Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Wildfires. For ages, the elemental forces of earth, wind, and fire have defined the Maine coast, but perhaps nowhere has the fourth element, water, had such a pervasive effect as on the Boothbay peninsula. From the yachty mooring field of Boothbay Harbor and the sprawling seaside estates of Boothbay to the four-centuries-old fishing fleet in Southport Island and the shipbuilding heritage of East Boothbay, water binds these diverse towns and villages together. It does so physically, of course, reaching its twelve-mile-long tentacles up both sides of this fractured rocky peninsula through the Sheepscot and Damariscotta rivers. But over the past four centuries water has seeped even deeper into the lives of the six thousand people who call the Boothbay region home.
Some communities, like Southport and East Boothbay, use the waters of the Boothbay region to sustain themselves through fishing and boatbuilding. In more tourist-dependent areas, such as Boothbay Harbor and Boothbay Center, the water serves as both playground and backdrop. Everywhere, however, the pull of the ocean is undeniable. “Each area has its own community of summer visitors,” explains vacation-rental coordinator Audrey Miller. “First-time visitors don’t really care where they go. But once they come here and get involved with the people in an area — it doesn’t matter where — they want to come back to that same spot. If someone stays at Southport one year, I can’t twist their arm to stay in Ocean Point.”
Residents feel that same connection to the ground or bay they know best. “There’s a definite pride in each community, especially for the people who grew up here,” says Jaimie Logan, executive director of the Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce. “They each have their own distinct character, and so visitors can experience all that without going too far.”
Water as Sustenance
By rights, any look at the Boothbay region ought to begin in Southport, for the simple fact that it was here that European settlers first began capitalizing on the natural resources they found in what would one day become the state of Maine. Even before fishermen started drying their nets and cod on nearby Monhegan, easily visible on a sunny day thirteen miles to the east, they dropped their anchors at tiny Damariscove Island. Beginning around 1614, that practically treeless rock served as the first fishing outpost in New England. “The activity on Damariscove, like Monhegan, was dictated by geography,” explains Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth. “You have this island out on the ocean, but it also has a natural harbor.”
Though Damariscove fishermen helped provide sustenance for the Pilgrims (of Plymouth Rock fame), they quickly discovered that local fishing stocks were unsustainable for short-term fishing. Around 1640 they moved their operations ashore, to Cape Newagen on the tip of Southport Island. Today the Southport fleet consists of some twenty-seven lobstermen and groundfishermen who land their catch at Robinson’s Wharf, just across the swing automobile bridge over Townsend Gut from the mainland.
Southport fishermen have found an increasingly receptive market for their catch among tourists who make the five-minute drive on Route 27 from Boothbay Harbor, as well as among the 684 islanders who call Southport home year-round. “We have a lot of regulars who come back year after year, but now a lot of the local Southport people and people from Boothbay Harbor are starting to come over, too,” says Sherri Thompson, the manager of Robinson’s Wharf. What began as a nondescript fish stall has evolved into a pub, full-service restaurant, gift shop, and seafood market. “We used to have the restaurant only open three or four months a year, but we stayed open eleven months last year,” Thompson states.
Perhaps even more important in terms of preserving the island’s cultural heritage is the fact that the skippers and crews who comprise the fishing fleet have remained the same over the years, she says. “We pretty much still have the same guys fishing for us, and their kids are following them and going fishing, and that’s pretty rare these days.”
Boothbay Harbor: Water as Entertainment
While the ocean-livelihood connection may be more apparent in Southport, it is certainly no less present in Boothbay Harbor, the area’s most famous resort community, incorporated in 1889, and today home to 2,334 souls. Here, however, the ocean has always served visitors primarily by providing a natural retreat from both the summertime heat inland and from increasingly busy workaday lives. Beginning at the end of the Civil War, well-to-do Mainers from places like Lewiston, Auburn, Gardiner, and Augusta began riding steamers down the Kennebec River and setting up summer “colonies” on the islands around Boothbay Harbor. “In Boothbay’s development, the major towns along the Kennebec play a big role, including Augusta, Hallowell, Gardiner, and to some degree Bath,” says historian Shettleworth. “You have many middle and upper-middle-class families who are working in those areas who establish seasonal homes in the summer resorts in the Boothbay region, so you’ll find a fair number of Gardiner people on Squirrel Island, and a lot of Augusta people on Capitol Island, named for the capitol building, of course.”
Though the first half of the twentieth century saw many of the grand hotels that were part of these summer resorts burn to the ground, the colonies themselves remain today and still bear many of the same family names they did in the 1890s, names like Dingley and Farnsworth. Even as the smaller islands have become more exclusive over the years, the mainland has become ever more accommodating to visitors, with motor lodges, B-and-Bs, and inns like the Greenleaf and Tugboat opening their doors to travelers arriving by station wagon or private yacht instead of steamer or railcar. These tourists discover a town that caters to their every consumable whim, whether it’s a lobster-trap coffee table, carefully distressed T-shirt, or a diamond-studded lapel pin. “People come to Boothbay for a lot of different reasons, but it is the midcoast’s amusement park in a lot of ways,” declares local businessman Joe Tassi.
For eight weeks the winding sidewalks of McKown, Wharf, and Oak streets become a sea of sunscreen-slathered families enjoying what one shop proudly declares “the ultimate summer tradition.” For some visitors, that tradition means knocking down candlepins at a dockside bowling alley. Others prefer to simply stand on the thousand-foot-long footbridge and gaze at the more than nine hundred sailboats and mega-yachts that bob at the moorings in this busy harbor. (“Princess Diana used to come up and stay on a yacht in the harbor,” Harbormaster Fran Hunt remarks.) Should vacationers wish to put their yacht fancy into action, few spots on the Maine coast are as well-suited to their needs as Boothbay Harbor, where more than twenty-five different tour boats offer everything from whale watches to Monhegan excursions to rides on traditional sloops and schooners.
One of those ships is the Lazy Jack, Tassi’s forty-eight-foot gaff-rigged schooner that departs Pier 1 four times a day on two-hour trips. Tassi, who lives in Camden but has run his business from Boothbay Harbor for the past six summers, says the local waters are some of the best in Maine. He says that on idyllic summer days when the sails are full and the ship is slipping past the lighthouses on Burnt and Ram islands, his guests often comment that Boothbay Harbor feels like a slice of heaven — just as people must have felt a century ago. “When it’s blowing fifteen knots from the south, and it’s seventy-eight degrees, people think we’ve found paradise,” Tassi says. “I enjoy sharing that fantasy with them.”
East Boothbay: Water as Workplace
Though technically just a village within the town of Boothbay, East Boothbay might as well be a different country from its bustling, tourist-driven neighbors to the west. Almost as soon as you take the left onto Route 96 at Boothbay’s sole traffic light, you feel the pace slowing. By the time you pass the tranquil Mill Pond and pull in sight of the looming metal sheds of Hodgdon Yachts and the Washburn & Doughty Associates’ shipyard, you understand that you’ve entered a place where boatbuilders rule. Since 1816, Hodgdon shipwrights have been building everything from traditional wooden pinky fishing schooners to minesweepers and, most recently, lavish sailing yachts that sell for $30 million or more. Next door, the welders at Washburn & Doughty have already recovered from a devastating fire two years ago and are once again at work creating some of the most sought-after commercial tugboats on the East Coast. Down the street, Frank Luke and his half-dozen employees are meticulously crafting mast steps, chainplates, and anchor chocks in the same spot where his father, Paul Luke, launched yachts that are still some of the most admired vessels afloat.
“In East Boothbay we’ve been fortunate that the next generation has continued the work of the previous generation,” declares Frank Luke. “My grandfather, then my father, and now me; Sonny Hodgdon and his son, Timmy Hodgdon — everyone has been able to keep their crews busy.” Luke, whose son Keith works part-time for the family business by maintaining its Web site and serving as a consultant, says he has stayed in business by transitioning away from boatbuilding and into hardware fabrication and heritage stove manufacturing. “My father was able to use the same guys for building the aluminum boats that he did building the wooden ones, since the nomenclature on the aluminum plates was the same as it was on wooden boats,” Luke says.
Andrew Wright, chief operating officer at Hodgdon Yachts, says the success of boatbuilding in East Boothbay is due to a partnership between talented craftsmen, businessmen, and local residents. “The town supported changes that Washburn & Doughty needed to do when it rebuilt its building after the fire, and the town manager actually drops by every once in a while just to see how we’re doing,” Wright says. This spring residents proved their commitment to these local companies when they endured weeks of dust and torn-up pavement as utility crews installed a new twelve-inch water main through town. The need for this upgrade was discovered when fire crews failed to obtain sufficient water pressure to fight the Washburn & Doughty fire in 2008.
Wright says that while the eighty men and women he employs at Hodgdon’s East Boothbay facility are one of the company’s assets, its location on the Boothbay peninsula is another. “Maine has a tremendous reputation for craftsmen and for building fine vessels, so there’s a certain mystique to building a yacht in Maine,” he says. “But when you market yourself, you market yourself as a fun place to build a yacht, and the Boothbay region is a nice place to stay. You can stay there and have a nice time and still visit the boat you’re building here.”
Boothbay: Water as Scenery
Driving into Boothbay from the north, you could be forgiven for wondering if you’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up someplace farther inland. You’ll find hardly a glimpse of the ocean from the highway, and the RV campgrounds, Railway Village, and shopping centers in Boothbay Center seem to serve as the town’s essence. You’d be dead wrong, of course, as tucked just yards away from Route 27 are scores of waterfront mansions, cottages, and cabins that have sprung up since this town was founded back in 1764. “Boothbay is more residential, less dense than the other communities,” says chamber director Logan. “But although people may identify themselves by where they live, they access the entire region for recreation, for shopping, for dining.”
Whether they are situated on quiet water bodies like the Cross and Back rivers or more turbulent ones like the mighty Sheepscot and Damariscotta, the homes in Boothbay boast some of the most precious settings in Maine, and summer visitors will do almost anything to get to them, according to Audrey Miller of Cottage Connection. Miller says 90 percent of her guests require their vacation rental be on the water. “The only way we can talk them out of it is if it’s crashing surf and they have children with them, so it might be dangerous,” she says. “But the properties in the woods? We can’t give them away, even if they’re multi-million-dollar mansions.”
Without a doubt, Boothbay’s newest attraction is the one that is on its way to putting this particular town, and the region as a whole, on the national stage. The Coastal Maine Botanical Garden’s elegantly landscaped 248 acres form the only botanical garden in Maine and the largest in New England. It features focused areas such as a garden of native Maine plants, meditation garden, a children’s garden (look for it to open next month), and a two-mile-long walking path that winds through it all. And as a backdrop — what else? — the changing, entrancing, almost turquoise waters of Knickerbocker Lakes and Campbell Creek.
“I think it’s going to start ranking up there with L.L. Bean in putting us on the map,” says Logan. “One of the values of the gardens is that it’s going to allow other attractions to prosper.”
A rising tide, one might say, that is raising all Boothbay ships.
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
June 1 – July 17. Robert McCloskey: From the Drawing Board to the Page explores how McCloskey transformed his initial sketches for beloved children’s books into the final paintings and drawings. Free. June 4 – June 6. The Ernie Egan Rhododendron Festival includes free presentations plus guided tours of the Giles Rhododendron and Perennial Garden in peak bloom. $5-$10. June 18 – June 20. The three-day Garden Fair features merchandise, tours, and a keynote lecture. $5-$10. This event is co-sponsored by Down East. July 6 from 7 to 9 p.m. The Maine Friends of Music perform Baroque and Beyond, classical music on contemporary instruments. $5-$10. July 8 at 11 a.m. The grand opening of the new Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden features a parade, animals, and activities. Free. July 23 & July 24, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. The third annual Antiques in the Gardens features dozens of top furniture and art vendors. $12-$20. July 25 – Aug. 15. Botanical Illustrations features work by renowned artist Linda Heppes Funk. $5-$10. Aug. 6 – Aug. 8 from 1 to 4 p.m. The Maine Fairy House Festival features everything the residents of a tiny house could want. $5-$10. Barters Island Rd., Boothbay. 207-633-4333. www.mainegardens.org
Boothbay Railway Village
June 20. Fathers’ Day at the Railway Museum lets dads hop aboard for free. $5-$9 for everyone else. Aug. 6 – Aug. 8 and Aug. 13 – Aug. 15. A Day Out With Thomas features twenty-five-minute rides on the much-loved children’s book character Thomas the Tank Engine. $14-$18. Oct. 9 & Oct. 10 (rain date Oct. 11). The thirty-seventh Fall Foliage Festival includes crafts, food, hot cider, entertainment, and steam train rides. Free. Oct. 29 & Oct. 30. Ghost Train rides should conjure the spooky and haunting — think Murder on the Orient Express. 586 Wiscasset Rd., Rte. 27. 207-633-4727. www.railwayvillage.org
June 24 – July 10 at 8 p.m. The Music Man rolls into River City, Iowa, and Boothbay. $17-$19. July 15 – July 31 at 8 p.m. The Twenty-fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is the tale of teenage overachievers’ angst. $17-$19. Aug. 5 – Aug. 14 at 8 p.m. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s biblical musical saga. $17-$19. 275 Boothbay Rd. 207-633-3379. www.boothbayplayhouse.com
The Opera House at Boothbay Harbor
June 22 at 8 p.m. The Boston Boys features musicians who are either students at or alumni of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. $10-$15. June 25 at 8 p.m. Tom Rush belts out the melancholy ballads and gritty blues. $23-$27. July 1 at 7:30 p.m. Tim Sample returns to his roots for an evening of classic Maine humor. $18-$22. July 21 at 7:30 p.m. George Saterial merges original magic tricks with classic style. $10-$18. Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. Singer-songwriter Noel Paul Stookey fuses jazz improvisation and insightful folk lyrics with political, sociopolitical, spiritual, and cultural dynamics. $20-$25. 86 Townsend Ave., Boothbay Harbor. 207-633-5159. www.boothbayoperahouse.com
June 19 at 10 a.m. Lobster Boat Races feature powerful fishing boats competing for top prizes and bragging rights. Free. Boothbay Harbor. 207-633-2353. www.lobsterboatracing.com. June 22 & June 23. The forty-eighth annual Windjammer Days includes an antique boat parade, pancake breakfast, tours, concerts, a craft fair, street parade, and fireworks. Free. Boothbay Harbor. 207-633-2353.www.boothbayharbor.com. July 4 (rain date July 5) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The twenty-second Old Fashioned Fourth of July Family Celebration features all the best of an Independence Day festival. Boothbay Common. Free. 207-633-4743. www.boothbayharbor.com. Aug.1 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The eighth annual Boat Builders Festival includes ship and shipyard tours, lectures, kids’ activities, art show, music, and food. $12-$15. Ship Builders Park, East Boothbay. 207-633-4818. www.boothbayharbor.com. Aug. 14 & Aug. 15. Anglers in the sixth annual Boothbay Region Fish & Game Association/White Anchor Tackle Shop Saltwater Tournament try for striped bass, bluefish, harbor pollock, and mackerel. Free. 207-633-592. www.boothbayregionfishandgame.com. Sept. 11 at 9 a.m. & Sept. 12 at 1 p.m. The Maine State Dolphin Open is played at an eighteen-hole course that’s ranked one of the top ten in the U.S. $50-$75. 207-633-4828. dolphinminigolf.com.