History Of the State Of Maine
The history of the area comprising the U.S. state of Maine spans thousands of years, measured from the earliest human settlement, or less than two hundred, measured from the advent of U.S. statehood in 1820. The present article will concentrate on the period of European contact and after.
The origin of the name Maine is unclear. One theory is it was named after the French province of Maine. Another is that it derives from a practical nautical term, “the main” or “Main Land”, “Meyne” or “Mainland”, which served to distinguish the bulk of the state from its numerous islands.
The earliest culture known to have inhabited Maine, from roughly 3000 B.C. to 1000 B.C., were the Red Paint People, a maritime group known for elaborate burials using red ochre. They were followed by the Susquehanna culture, the first to use pottery.
The first Europeans to explore the coast of Maine sailed under the command of the Portuguese explorer Estêvão Gomes, in service of the Spanish Empire, in 1525. They mapped the coastline (including the Penobscot River) but did not settle. The first European settlement in the area was made on St. Croix Island in 1604 by a French party that included Samuel de Champlain. The French named the area Acadia. French and English settlers would contest central Maine until the 1750s (when the French were defeated in the French and Indian War). The French developed and maintained strong relations with the local Indian tribes through Catholic missionaries.
English colonists sponsored by the Plymouth Company founded a settlement in Maine in 1607 (the Popham Colony at Phippsburg), but it was abandoned the following year. A French trading post was established at present-day Castine in 1613 by Claude de Saint-Étienne de la Tour, and may represent the first permanent European settlement in New England. The Plymouth Colony, established on the shores of Cape Cod Bay in 1620, set up a competing trading post at Penobscot Bay in the 1620s.
The territory between the Merrimack and Kennebec rivers was first called the Province of Maine in a 1622 land patent granted to Sir Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason. The two split the territory along the Piscataqua River in a 1629 pact that resulted in the Province of New Hampshire being formed by Mason in the south and New Somersetshire being created by Gorges to the north, in what is now southwestern Maine. The present Somerset County in Maine preserves this early nomenclature.
One of the first English attempts to settle the Maine coast was by Christopher Levett, an agent for Gorges and a member of the Plymouth Council for New England. After securing a royal grant for 6,000 acres (24 km2) of land on the site of present-day Portland, Maine, Levett built a stone house and left a group of men behind when he returned to England in 1623 to drum up support for his settlement, which he called “York” after the city in England of his birth. Originally called Machigonne by the local Abenaki, later settlers named it Falmouth and it is known today as Portland. Levett’s settlement, like the Popham Colony also failed, and the men Levett left behind were never heard from again. Levett did sail back across the Atlantic to meet with Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop at Salem in 1630, but died on the return voyage without ever returning to his settlement.
The New Somersetshire colony was small, and in 1639 Gorges received a second patent, from Charles I, covering the same territory as Gorges’ 1629 settlement with Mason. Gorges’ second effort resulted in the establishment of more settlements along the coast of southern Maine, and along the Piscataqua River, with a formal government under his distant relation, Thomas Gorges. A dispute about the bounds of another land grant led to the short-lived formation of Lygonia on territory that encompassed a large area of the Gorges grant. Both Gorges’ Province of Maine and Lygonia had been absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony by 1658. The Massachusetts claim would be overturned in 1676, but Massachusetts again asserted control by purchasing the territorial claims of the Gorges heirs.
In 1669, the territory between the Kennebec and St. Croix rivers was granted by Charles II to his brother James, Duke of York. Under the terms of this grant, all the territory from the Saint Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean was constituted as Cornwall County, and was governed as part of the duke’s proprietary Province of New York. This grant, when combined with the territories claimed by Massachusetts (which it called York County), encompassed all of present-day Maine.
In 1686 James, now king, established the Dominion of New England. This political entity eventually combined all of the English-held territories from Delaware Bay to the St. Croix River. The dominion collapsed in 1689, and in 1692 the territory between the Piscataqua and the St. Croix became part of the new Province of Massachusetts Bay as Yorkshire, a name which survives in present-day York County.
For the English, east of the Kennebec River was known in the 17th century as the Territory of Sagadahock; however, the French included this area as part of Acadia. It was dominated by tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy, which supported Acadia. The only significant European presence was at Fort Pentagouet, the French trading post first established in 1613 as well as missionaries on Kennebec River and the Penobscot River. Fort Pentagouet was briefly the capital of Acadia (1670–1674) in an effort to protect the French claim to the territory. There were four wars before the region was finally taken by the English in Father Rale’s War.
In the first war, King Philips War, some of the tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy participated and successfully prevented English settlements in their territory. During the next war, King William’s War, Baron St. Castin at Fort Pentagouet and French Jesuit missionary Sébastien Rale were notably active. Again, the Wabanaki Confederacy executed a successful campaign against the English settlers west of the Kennebec River. In 1696, the major defensive establishment in the territory, Fort William Henry at Pemaquid (present-day Bristol), was besieged by a French force. The territory was again on the front lines in Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713), with the Northeast Coast Campaign.
The next and final conflict over the New England/ Acadia border was Father Rale’s War. During the war, the Confederacy launched two campaigns against the British settlers west of the Kennebec (1723, 1724). Rale and numerous chiefs were killed by a New England force in 1724 at Norridgewock, which led to the collapse of French claims to Maine.
During King George’s War, members of the Wabanaki Confederacy led three campaigns against the British settlers in Maine (1745, 1746, 1747).
During the final colonial war, the French and Indian War, members of the Confederacy again executed numerous raids into Maine from Acadia/ Nova Scotia. Acadian militia raided the British settlements of Swan’s Island, Maine and present-day Friendship, Maine and Thomaston, Maine. Francis Noble wrote her captivity narrative after being captured at Swan’s Island. On June 9, 1758, Indians raided Woolwich, Maine, killing members of the Preble family and taking others prisoner to Quebec. This incident became known as the last conflict on the Kennebec River.
After the defeat of the French colony of Acadia, the territory from the Penobscot River east fell under the nominal authority of the Province of Nova Scotia, and together with present-day New Brunswick formed the Nova Scotia County of Sunbury, with its court of general sessions at Campobello Island.
In the late 18th century, several tracts of land in Maine, then part of Massachusetts, were sold off by lottery. Two tracts of 1,000,000 acres (4,000 km2), one in south-east Maine and another in the west, were bought by a wealthy Philadelphia banker, William Bingham. This land became known as the Bingham Purchase.
Maine was a center of Patriotism during the American Revolution, with less Loyalist activity than most colonies. Merchants operated 52 ships that served as privateers attacking British supply ships. Machias in particular was a center for privateering and Patriot activity. It was the site of an early naval engagement that resulted in the capture of a small Royal Navy vessel. Jonathan Eddy led a failed attempt to capture Fort Cumberland in Nova Scotia in 1776. In 1777 Eddy led the defense of Machias against a Royal Navy raid.
Captain Henry Mowat of the Royal Navy had charge of operations off the Maine coast during much the war. He dismantled Fort Pownall at the mouth of the Penobscot River and burned Falmouth in 1775 (present-day Portland). His reputation in Maine traditions is heartless and brutal, but historians note that he performed his duty well and in accordance with the ethics of the era.
In 1779, the British adopted a strategy to seize parts of Maine, especially around Penobscot Bay, and make it a new colony to be called “New Ireland”. The scheme was promoted by exiled Loyalists Dr. John Calef (1725–1812) and John Nutting (fl. 1775-85), as well as Englishman William Knox (1732–1810). It was intended to be a permanent colony for Loyalists and a base for military action during the war. The plan ultimately failed because of a lack of interest by the British government and the determination of the Americans to keep all of Maine.
In July 1779, British general Francis McLean captured Castine and built Fort George on the Bagaduce Peninsula on the eastern side of Penobscot Bay. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts sent the Penobscot Expedition led by Massachusetts general Solomon Lovell and Continental Navy captain Dudley Saltonstall. The Americans failed to dislodge the British during a 21-day siege and were routed by the arrival of British reinforcements. The Royal Navy blocked an escape by sea so the Patriots burned their ships near present-day Bangor and walked home. Maine was unable to repel the British threat despite a reorganized defense and the imposition of martial law in selected areas. Some of the most easterly towns tried to become neutral.
After the peace was signed in 1783, the New Ireland proposal was abandoned. In 1784 the British split New Brunswick off from Nova Scotia and made it into the desired Loyalist colony, with deference to King and Church, and with republicanism suppressed. It was almost named “New Ireland”.
The Treaty of Paris that ended the war was ambiguous about the boundary between Maine and the neighboring British provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec. This would set the stage for the bloodless “Aroostook War” a half century later.
War of 1812
During the War of 1812, Maine suffered the effects of warfare less than most sections of New England. Early in the war there was some Canadian privateering action and Royal Navy harassment along the coast. In September 1813, the memorable combat off Pemaquid between HMS Boxer and USS Enterprise gained international attention. But it wasn’t until 1814 that the district was invaded. The U.S. Army and the small U.S. Navy could do little to defend Maine. The national administration assigned nominal resources to the region, concentrating its efforts in the west. The local militia generally proved inadequate to the challenge. However, in the last months of the war, large militia mobilizations discouraged enemy interventions at Wiscasset, Bath, and Portland. British army and naval forces from nearby Nova Scotia captured and occupied the eastern coast from Eastport to Castine, and plundered the Penobscot River towns of Hampden and Bangor (see Battle of Hampden). Legitimate commerce all along the Maine coast was largely stopped—a critical situation for a place so dependent on shipping. In its place an illicit smuggling trade with the British developed, especially at Castine and Eastport. The British gave “New Ireland” to America in the Treaty of Ghent, and Castine was evacuated, although Eastport remained under occupation until 1818. But Maine’s vulnerability to foreign invasion, and its lack of protection by Massachusetts, were important factors in the post-war momentum for statehood.
The Massachusetts General Court passed enabling legislation on June 19, 1819 separating the District of Maine from the rest of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The following month, on July 26, voters in the district approved statehood by 17,091 to 7,132.
|For status quo
The results of the election were presented to the Massachusetts Governor’s Council on August 24, 1819. The Maine Constitution was unanimously approved by the 210 delegates to the Maine Constitutional Convention in October 1819. On February 25, 1820, the General Court passed a follow-up measure officially accepting the fact of Maine’s imminent statehood.
At the time of Maine’s request for statehood, there were an equal number of free and slave states. Pro-slavery members of the United States Congress saw the admission of another free state, Maine, as a threat to the balance between slave and free states. They would only support statehood for Maine if Missouri Territory, where slavery was legal, would be admitted to the Union as a slave state. Maine became the nation’s 23rd state on March 15, 1820, following the Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave-holding state and Maine as a free state. However, Massachusetts still held onto the vast offshore islands of Maine after allowing it to secede, because of the high number of people on them who still wished to remain part of Massachusetts. This only lasted until 1824, when the cost of supplying the islands that were now very hard to access directly from Massachusetts outweighed any profit from holding onto those islands. Massachusetts formally ceded the last of its islands near Maine in late 1824.
William King was elected as the state’s first Governor. William D. Williamson became the first President of the Maine State Senate. When King resigned as governor in 1821, Williamson automatically succeeded him to become Maine’s second governor. That same year, however, he ran for and won a seat in the 17th United States Congress. Upon Williamson’s resignation, Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Benjamin Ames became Maine’s third governor for approximately a month until Daniel Rose took office. Rose served only from January 2 to January 5, 1822, filling the unexpired term between the administrations of Ames and Albion K. Parris. Parris served as governor until January 3, 1827.
The Aroostook War
The still-lingering border dispute with British North America came to a head in 1839 when Maine Governor John Fairfield declared virtual war on lumbermen from New Brunswick cutting timber in lands claimed by Maine. Four regiments of the Maine militia were mustered in Bangor and marched to the border, but there was no fighting. The Aroostook War was an undeclared and bloodless conflict that was settled by diplomacy.
Secretary of State Daniel Webster secretly funded a propaganda campaign that convinced Maine leaders that a compromise was wise; Webster used an old map that showed British claims were legitimate. The British had a different old map that showed the American claims were legitimate, so both sides thought the other had the better case. The final border between the two countries was established with the Webster–Ashburton Treaty of 1842, which gave Maine most of the disputed area, and gave the British a militarily vital connection between its provinces of Canada (present-day Quebec and Ontario) and New Brunswick.
The passion of the Aroostook War signaled the increasing role lumbering and logging were playing in the Maine economy, particularly in the central and eastern sections of the state. Bangor arose as a lumbering boom-town in the 1830s, and a potential demographic and political rival to Portland. Bangor became for a time the largest lumber port in the world, and the site of furious land speculation that extended up the Penobscot River valley and beyond.
Industrialization in 19th century Maine took a number of forms, depending on the region and period. The river valleys, particularly the Androscroggin, Kennebec and Penobscot, became virtual conveyor belts for the making of lumber beginning in the 1820s-30s. Logging crews penetrated deep into the Maine woods in search of pine (and later spruce) and floated it down to sawmills gathered at waterfalls. The lumber was then shipped from ports such as Bangor, Ellsworth and Cherryfield all over the world.
Partly because of the lumber industry’s need for transportation, and partly due to the prevalence of wood and carpenters along a very long coastline, shipbuilding became an important industry in Maine’s coastal towns. The Maine merchant marine was huge in proportion to the state’s population, and ships and crews from communities such as Bath, Brewer, and Belfast could be found all over the world. The building of very large wooden sailing ships continued in some places into the early 20th century.
Cotton textile mills migrated to Maine from Massachusetts beginning in the 1820s. The major site for cotton textile manufacturing was Lewiston on the Androscoggin River, the most northerly of the Waltham-Lowell system towns (factory towns modeled on Lowell, Massachusetts). The twin cities of Biddeford and Saco, as well as Augusta, Waterville, and Brunswick also became important textile manufacturing communities. These mills were established on waterfalls and amidst farming communities as they initially relied on the labor of farm-girls engaged on short-term contracts. In the years after the Civil War, they would become magnets for immigrant labor.
Starting in the early 20th century, the pulp and paper industry spread into the Maine woods and most of the river valleys from the lumbermen, so completely that Ralph Nader would famously describe Maine in the 1960s as a “paper plantation”. Entirely new cities, such as Millinocket and Rumford were established on many of the large rivers.
For all this industrial development, however, Maine remained a largely agricultural state well into the 20th century, with most of its population living in small and widely separated villages. With short growing seasons, rocky soil, and relative remoteness from markets, Maine agriculture was never as prosperous as in other states; the populations of most farming communities peaked in the 1850s, declining steadily thereafter.
Railroads shaped Maine’s geography, as they did that of most American states. The first railroad in Maine was the Calais Railroad, incorporated by the state legislature on February 17, 1832. It was built to transport lumber from a mill on the Saint Croix River opposite Milltown, New Brunswick two miles to the tidewater at Calais in 1835. In 1849, the name was changed to the Calais and Baring Railroad and the line was extended four more miles to Baring. In 1870, it became part of the St. Croix and Penobscot Railroad.
The state’s second railroad was the Bangor & Piscataquis Railroad & Canal Company incorporated by the legislature on February 18, 1833. It ran eleven miles from Bangor to Oldtown along the west bank of the Penobscot River and opened in November, 1836. In 1854-55, it was extended 1.5 miles across the Penobscot River to Milford and the name was changed to the Bangor, Oldtown & Milford Railroad Company. In 1869, it was absorbed into the European and North American Railway.
The third railroad in Maine was the Portland, Saco and Portsmouth Railroad, incorporated by the legislature on March 14, 1837. This was a crucial step in the development of railroads in Maine because the new railroad connected Portland to Boston by connecting to the Eastern Railroad at Kittery via a bridge to Portsmouth. This railroad was opened on November 21, 1842 and was 51.34 miles in length.
Portland in particular prospered as the terminus of the Grand Trunk railroad from Montreal, essentially becoming Canada’s winter port. The Portland Company built early railway locomotives and the Portland Terminal Company handled joint switching operations for the Maine Central Railroad and Boston and Maine Railroad. A railroad pushed through to Bangor in the 1850s, and as far as Aroostook County in the early 20th century, farming potato growing as a cash crop.
The Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad, Bridgton and Saco River Railroad, Monson Railroad, Kennebec Central Railroad and Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway were built with the unusually narrow gauge of 2 feet (60 cm).
“Ohio Fever”, the California Gold Rush, and westward migration from Maine
Even before the tide of settlement crested in most of Maine, some began to leave for The West. The first large-scale exodus was probably in 1816-17, spurred by the privations of the War of 1812, an unusually cold summer, and the expansion of settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains in Ohio. “Ohio Fever” as the lure of the West was initially called, depopulated a number of fledgling Maine communities and stunted the growth of others, even if the overall momentum of settlement had been largely restored by the 1820s, when Maine achieved statehood.
As the American frontier continued to expand westward, Mainers were particularly attracted to the forested states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and large numbers brought their lumbering skills and knowledge there. Migrants from Maine were particularly prominent in Minnesota; for example, three 19th century Mayors of Minneapolis were Mainers.
The California Gold Rush of 1849 and afterwards was a major boost to the lumber and coastal shipbuilding economies, as building lumber needed to be “shipped around the Horn” from Maine until the establishment of a West Coast sawmilling industry. Maine ships also carried gold-seeking migrants, however, and thus were many Mainers (and aspects of Maine culture, such as lumbering and carpentering) transplanted to California and the Pacific Northwest. Three 19th century Mayors of San Francisco, two Governors of California, a Governor of Oregon, and two Governors of Washington were born in Maine.
Maine was the first state in the northeast to support the new anti-slavery Republican Party, partly due to the influence of evangelical Protestantism, and partly to the fact that Maine was a frontier state, and thus receptive to the party’s “free soil” platform. Abraham Lincoln chose Maine’s Hannibal Hamlin as his first Vice President.
Maine was so enthusiastic for the cause of preserving the Union in the American Civil War that it ended up contributing a larger number of combatants, in proportion to its population, than any other Union state. It was second only to Massachusetts in the number of its sailors who served in the United States Navy. Joshua Chamberlain and Holman Melcher along with the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment played a key role at the Battle of Gettysburg, and the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery Regiment lost more men in a single charge (at the Siege of Petersburg) than any Union regiment in the war.
One legacy of the war was Republican Party dominance of state politics for the next half-century and beyond. The state elections came in September and provided pundits of the day with a key indicator of the mood of voters throughout the North–“as Maine goes, so goes the nation” was a familiar phrase.
In the 50-year period 1861 to 1911 (when Democrats temporarily swept most state offices) Maine Republicans served as Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury (twice), President pro tempore of the Senate, Speaker of the House (twice) and Republican Nominee for the Presidency. This synchronization between the politics of Maine and the nation broke down dramatically in 1936, however, when Maine became one of only two states to vote for the Republican candidate, Alf Landon in Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s landslide re-election. Maine Republicans remain a force in state politics, but since the elevation of the Polish-American Catholic Democrat Edmund Muskie to the governorship in the 1950s, Maine has been a balanced two-party state. The most nationally influential Maine Republicans in recent decades include former Senators William Cohen and Olympia Snowe, and Senator Susan Collins.
Maine experienced a wave of Irish immigration in the mid-19th century, though many came to the state via Canada and Massachusetts, and before the potato famine. There was a riot in Bangor between Irish and Yankee (nativist) sailors and lumbermen as early as 1834, and a number of early Catholic churches were burned or vandalized in coastal communities, where the Know-Nothing Party briefly flourished. After the Civil War, Maine’s Irish-Catholic population began a process of integration and upward mobility.
In the late 19th century, many French Canadians arrived from Quebec and New Brunswick to work in the textile mill cities such as Lewiston and Biddeford. By the mid 20th century Franco-Americans comprised 30% of the state’s population. Some migrants became lumberjacks but most concentrated in industrialized areas and into enclaves known as ‘Little Canadas.’
Québécois immigrant women saw the United States as a place of opportunity and possibility where they could create alternatives for themselves distinct from the expectations of their parents and their community. By the early 20th century some French Canadian women even began to see migration to the United States to work as a rite of passage and a time of self-discovery and self-reliance. When these women did marry, they had fewer children with longer intervals between children than their Canadian counterparts. Some women never married, and oral accounts suggest that self-reliance and economic independence were important reasons for choosing work over marriage and motherhood. These women conformed to traditional premigration gender ideals in order to retain their ‘Canadienne’ cultural identity, but they also redefined these roles in ways that provided them increased independence in their roles as wives and mothers.
The Franco-Americans became active in the Catholic Church where they tried with little success to challenge its domination by Irish clerics. They founded such newspapers as ‘Le Messager’ and ‘La Justice’. Lewiston’s first hospital became a reality in 1889 when the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, the ‘Grey Nuns’, opened the doors of the Asylum of Our Lady of Lourdes. This hospital was central to the Grey Nuns’ mission of providing social services for Lewiston’s predominantly French Canadian mill workers. The Grey Nuns struggled to establish their institution despite meager financial resources, language barriers, and opposition from the established medical community. Immigration dwindled after World War I.
The French-Canadian community in New England tried to preserve some of its cultural norms. This doctrine, like efforts to preserve francophone culture in Quebec, became known as la Survivance. See also: Quebec diaspora. With the decline of the state’s textile industry during the 1950s, the French element experienced a period of upward mobility and assimilation. This pattern of assimilation increased during the 1970s and 1980s as many Catholic organizations switched to English names and parish children entered public schools; some parochial schools closed in the 1970s. Although some ties to its French-Canadian origins remain, the community was largely anglicized by the 1990s, moving almost completely from ‘Canadien’ to ‘American’.
Representative of the assimilation process was the career of singer and icon of American popular culture Rudy Vallée (1901–86). He grew up in Westbrook, Maine, and after service in World War I attended the University of Maine, then transferred to Yale, and went on to become as a popular music star. He never forgot his Maine roots, and maintained an estate at Kezar Lake.
English and Scottish
A large number of immigrants of English and Scottish-Canadian stock relocated from the Maritime Provinces.
The first Europeans on North American soil were vikings from Norway led by Leif Eriksson. These Norwegians traded with the native Penobscot. In 1797, the town of Norway, Maine was incorporated and attracted a small group of Norwegians.
A Swedish colony in Maine was started in Aristook by William W. Thomas Jr. to recruit Swedish Loggers. This came to be known as the town of New Sweden. Other towns with big Swedish populations were Stockholm and Westmanland.
Mainly concentrated in Lewiston, Somalis have opened up community centers to cater to their community. In 2001, the non-profit organization United Somali Women of Maine (USWM) was founded in Lewiston, seeking to promote the empowerment of Somali women and girls across the state.
In August 2010, the Lewiston Sun Journal reported that Somali entrepreneurs had helped reinvigorate downtown Lewiston by opening dozens of shops in previously closed storefronts. Amicable relations were also reported by the local merchants of French-Canadian descent and the Somali storekeepers.
Due to the civil war in Somalia, the United States government classified the Somali Bantu (an ethnic minority group in the country) as a priority, and began preparations to resettle an estimated 12,000 Bantu refugees in select cities throughout the U.S. Most of the early arrivals in the United States settled in Clarkston, Georgia, a city adjacent to Atlanta. However, they were mostly assigned to low rent, poverty-stricken inner city areas, so many began to look to resettle elsewhere in the US. After 2005, many Bantus were resettled in Maine by aid agencies. Catholic Charities Maine is the refugee resettlement agency that provides the bulk of the services for the Bantus’ resettlement.
The state’s Bantu community is served by the Somali Bantu Community Mutual Assistance Association of Lewiston/Auburn Maine (SBCMALA), which focuses on housing, employment, literacy and education, health and safety matters.
Largely because of Irish and French-Canadian immigration, 40% of Maine’s population was Catholic by 1900; the Catholic Church ran its own school system in the cities, where almost all Catholics lived. This demographic and its resulting social and political ramifications led to a backlash in the 1920s, as the Ku Klux Klan formed cells in a number of Maine towns.
The immigrant population was largely responsible for the steady growth of the Democratic Party, however, which gave Maine a true two-party system in the years after World War II. The election in 1954 of Governor Edmund Muskie, a Catholic Polish American tailor’s son from the mill-town of Rumford, was a major watershed. The governor from 2003 to 2011, John Baldacci, is of Italian American and Arab American ancestry from Bangor.
Maine is a natural beauty, cool summers and proximity to the large East Coast cities made it a major tourist destination as early as the 1850s. The visitors enjoyed the local handicrafts; the most successful was carving out a mythical image of Maine as a bucolic rustic haven from modern urban woes. The mythical image, elaborately polished for 150 years, attracts tourist dollars to an economically depressed state. Summer resorts such as Bar Harbor, Sorrento, and Islesboro sprung up along the coast, and soon urbanites were building houses—ranging from mansions to shacks, but all called “cottages”—in what had formerly been shipbuilding and fishing villages. Maine’s seasonal residents transformed the economy of the seacoast and to some extent its culture, especially when some began staying all year round.
The Bush family and their compound in Kennebunkport are a notable example of this demographic. The Rockefeller family were conspicuous members of the summer community at Bar Harbor. Summer residents who were painters and writers began to define the state’s image through their work.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the textile industry was establishing itself more profitably in the American South, and some Maine cities began to de-industrialize as wages rose above those of the South. In 1937, the Lewiston-Auburn Shoe Strike involved 4,000 to 5,000 textile workers on strike in Lewiston and Auburn. It was one of the largest labor disputes state history. Shipbuilding also ceased in all but a few places, notably Bath and its successful Bath Iron Works, which became a notable producer of naval vessels during the Second World War and after. In recent years, however, even Maine’s most traditional industries have been threatened; forest conservation efforts have diminished logging and restrictions on fisheries have likewise exerted considerable pressure along the coast. The last “heavy industry” in Maine, pulp and paper began to withdraw in the late 20th century, leaving the future of the Maine Woods an open question.
In response, the state attempted to buttress retailing and service industries, especially those linked to tourism. The label Vacationland was added to license plates in the 1960s. More recent tax incentives have encouraged outlet shopping centers such as the cluster at Freeport. Increasing numbers of visitors began to enjoy Maine’s vast tracts of relatively unspoiled wilderness, mountains, and expansive coastline. State and national parks in Maine also became loci of middle-class tourism, especially Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island.
The growth of Portland and areas of southern Maine and the retraction of job opportunities (and population) in the northern and eastern areas of the state led in the 1990s to discussion of “two Maines”, with potentially different interests. Portland and certain coastal towns aside, Maine remains the poorest state in the Northeast. By some accounts, adjusting for its high taxes and living costs, Maine has been since at least the 1970s the poorest state in the United States. The notion that Maine is indeed the poorest state in the US is supported by its exceptionally high levels of welfare dependence over the past half century.