of the city, to lay out Lincoln Park in the centre of the ruins. This is now a charming spot, with its fountain and flowers, its lawns and shaded walks.
The city is fortunate in the abundance and purity of its water supply, which is drawn from Lake Sebago, sixteen miles distant. The natural outlet of this lake is the Presumpscot River, which has several valuable water powers along its short course to its mouth in Casco Bay, near Portland harbor.
It will be remembered that Nathaniel Hawthorne received his collegiate education, in the same class with Longfellow, at Brunswick, which is in the same county with Portland, but it is not so generally known that during his teens his home was at Raymond, on the shore of Sebago Lake, and in the same county. Part of each year he spent in school at Salem; but his mother's home was in the little hamlet in the picturesque wilderness a few miles from Portland, and here he spent the happiest months of his youth, as he has testified in many letters. His biographers have generally failed to take account of this, and, indeed, have asserted that he was at Raymond only a part of one year. A little volume recently published, entitled Hawthorne's First Diary, brings out the facts in this neglected but important episode in the career of this great master in our literature. While fitting for college, Hawthorne became, for a single term, the pupil of the Reverend Caleb Bradley, of Stroud-water, a suburb of Portland. The building in which he studied is still to be seen at Stroud-water. The house of his mother at Raymond is converted into a church, but as to exterior remains very much as when his boy life was spent in it. It was in this same county of Cumberland that Mrs. Stowe wrote the whole of Uncle Tom's Cabin, while her husband was a professor in Bowdoin College. Thus, three of the greatest names in American literature are linked to Portland and its immediate vicinity.,
Portland can count to her credit many jurists, lawyers, and orators of national repute, among them Theophilus Parsons, Simon Greenleaf, Ashur Ware, Sargent S. Prentiss, Nathan Clifford, and George Evans. William Pitt Fessenden lived and died in the house on State Street now occupied by Judge W. L. Putnam. Like Fessenden eminent as Senator and Secretary of the Treasury, Lot M. Morrill spent the last years of his life in Portland. Still another great Senator and Secretary of the Treasury, who was also Chief Justice, honored this city by bearing its name Salmon Portland Chase. He was actually named for the town, his uncle, Salmon Chase, being a Portland lawyer, and his parents were determined that there should be no mistake as to the person for whom he was named!
At an early period in his career, James G. Blaine edited the Portland Daily Advertiser. Among writers of celebrity, we may name N. P. Willis and his sister, "Fanny Fern "; John Neal, poet and novelist; Henry W. and Samuel Longfellow; J. H. Ingraham, whose many novels had a great sale fifty or sixty years ago; Elijah Kellogg; Mrs. Ann S. Stephens; Seba Smith, author of the Jack Downing Letters, and his more famous wife, Elizabeth Oakes Smith; Thomas Hill, for a time President of Harvard University; and the divines, Edward Payson and Cyrus Bartol. The home of Charles Farrar Brown, "Artemus Ward," was in an adjoining county, but like the Chief Justice just mentioned, he came to Portland for his baptismal name, his uncle, Charles Farrar, being a Portland physician. Two sculptors of national fame have gone out from Portland, Paul Akers and Franklin Simmons, and some of the best works of both these artists adorn public places in the city. The Dead Pearl Diver, by Akers, may be found in the reading room of the Public Library; and Simmons has two bronze statues in the city, one a seated figure of Longfellow, at the head of State Street, overlooking "Deering's Woods," and the other a noble statue of America, in Monument Square, commemorating the sons of Portland who died for the Union; no finer soldiers' monument than this has ever been erected. Of other artists who have attained distinction, we may name H. B. Brown, now residing in London, whose landscapes and marine views have given him a recognized position among the best American artists; Charles O. Cole, portrait painter; and Charles Codman, J. R. Tilton, and J. B. Hudson, landscape painters.
Immense sums are being expended on the defences of the city by the United States government, as it is realized that in case of war with Great Britain this would be the point of attack, because Portland is the natural seaport of the Canadas, and Maine is thrust, in a provoking way, between the Maritime Provinces and the Province of Quebec. Portland can indulge in no dream of great commercial importance so long as the country which its position especially dominates is under a foreign flag; but if ever Maine should be annexed to Canada, or the annexation takes the alternative form, a great future is assured for a town so favorably located. In the meantime, the beautiful city must be content to be the centre of distribution for the pleasure travel of the summer, and for the other half of the year, by means of its capacious harbor, it can continue to furnish an outlet for that part of the business of the Great Lakes which in summer is handled at Montreal.
"Nowhere fairer, sweeter, rarer,
I remember the sea-fight far away,
Historic towns of New England
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