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1870-1920 The End of the Ocean Highway

Republican leaders skillfully combined the rhetoric of free-soil populism and Whig industrial enthusiasm to win over rural constituencies to the notion that industrial development benefited everyone.

"How many rusticator folks you got up to your place this season, Capt'n?" might be the banter. "Wal, we've got half a dozen, all told, jest now. I kind of hat to have them-kind round under foot, summertimes, but we make out to get a dollar out of 'em some ways or another."

It was evident, the Portland Board of Trade noted, that Maine's prosperity depended "in a large measure upon ... these little centres of industry and trade which supply to such a large degree the commercial advancement of the leading cities of our State."

Chamberlain Reflects on Maine's Economy

In the second half of the century Maine's traditional industries showed little of the vigor they displayed earlier. The lumber, leather, granite, ice, slate, fish, and lime industries still supported more than 40 percent of Maine's working population at the end of the century, but these industries were technologically stagnant and plagued with seasonal layoffs and declining markets. The net value of Maine's products was falling when compared to that of other states.

This trend concerned Maine's political and business leaders. In one of the most thoughtful reflections on Maine's economy in the 19th century, former governor Joshua L. Chamberlain delivered a lengthy speech on "Maine's Place in History" at the nation's centennial celebration in Philadelphia in 1876.

As befitting the occasion, he praised his fellow Mainers for their contribution to history, but he was driven by circumstances to address Maine's most compelling question: why had its place in this national pageant become, as he put it, so obscure? There was no obvious reason why the meager rivers of southern New England were taxed to their fullest for industrial development, while Maine's bounding waters continued to run unfettered to the sea.

Maine people were acknowledged for their thrift and ingenuity, but still, after 200 years of settlement, "the fact cannot be suppressed, that (Maine) is popularly spoken of as if she were a neighbor to the western savage." Maine, it seemed, had become "old and exhausted," even before its true wealth had been tapped.

The failure to realize Maine's natural potential was usually ascribed to its unfortunate reputation for harsh climate, its eastward-thrusting frontier, or its oppression at the hands of Boston merchants. Discounting these answers, Chamberlain traced Maine's decline to the manner in which its people used their natural bounty.

For two centuries they had been "stripping her forests and murdering her land; shipping away the fertility of her soil ... snatching at the near advantage, and heeding not what was to come." Shipping off their natural resources without transforming them into finished products, they sold their birthright merely to enrich others. A state that relied solely on the sale of its natural materials, Chamberlain cautioned, "will find that when they are gone, she is gone."

Chamberlain's speech, widely reported and sold in bound text, raised questions that were on many minds. Like others of his generation, he advocated a new economy that would extend the reach of human labor through technology and add to the value of its natural resources.

The state boasted more than 1,600 lakes above 600 feet in elevation, and this immense kinetic force was the key to fashioning a new industrial landscape. Chamberlain acknowledged the many small industries that used these water powers, but he envisioned a more progressive force unleashed by combining their energies to power giant factories and mills.

Maine would continue to nourish its roots in the land, not by stripping its resources and sending them away, but by imposing a new industrial regime on the rivers and forest of Maine.

These concerns translated into policies designed to make Maine resources more attractive to financing sources. The legislature loosened its regulations for incorporating banks, railroads, insurance companies, and industrial facilities, offered exclusive rights for development, provided tax rebates and land grants, sold off the remaining public lands, granted flowage rights and other forms of access to natural resources, and lowered tax rates on industrial property.

Republican leaders skillfully combined the rhetoric of free-soil populism and Whig industrial enthusiasm to win over rural constituencies to the notion that industrial development benefited everyone.

"No reasonable opportunities should be neglected to direct the attention of our own citizens and those from abroad, to the favorable and extraordinary advantages found here, for the investment of capital," Governor Henry B. Cleaves announced in 1898. The Portland Board of Trade proposed that Maine "make every concession possible to encourage and promote the manufacturers that we have here, with the same liberal hand that other states so freely offer."

This policy carried the seeds of conflict, however. As Chamberlain noted, these resources sustained a broad spectrum of economic activity. Maine's big manufacturers produced cotton cloth, lumber, paper, and ships. Still, about half the total value of Maine products came from small industrial concerns producing woolen textiles, canned goods, milled flour, foundry products, leather, and printed material – the other pole in what industrial historian Paul Rivard called Maine's "dual economy."

While Maine's promoters embraced a more imperial vision, rural Mainers clung to a society of small shops and mills set in a landscape of farms and villages.

Transformations in Maritime Industries

The decades after the Civil War saw the elaboration of this dual economy along the coast. The Panic of 1857, the Confederate raiders, and soaring insurance rates set American shipping on a downward trend.

At mid century Britain stepped up its production of iron and steel steamships that were larger, safer, more comfortable, longer lasting, and more predictable in their arrival and departure schedules than wooden ships. Maine shipyards had neither the capital nor the skills to compete as steel ship producers. In addition, America's expanding railroad networks shifted trade away from sea lanes. With a vast interior blessed with raw materials and growing cities, America turned its back on the Atlantic basin and its ocean highway.

Still, Maine postponed the inevitable by seeking markets unavailable to steamships. Sailing ships remained competitive in the trans-Pacific trades where coal depots to power the steam vessels were rare, and Maine yards responded by producing the Down-Easter, a huge square-rigged vessel of tremendous strength and speed built to carry grain from Australia and California along with other bulky, low-value items like cotton, iron, and guano.

Designed and built exclusively in Maine, the Down-Easter combined speed, cargo capacity, and strength – a combination necessary to match the brutal weather off Cape Horn with a shifting cargo of wheat.

During the Civil War, northern shippers abandoned transatlantic voyages in order to carry goods along the coast and into Canada. Because these voyages required a great deal of maneuverability, Maine produced gigantic schooners – vessels rigged fore-and-aft for steering into the wind.

At a time when British steel ships were out-competing the rest of the world, Maine's shipbuilding families carried the craft of wooden shipbuilding to its apogee.

The decades after the Civil War brought declines in the deep-sea fishery as well. The Civil War ended shipments of Maine fish to southern plantations, and after the war new fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes edged Maine dealers out of southern and middle-western markets.

The trend toward fresh, as opposed to salt or pickled fish disadvantaged isolated Maine ports, and Canadian fish dealers sold salt fish in Maine's West Indies markets. Finally, pork and beef from the Chicago stockyards replaced fish as America's main source of protein.

While markets weakened, insurance costs for fishing vessels increased, as did costs for salt, hemp, iron, and foodstuffs. These higher costs gave wholesale fish dealers an opportunity to gain control over the industry. New regulations resulted in crew-members who once had been co-investors becoming wage earners as new equipment led to bigger catches and depleted fish stocks.

The lobster fishery began in the 1820s. Demand increased in the 1870s with canned seafood and in 1875 fish dealers experimented with holding live lobsters in fenced-in coves to await good prices. Lobster pounds were soon common along the coast and improved the marketing of fresh lobsters.

Dealers also learned to ship their product live in barrels of ice and seaweed as far west as the Mississippi River, and a burgeoning coastal tourist industry added another inducement to the growing fishery. Due to conservation laws, competition from Canada, and the loss of markets for this luxury, demand declined during the Great Depression of the 1930s

Soft-shelled clams, sold for bait or canned for chowder, and weir fishing for herring, which was processed in large canneries in eastern Maine and sold as sardines, provided other shore-based activities. Cod, hake, scallops, salmon, shad, alewives, striped bass, smelt, eels, tomcod, and sturgeon also eased the burden of declining markets for Maine's staple salt cod.

Seasons of Work

Each of these fisheries was seasonal, and none provided a year-round source of income. The yearly round of fishing, farming, woodcutting, and trading followed the natural cadences of season, tide, weather, fish migration, and growing season.

The advantage of this way of life was the independence it brought. Villagers grew their own food, built their own homes, harvested their own firewood, fashioned their own tools, and built their own boats. Independence was not a genetic characteristic of the Downeast Yankee but part of a broader pattern of responses to environmental and economic conditions characteristic of the North Atlantic rim from Maine and the Maritimes to Scandinavia.

These work patterns also included "salt-water" farming. For these fisher-farmers, the coast offered a longer growing season and plenty of clamshells for lime, seaweed for mulch, and salt grass for fodder, and the uplands produced hay in great quantities.

Islands were ideal for sheep pastures, being safe from dog and wolf predation and requiring no fencing. Since the snow was light and the dense dwarf evergreen provided shelter and browse, sheep needed no care during winter.

But coastal summers also brought weeklong fogs, and the soils were thin, stony, and acidic. Thus villagers pursued farming indifferently, and on a "good bitin' day," as William Bishop put it, they were "apt to put to sea in hot haste, leaving work on shore to the women and boys."

Life on the long peninsulas and islands was isolated and inward looking, but after mid-century a sprinkling of "summer people" added a new cultural element. Natives welcomed these folks "from away" with tolerant disdain: "how many rusticator folks you got up to your place this season, Capt'n?" might be the banter. "Wal, we've got half a dozen, all told, jest now. I kind of hat to have them-kind round under foot, summertimes, but we make out to get a dollar out of 'em some ways or another."

In fact, the rusticator's dollar went far. It bought up unused land, purchased building materials and relics of the old China trade, built town wharfs, clubhouses, chapels, stables, libraries, schoolhouses, and roads; and kept blacksmiths, gardeners, glaziers, and carpenters in business.

Nevertheless, when marine engines shortened the haul to the offshore fishing grounds in the 1890s, year-round residents began leaving the islands and peninsulas seeking better schools and doctors and more opportunities for work.

Coastal life settled into an economic pattern still evident today: opportunistic, multi-occupational fisher-farmers working seasonal odd-jobs; a scattering of shops, stores, and fish-processing factories; a vigorous trade in domestic handicrafts; and a collection of "summer colonies" and hotels that helped sustain this local activity.

Paper Empires

Like offshore fishing, lumbering faced depleted resources, competition from other regions and a reduced market in the second half of the century. As early as the 1870s, companies were using spruce as opposed to pine to keep the sawmills running, even though this species competed poorly in metropolitan lumber markets.

As logging operations moved into the upper watersheds, log-driving became expensive, dangerous, and indeed at times desperate. Operators were also moving back away from the rivers, necessitating longer hauling roads.

In 1899-1900, Alvin Lombard of Waterville invented a lag-track, steam-powered log-hauler – precursor to the modern tank tread – that helped lower these hauling costs, but by this time the pineries of the Lakes States were out-selling Maine in its traditional East-Coast markets, and builders were shifting to materials like brick, cement, and steel.

Lumber producers everywhere faced declining markets. Maine lumber production peaked in 1909 and again in 1915 then decreased steadily.

As lumber operations tapered off, the forests returned a second growth of spruce and fir, providing a magnificent field of endeavor for a new wood-products industry requiring these very species.

By the early 1880s paper manufacturers had exhausted the country's supply of rags as a source of pulped fiber, and after a brief experiment with linen wrappings from imported Egyptian mummies, they began experimenting with wood, settling on spruce because of its long fiber and easy separation.

Between 1880 and 1900 some 40 mills were built in Maine to take advantage of this resource, sustaining one of the most active periods of industrial expansion in Maine's history. This growth was all the more spectacular because the industry moved its processing operation to the source of supply, building new industrial centers in small towns and wilderness regions in the upper Androscoggin, Kennebec, and Penobscot river basins.

Taking control of river development, timberlands, and labor supplies in these underdeveloped regions, paper production demonstrated the power of monopoly capital in Maine's new economy, creating "magic cities" like Rumford, Millinocket, Berlin Mills on the upper Androscoggin, Sprague's Falls on the St. Croix, and Westbrook near Portland.

Pulpwood converged on these mill towns from the upper rivers, the woods roads, and the Bangor and Aroostook and Maine Central rail sidings. These towns displayed the characteristics of frontier America, but they were also thoroughly modern in the exercise of corporate power, the ethnic tensions, the rootlessness, and the scale of economic activity.

From these small industrial centers paper producers extended their influence out over the rivers, forests, and labor systems beyond the mills, epitomizing Joshua Chamberlain's admonition to harness Maine's vast natural resources to modern science, big capital, and outside entrepreneurial energy.

These changes were both awesome and unsettling. Small-town life in Maine had never been completely homogeneous, but it was characterized by what historian Robert Wiebe called "clusters of likemindedness" – agreed-upon notions of family relations, religious habits, and personal practices. Maine's new industrial developments loosened these cultural moorings.

Fears of modernity were expressed in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most dramatic example was the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in Maine between 1921 and 1928. Organized in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1915, the national organization spread rapidly after 1920 by advocating white supremacy and Americanism.

After 1921 local Klans appeared in places like Brewer, Lincoln, Randolph, Dexter, Milo, Bangor, Gardiner, and Portland. The organization grew under the charismatic leadership of F. Eugene Farnsworth, who toured Maine appealing for better government and stronger adherence to patriotism, Protestant values, white supremacy, the Bible, and Holy Scripture.

These anxieties were expressed in a more positive way in the growing public concern over the paper industry's effect on the forest. Market considerations had dictated a certain minimum size log for crews cutting for lumber production, given the costs of moving these logs to downriver mills, but pulpwood was marketable in almost any size. This brought fears that Maine would be stripped of its forest cover.

Mill owners argued that their huge investments in mills, dams, and infrastructure precluded reckless use of the wood supply: "we would be veritable fools if we went to work and destroyed the very fountain-head of our industry," paper mill magnate Hugh J. Chisholm explained, but fears of "cut and run" forestry persisted in the Maine press and the state legislature.

The tourist-oriented Portland Board of Trade Journal noted that it normally welcomed new industries into the state, "excepting in our heart pulp companies, for while recognizing fully the amount of money they bring ... we know also the terrible destruction [they] ... mean to our beautiful forests that now make Maine the playground of the nation."

Farmers supported conservation because they thought clear-cutting would bring droughts, since trees added moisture to the air and electrified the clouds. Tourist hotel and camp owners depended on forested vistas and natural habitat for hunting, while textile mill owners worried that heavy cutting in the upper watersheds would affect the stream-flow in the rivers that powered their turbines.

In the face of these powerful constituencies, Great Northern and International Paper Company both pledged to conserve spruce below nine inches in diameter and began pushing for conservation measures of their own: efforts to control forest fires.

In 1891 Maine became one of the first states in the nation to appoint a Forest Commissioner to promote fire safety, build fire towers, and recruit firefighters, and in 1909 Maine once again led the nation in creating a special tax on forest lands that was dedicated to preventing forest fires. The Maine Forestry District, created to administer this tax, brought down the incidence of forest fires dramatically and served as a model for similar agencies across the country.


While paper production epitomized Maine's entrée into the era of monopoly capitalism, Maine's tourist industry was a mix of large and small enterprise. Touring was an old tradition in New England, often a beginning point for the European "Grand Tour" of North America extending west to Niagara Falls. At a time when crowding and sanitation problems in cities encouraged the search for respite during the torrid summer months, rail and steamship lines linked Maine to the great cities of the East.

Tourism began in southern coastal Maine among farm families who took in summer boarders, or "rusticators" from the city. While the experience did not always live up to the expectations of urbanites unfamiliar with early-morning rising, odors from the pig-pen, and the monotony of country table-fare, Maine offered pure air, rustic scenery, and peace and quiet as compensation. And so, as one rusticator put it, patrons made the best of their exile.

In 1837 Saco farmer Eben Staples enlarged his oceanfront house to accommodate summer boarders attracted to the broad sand beaches stretching between the Saco and Scarboro rivers, and in the 1850s he again enlarged his hotel –– reputedly the first "tourist" destination in Maine –– and renamed it the Old Orchard House.

By 1880 Old Orchard Beach, as this section of Saco was called, sported several hotels, each of magnificent proportions with a broad verandah overlooking the sea. Accessible by steamship and the Boston and Maine Railroad, Old Orchard became a kind of Vanity Fair offering camp-meeting facilities for religious revivals, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Indians selling baskets and other curios, a miniature railroad to carry tourists to the hotels, a pier, an observation tower, and many other amusements.

As with Maine tourism generally, the town capitalized on its reputation for health – pure salt air, bracing ocean waters, and a tradition of "taking the waters" on St. John the Baptist Day, June 24, as a ritual of purification –– to appeal to urbanites troubled by sanitation problems in their city environments.

Tourism brought a new orientation to Maine state government. In the 1870s the Maine Commissioner of Fisheries, created in 1867, shifted its focus from protecting commercial river fisheries to stocking inland game fish like landlocked salmon and trout. Game conservation began at about the same time, although this proved too late to save Maine's migratory caribou herds, which disappeared about 1907.

As automobile tourists replaced the more sedentary grand hotel visitors, Maine embarked on a "Good Roads" program, establishing a state highway commission in 1905. The Maine Bureau of Information, funded principally by the state's hotel proprietors, was replaced by the Maine Publicity Bureau in 1922 and began receiving limited state funding a few years later.

Maine's Small Industries

Alongside large-scale manufacturers of paper, shoes, textiles, and granite, Maine produced a dizzying array of smaller items that sustained a significant portion of its economy. At the turn of the century Maine's landscape was dotted with small sawmills, furniture factories, woolen mills, stone cutting sheds, lime kilns, excelsior mills, peg and shank mills, slate sheds, wood novelty mills, canneries, tanneries, spool and bobbin mills, machine shops, toothpick factories, shingle mills, boat shops, and veneer mills – an economy still vibrant despite the forces that drew Maine's natural and human energies to industrial towns like Rumford, Lewiston, and Millinocket.

In 1901 alone, Somerset County in northern Maine gained two small sawmills, two pulp mills, a paper mill, a furniture factory, a wood novelty mill, a clothing factory, a cannery, a shovel handle factory, and two birch spool and bobbin mills.

The upland town of Dover-Foxcroft contained a small woolen mill, a furniture manufacturer, a butter factory serving nearby summer resorts, and a carriage and sleigh shop, along with several clothing manufacturers, brick yards, blacksmith shops, dye works, foundries, machine shops, and lumber, shingle, novelty, and grist mills.

It was evident, the Portland Board of Trade noted, that Maine's prosperity depended "in a large measure upon ... these little centres of industry and trade which supply to such a large degree the commercial advancement of the leading cities of our State."

Wood novelty shops were typical of these small rural industries. They stayed in business by using cheap local materials – often discards from a nearby lumber mill – to make a broad array of small products like toothpicks, checkers, dice or domino boxes, backgammon boards, wooden bicycle rims, tables, desks, sleds, swings, toys, or Christmas ornaments.

Between 20 and 40 such mills dotted the upland landscape, consuming in the aggregate enormous quantities of wood. One manufacturer made 50 different novelties, noting that it was "by such combinations that large profits are made."

Survival in these small industries depended on access to cheap local materials, a low overhead investment in light machinery, flexibility, and an adaptive ingenuity – in short, the capacity for quick retooling to meet the shifting needs and fashions of the rapidly evolving 20th-century market.

This small-scale rural economy was both traditional and modern, representing the fragments and shards of Maine's traditional resource-based industries and a local orientation in supplies, knowledge, and labor. But as railroads snaked their way into these interior towns, these small manufacturers responded readily to national markets.

Farms, too, existed in a world between the new and the old. Between 1870 and 1920 the number of Maine farms dropped from 60,000 to 40,000, but families on more than half those remaining grew their own food, cut their own wood, and practiced diversified farming, as they had since colonial times. Farms gradually focused their activities on commercial crops, but remained small, diversified, and flexible.

Here too, rural Maine met the challenge of modernity by spreading its activities laterally along the changing loci of opportunity. The characteristics that defined early 19th-century rural society – wide distribution of property, diversified, semi-subsistence agriculture, small-scale manufacturing, and local exchange of goods and services – were still powerful cultural determinants at the end of the century.

In an age of shifting markets and shifting values – new forms of spending and leisure, installment buying, mass consumption – Maine's "island communities," each with its own idioms and particularized culture – were still intact. There was, in fact, considerable substance to Maine's image as a "state of villages and small cities, largely aloof from the mighty currents of industrial and urban life, largely homogeneous, traditionally Republican, and devoted to the immortal principle of the 'Maine Law [temperance],'" as a New York Times correspondent phrased it.

These farms and small industries faced enormous pressures at the end of the century. Many shut down when markets dried up or the family patriarch retired.

There were, as Mark Walker illustrates in his reminiscences about "growing up poor in the Kennebec Valley," examples of communities wholly decimated by the loss of two or three farms or small manufacturers.

"The transformation of New Portland from a thriving commercial center to a stagnant backwater was symptomatic of the sickness of the whole region," he wrote of his boyhood in the 1920s, when some 40,000 men and women with skills, judgment, and a willingness to work left the countryside for better opportunities elsewhere.

Stretched between the old and the new, life was precarious indeed, but even under these enormous pressures, small towns were a vital force in Maine society.

Hydroelectric Power

This small-town economy intersected with Maine's monopolized economy in the development of the hydroelectric industry in the early decades of the 20th century.

Thomas Edison made electrical energy practical for industrial and home use in 1879. A year later, in 1880, a Maine woolen mill installed its first electric light.

This new source of energy quickly became a vital component of the pulp and paper industry, and as Maine people began to realize its full implications, hydro-power took on tremendous importance, promising a "wonderful transformation if electric power were harnessed to every industrial wheel in the state."

The hundreds of waterpower sites in upland Maine effectively placed a ceiling on development for areas without access to cheap coal for steam power. Hydroelectric power transmission promised to overcome these barriers.

A "great network of electric wires" would spread over the state, "tying together distant sections." It would light village streets, ease the burden of farm work, and power a system of interurban trolley cars to move people, products, and produce to the city.

But there was another vision of industrial growth in Maine, in which lines of energy moved in the opposite direction, drawing the energy from these scattered water powers into a single regional power grid and focusing this power on Maine's larger industrial cities.

Thus the question, as the Maine State Grange put it somewhat rhetorically, was "whether the development shall be in the interests of all the people, or whether the god-given bounty of [this] vast water power shall be monopolized and exploited by the big business interests."

This was indeed the question that dominated Maine politics through the early 20th century: would these small "electrics" serve small rural enterprises; or would they be combined to encourage larger, consolidated, and more competitive industries?

The initial phase of development seemed to suggest the former; by 1900 local energy producers powered a localized system of trolley lines extending from the Kennebec Valley to Boston. The power companies served local farm and manufacturing needs, but they were poorly suited for the age of monopoly.

As the capital requirements of these small concerns grew, larger companies like Cumberland County Power and Light, Bangor Hydro-Electric, Gould Electric, and Central Maine Power absorbed them, becoming larger and larger.

As CMP became larger, it positioned itself to build large dams and generate power for paper mills and many other industries – and challenged the Fernald Law that prohibited the export of hydroelectric power to other states. The law remained on the books, however, until 1950, a reflection of the image of Maine as a small-town society and the competing vision of modernity.

Modernity still challenges the values that Maine people hold dear – family, work, worship, leisure, and nature – and Maine people still struggle with choices like those they made in 1929, about what to preserve and what to leave behind as we move into a brave, new future.