Friday, November 15, 2013

Portland Maine

I was amazed how two cities on the same continent, 3,190 miles apart, are very similar in character. Portland, Maine and Portland, Oregon have many distinct parallels to each other. They are both in the USA and are coastal cities. The cities reside on large bays with substantial rivers that empty into their waterfronts. Near both is a mountain named Mount Washington with an elevation over 6,500 feet. Having received numerous awards for food, microbreweries and brewpubs they are both in the top five cities to visit per various tourist magazines. Ships have been coming and going from their harbor before the 1850’s. Each city has had major fires in their history, destroying important landmarks or enormous parts of the city. They both have a history that connects them to the American Civil War and they both have a population of more than 65,000 people. All remarkable in character and yet they have numerous contrasting features too.  

Portland, Maine is depicted as a phoenix rising from ashes, which aligns with the city's motto because of the four large fires over its history. The historic Old Port District along Portland Harbor is at the mouth of the Fore River and part of Casco Bay. The first settlers arrived in 1633 with fishing and trading and the village was named Casco.  In 1851, Maine led the nation by passing the first state law prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Presently Portland has taken on the title of top microbreweries and brewpubs in the northeast. We explored the old-world shops and restaurants along Commerce Street which added new flare to the old historical district.  This part of the city was added by filling in the bay and moving the moorings out further.  We could see on the current buildings just below the second story window, old markings where the ships were once secured.

Looking for something new we signed up for a trip on the “Duck” which was an amphibious water craft ride in the bay.  This part boat and part car took us first down the streets of the waterfront by the bay’s edge. The tour guide gave tidbits of history about the old city and Fort Knox. He informed us on the tour that fires had destroyed enormous parts of the city with only one Church tower that now remains.  Driving right over the boat ramp we were soon an amphibious craft. Entering on the north side of the Portland peninsula we had a canoe moving faster than us. Buses were not made to move faster than a few knots in the water and this homemade unit carried no exceptions. Moving very slowly we moved past an outcropping of rocks in the middle of the bay. It was loaded with bathing tourists that had paddled over in their canoes.

This same outcropping is where the only Southern troops invaded the north, landing in Maine during the Civil War. The troops were finally captured but not before shelling Fort Knox and taking a Yankee ship. They were imprisoned in Maine for the duration of the war. All the names of Maine regiments, Army, Navy, National Guard and volunteers were listed in “This Rebellion” museum in downtown Portland. I was amazed at the museum’s display of personal letters from families and soldiers during the Civil War. Also other artifacts, photographs, official records and saved treasured used during the four-year conflict. There were more than 9,000 Maine soldiers and sailors who died during the war. This museum is a great memorial to those men and women.

Moving past several islands we saw docks where many Liberty ships were built during WWII. Little and Greater Diamond Islands were complete opposites. Great Diamond had mammoth mansions and Little Diamond was a commercial site for the fishing community.  Fort George was a fort built by the British to protect their northern territories from the forts in French Halifax, Nova Scotia. Fort Knox was the first fort in Maine built of granite (instead of wood). It is named after Henry Knox, the very first US Secretary of War. House Island is a private island and is only accessible by boat.  Peaks Island is the largest and most populated and was a popular summer destination in the late 19th century, when it was known as the Coney Island of Maine. Crushing Islands is a privately owned island with roughly only 45 families living there seasonally.

We waited for the ramp to empty out from all the other boats wanting in the bay, on this calm and warm day. There was a sense of confusion by some of the people at the dock. We must have looked quite a unusual site. They stared at the Duck bus climbing up the ramp and out of the water on its own wheels. We were then in South Portland.

It is the fourth largest city in Maine. It has no connection to Portland but by the similarity in name. During WWII, South Portland Shipbuilding Corp built more than 10 percent of all the Liberty ships constructed during the war years.  

Over the last few decades, South Portland has become one of the largest retail regions in Maine with a large population of businesses and private homes. We took the Casco Bay draw Bridge back to Portland and the waterfront on Commerce Street.  Just like earlier ships, we docked at the old moors on Commerce Street on this trip back in time. It reminded me of what the original founders might have experienced on their landing from a tour around the bay.  Stepping back on the earth once again from our amphibious craft,  the time traveling trip was now at an end and we were in Portland, Maine 2013 once again.

 Happy travels, George (plus Peggy, Coco)



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