The Big History Of A Small City In Downeast Maine

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When you visit the islands that comprise Eastport, the easternmost point of the mainland United States, you’re setting foot on a place rich in history – its first European settlement, in fact, even predates Jamestown by 3 years.

The indigenous Passamaquoddy tribe have called the area home for at least 10,000 years, and some archaeologists peg the figure at closer to 20,000 years. Europeans first showed up on these shores in the person of French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who in 1604 founded St. Croix Island settlement of Acadia. Today, the site sits near Calais.

Those early explorers did not have an easy time. Champlain’s group had to endure a hard winter with no fresh water and diminishing supplies. Reports indicate 40 percent of the men died of scurvy. The survivors moved on to Port Royal, in present-day Nova Scotia.

The area was much explored by traders and fisherman throughout the rest of the 1600s and much of the 1700s, but the next major settlement to be founded in the area was set on Moose Island in 1772 by James Cochrane of Newburyport, Massachusetts. It was, naturally, a fishing port, with residents following Cochrane from Newburyport and relocating from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The settlement thrived over the next quarter of a century. On February 24, 1798, the Massachusetts General Court incorporated Eastport, as a town, from Plantation Number 8 PS, the name naturally deriving from the fact that Eastport was the U.S.’ easternmost point. It wasn’t until June 21, 1811, that the town of Lubec on the mainland was set aside as its own municipality.

The early 1800s were quite a time for the young city. From 1807 to 1809, the area was the site of extensive smuggling, a direct result of President Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act. That prompted the U.S. to build Fort Sullivan atop a hill in 1809 – which the British then took on July 11, 1814, during the War of 1812 by a fleet under the command of Sir Thomas Hardy.

After the war, England wanted to keep control of the island, asserting that it was on their side of the international border established in 1783. That didn’t last long, as control of the island was returned to the United States in 1818. Still, border disputes between the U.S. and Canada continued to plague the area, until finally, in 1842, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty settled the issue.

Things finally settled down for the area. Farms grew that produced hay and potatoes. But it was the sea that was the lifeblood of Eastport. The town’s large harbor features tides of about 25 feet – and most importantly for the town, it remained ice-free all year. Sardine fishing became a huge industry with the development of canning factories; by 1886, no fewer than 13 factories dotted the landscape, each operating long hours during the fishing season, and in total about 5,000 cases were produced every week.

The town grew so much, in fact, that it was incorporated as a city on March 18, 1893.

The turn of the century and the first part of the 1900s would not prove kind to Eastport. The sardine industry declined, and many were forced to move away. It became so bad that the city went bankrupt in 1937. Yet Eastport survived – there were always more fish to be caught, and it still had that ice-free harbor. In 1976, the Groundhog Day Gale did massive damage to the waterfront – and still the city survived, thanks not only to fishing, but to a new industry that has become a strong pillar of the area: tourism.

Today, Eastport, like many areas on the east coast of the U.S., is as much about tourism as it is anything else, including fishing. July 4 celebrations draw thousands – and a U.S. Navy vessel – every year. There’s also the annual Maine Salmon Festival every September, and numerous other events throughout the year.

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