When our small city turns into a four-day party

Though Eastport was settled relatively late – that is, toward the end of the Revolutionary War – it was instilled with a Colonial flavor by prominent early residents who were resolute veterans.

A continuing spirit of Tea Party and Minutemen makes Independence Day in New England feel different than those elsewhere. It’s not just the place of the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. It’s the region where thickheaded Yankees have always doodled.

Quite simply, history is palpably alive everywhere across New England.

Boston, of course, is the epicenter, but across the six most northeasterly states, local observations uphold distinctive traditions. Think of musketeers firing a round ever so often along the town parade route, along with fifes and drums.

As an independently enterprising oceanside village, Eastport soon had a reputation as a hive of privateering – that is, legalized piracy – and not-so-legal smuggling. That independent streak gets its own attention in the city’s annual Pirate Festival a week after Labor Day.

How joyous!

Unlike much of America, the city had frontline experience of the War of 1812. Fort Sullivan atop the bluffs surrendered to the British Navy in 1814, and Eastport then remained under the royal thumb until 1818.

Two years after its reunification with the United States, Maine became liberated from Massachusetts for the first time since 1653 and began to breathe into its own unique character.

For its part, Eastport rocketed as a center of shipping, shipbuilding, fishing, and sardine canning before the big decline of the 1900s set in.

Today, the tiny city’s locals remember a vibrant past and close-knit community, one that spanned the shorelines on both the American and Canadian sides of the watery border.

Is a renaissance on the horizon? There are signs for hope.

All of these strands infuse the holiday here.

Here’s a taste of last year’s pyrotechnics fired off from the fish pier downtown.
Yes, fireworks can be visually composed, leading your eyes around the sky.

The national holiday also marks the opening of New England’s short summer season. After a cold, dark, long winter, Eastport’s small year-’round populace can actually come out into the open air for long times together. The ocean and lakes are finally warming, to the extent that they do, and that attracts vacationers to join in.

After months when only a stray New Hampshire or Massachusetts auto plate is seen around here, I’ve now seen those of every state but Alabama, Hawaii, and North Dakota (not all at the same time), some seeming rather exotic.

And the Fourth includes the city’s Old Home Week, with high school reunions and the return of many summer residents.

A lot happens over a four-day span. There’s a doll carriage and wagon parade. A torchlight parade. Car shows, bike races, water games, pet show, rubber ducky race, festive all-you-can-eat blueberry pancake breakfast, free outdoor movie, contests, live music, and a street dance, all with a small-town flavor.

A traditional visit by a large U.S. Navy vessel failed to materialize, a consequence of being on Ukraine-related alert. Three different ships had expressed interest in landing at the Breakwater before the turn in world events.

While fireworks were displayed off over the harbor on the Fourth, America’s Independence Day (the beautifully designed and executed big show fired from the town’s Fish Pier was followed by a joyously rowdy encore from a diner’s smaller private pier), the companion July 1 presentation for Canada Day, in honor of our neighbors in New Brunswick, was still a victim of Covid cutbacks. Some residents, though, could view shows happening on Deer Island across the water.

Seems ever so fitting to shoot the works twice, considering Eastport’s dual connections.

it really does feel like a party’s come to town.

How do you celebrate the Fourth?

Top zoos in North America

Yeah, yeah, I know the concerns about holding animals in captivity. But where else are kids going to learn about exotic fellow creatures? TV? They can’t smell them there. The circus? Few of us even live on farms anymore, and those dogs I see walked up and down the street are hardly exemplary of the animal kingdom. Frankly, they’re more spoiled than most children.

But I digress. Out of view, the best zoos are also places of serious research and attempts to keep gene pools alive.

Here are some of the best in North America:

  1. San Diego. It pioneered the open-air, cageless exhibits, for one thing, and is in a beautiful park, for another. So I’ve heard.
  2. St. Louis. More than 600 species on 90 acres, and you can get around via a mini-railroad.
  3. Omaha. Some of us remember it from a television series.
  4. Cincinnati. Includes a botanical garden, and for years it was also home to the summer opera, the nation’s second-oldest. Now that was an interesting mix.
  5. Bronx. It was the first with a zoo animal hospital and full-time veterinarian staff.
  6. Toronto. Features seven distinct zoogeographic regions – animals and relevant plants and climate displayed together.
  7. Smithsonian, Washington, D.C. One of the most diverse, and admission is free.
  8. Los Angeles. Founded in 1966, it’s one of the newer zoos in America and has zoomed in status.
  9. Columbus. Includes a notable aquarium, a manatee rescue and rehabilitation program, and Polar Frontier.
  10. Philadelphia. Also noted for its success with hard-to-breed-in-captivity species.

Honorable mentions to Miami, Fort Worth, Seattle, Brookfield and Lincoln Park in Chicago, Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida, Houston, and Denver.


Up from the ashes of 1886, our downtown

Devastating downtown fires were a big hazard for 19th century American cities, large and small, from New York, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis down to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Portland and Bangor, Maine, closer to home. (For the record, San Francisco actually suffered more from the fires than from the 1908 earthquake just before them.) It’s a long list, actually, and some center cities were leveled by flames and intense heat more than once.

Eastport was one of them, with great fires in 1839, 1864, and 1886 – the last one barely missing our house but leaving the rafters spookily charred.

That blaze, in October, started in one of the sardine factories on the waterfront and spread quickly, consuming almost every building along the harbor.

An antique store window is fun to browse, even when the shop’s closed.

Remarkably, the city rebounded quickly, with most of the Water Street buildings completed and reopened within the next year or two – many of them designed by the same architect and resulting in a visual unity for the five-block stretch.

Today the entire downtown district is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Still, here’s what we have. Put another way, every city needs a center, and a shopping mall just ain’t the answer.

The big challenge, of course, is finding the right mix of business and residence to keep it vibrant. Eastport’s off-season populace falls short of what’s needed but just may be changing in the aftermath of Covid-19.
We have art galleries, thank you.

A downtown is more than a place to shop, for one thing, though that helps. It should be pedestrian friendly, with places to stop and sit and meet folks and chat or maybe just stroll afterhours. Cafes, restaurants, and pubs help, too. A post office and banks as well. Throw in a few theaters, nightspots, galleries, churches. Then offices, hair stylists and barbers, upstairs residences, even a hotel or more.

A tucked-in amphitheater overlooking the harbor actually has concerts in the summer. It also provides one more place to simply sit and relax.
The street’s not one-way but should be, if we could only conveniently connect it as an easy round-trip..

Tell us something that makes your community special. Where would you take us if we visit?

Purely for amusement, of course

As a friend tells it, she and a cousin were visiting a carnival in another town and, on a whim, decided to have a palm reading done at a fortuneteller’s booth.

Once they were under way, the psychic looked puzzled. “I have to ask,” she said, hesitantly. “Are you a prostitute?”

Initial shock passing, came the reply, “No, why?”

“Because I see you surrounded by men.”

Ahh! Not so off the mark after all.

“I had to tell her I work at the pier and am surrounded by longshoremen.”

I’m filing this under Local Color.

When Irish lights are shining

Living in New England, I’ve gained a fondness for lighthouses, an appreciation that has been heightened by my relocation to Way DownEast Maine. This state alone has more than 60 still in working order.

My research regarding the towers and their beams has, however, had me admitting that the bulk of the world’s most glorious examples are to be found on the rugged Atlantic coastline of France. Some of them resemble small castles, and many are built in grand style, no expense spared.

The English, in contrast, appear stuffy and uninspired. (Sorry about the pun there.)

What I wasn’t expecting was the discovery that Ireland also has some stunning examples.

If I ever get to the Emerald Isle, they’ll be high on my list of sites to visit.

What’s on your travel bucket list?

A year of puffin-viewing tours to Machias Seal Island sells out in 45 minutes

The narrow, mile-wide island, claimed by both Canada and the U.S., is treasured by many birdwatchers for having the largest colony of nesting puffins along the Maine coast.

Trips to the island are limited, so much so that when online reservations for daily summer visits opened at 8 a.m. on January 10, all the tickets were booked in 45 minutes – at $180 a seat.

Sounds like a real bucket-list item, even if the boat sails from Cutler in my own Sunrise County.

Be warned, too, that the weather can be iffy, meaning that reservation might be cancelled on short notice.

Should I start considering a trip to Newfoundland if I really want to see any of the distinctive birds?

The cruise ships are coming!

As our City in the Bay has been redefining itself, in part thanks to its lively arts scene and surrounding natural wonder, tourism has been ticking up, even in the face of Covid-19.

Part of Eastport’s appeal is the deepest natural harbor in the continental U.S., a port that at one time, back when there was a lot of smuggling, was the second-busiest in the nation – something a shift in federal tax laws and heightened enforcement soon curbed.

Still, we have a long history of steamship travel, right up to the auto age.

And now, this year, hooray, we’re even anticipating the return of passenger vessels, albeit of the increasingly popular “small” ship variety rather than the floating cities that can overrun a seaport.

First, the 210-passenger, 325-foot Pearl Mist is scheduled for five visits, most of them 3½ hours ashore, as part of a seven-night round-trip out of Portland. Other stops on its Fundy Bay circuit include Rockland and Bar Harbor in Maine, and St. Andrews, St. John, and Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick. Fares run from about $4,000 and up.

Second, in September we host the innovative 530-passenger, 459-foot Roald Amundsen expedition ship on a 10-hour stopover. Originally, this was to be part of an adventurous 44-day navigation across the Arctic Ocean in a Northwest Passage venture from Vancouver, British Columbia, an ultimate bucket-list voyage. But the fares, starting around $57,000, may have been too pricy for the Covid-antsy market, causing it to be broken up into segments – the first ending at Nome, Alaska, and the second continuing from there on to Greenland and ending at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Eastport is now tucked in as the cherry in a shorter, more affordable, New England dessert.

More exciting is the news that the Amundsen is now scheduled to return next year as part of an even more audacious 94-day cruise – a Pole-to-Pole adventure that will originate in Vancouver, British Columbia, and traverse the Northwest passage before coming to Eastport and then continue on to equatorial warmth, the Panama Canal, the Pacific coast of South America, and finally shore visits on Antarctica. Think of going from icy summer to the edge of autumn in New England to the tropics and on to spring while exploring three continents. The lowest fares figure out around $600 a day.

And little Eastport will be part of that.

In Maine, the bulk of the cruise action hits Bar Harbor, at the edge of popular Acadia National Park, where frequently two ships a day debark during the summer season, and in Portland, which gets especially busy during the fall foliage season.

We’re really not set up for the mega-cruise vessels that have dominated the industry. Let’s see how our emerging niche shapes up.


Heavenly rest? The Pepsi sign always raises a chuckle

The Cloud 9 Motel sign stands out along State Route 9. Initially, the name seemed to reflect some misplaced hip ’60s jargon. What we encounter is far from a plush, consummate destination. Eventually, I connected the “9” to the highway. Ha-ha.
As you can see, there’s no motel, just a sand pit, on Maine Route 9 – the Airline Highway – four miles west of Wesley.
A postcard shows the place in its prime in the ’70s. It had eight heated motel units and sold gasoline, groceries, beer to take out, and light lunches in what it touted as the heart of some of the finest hunting and fishing in Maine. Many of the sportsmen returned annually, but times change. The buildings came down in 2015.

The road was named before there were even airplanes

Except for a highway way up north, there are only two east-west routes across sprawling Washington County, either one requiring an hour-and-a-half drive from Eastport to the county line and the rest of the nation (and that’s including a shortcut, if you can find it).

One is U.S. 1, which more or less follows the coastline – or the Bold Coast, as it’s also designated. It passes through some lovely seaport towns and includes spectacular views of Mount Desert Island and its Acadia National Park as well as the northern reaches of Penobscot Bay.

The other is more direct. State Route 9, or Airline Highway, stretches 90 miles from Bangor to the Canadian border at Calais. Much of it passes through uninhabited townships of scraggly forest and swamp or along ridges with blueberry barrens and views that stretch for miles. It carries major truck traffic to and from New Brunswick.

There aren’t many services along the way. This is the most prominent.

But Airline? For a road?

The name, it turns out, comes from the Air Line Stagecoach company, which began using the oxcart trail in 1857. At the time, “air line” was a term for the straightest line between two points – or, in another common phrase, “as the crow flies.”

Its backers hoped to encourage settlement and economic development along the route, but the land was too rocky for commercial farming and the blackflies and mosquitoes could make even summer miserable. Later, mechanization reduced employment in the logging industry, depleting what little population there was.

Today, some stretches look like this. This is eight miles without any utility lines. 

Nasty Little Falls

That’s how the Native name Machias translates.

The bridge carries busy U.S. 1 traffic that’s oblivious to the landmark below.
The water charges down in two parallel sets of falls that reunite in the tide below.
You wouldn’t want to go over these in a canoe.

The tranquil city of Machias at the falls is the Washington County seat.