Today we spent the entire day exploring Castine. Stewie, Bonni and I were determined to see as much of this historic town as possible. The town is home to the Maine Maritime Academy, has a number of historic sites, and the Wilson Museum, an institution featuring exhibits of anthropological, natural and local artifacts. Castine’s streets are lined with Federal, Greek Revival, Cape Cod and other antique style houses, and shaded by large elms trees. (Dutch elm disease pretty much wiped out the elm population elsewhere in Maine.) The Castine Post Office is the in one of the oldest Post Office buildings in continuous operation in the United States, the Federal government began leasing the building (built in 1817) in 1833 and later purchased the building.
While I had visited this town many times as a youngster, I was until today unaware of its rich history.
In the 1630s the French built a fort in Castine and called it Fort Pentagöet – the name used by the French to describe the Penobscot and its tributaries. The fort was part of France’s attempt to maintain and extend their control over “Acadia” – the name given to the region between the Kennebec and St. Croix Rivers. The Dutch briefly occupied Castine, once in 1674 and again in 1676, when they bombarded it from the bay. After coming ashore, they completely destroyed Fort Pentagöet. In 1713 Acadia became part of the British Empire.
The earliest permanent settlement here began in the 1760s. In 1779 the British Royal Navy sent a detachment of troops to Castine. They built a fort on the highest point of ground nearest the entrance to the bay and named it Fort George. The remains of the fort are still here and the view is lovely.
The colonial Massachusetts Board of War resolved to send a combined naval and military expedition to recapture the area, but poor coordination, bickering commanders, inadequate training and inexplicable delays allowed the British to defend the Fort successfully, inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Americans. I believe this was the worst naval defeat in US history until Pearl Harbor.
In 1812 war broke out again between the British and the Americans, and in late 1814 the British arrived again, this time without opposition. During this second occupation, the British authorities collected customs duties, and when they left they took the money with them.
The years between the end of the War of 1812 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 marked Castine’s greatest prosperity. That prosperity came largely from the sea, from fish, from the salt needed to preserve them, and from building the ships needed to catch them. In the springtime nearly five hundred fishing vessels could be seen in Castine’s harbor awaiting salt, and over one hundred commercial sailing vessels were built here. Local ropewalks, sail lofts and ship chandlers provided all necessary goods and services for the maritime trade.
According to one source, in 1850 Castine had the second highest per capita wealth of any city or town in the United States. Street names such as Perkins, Dresser, and Dyer, are reminiscent of Castine’s merchant families of the pre-Civil War era. Their wealth is still reflected in the Federal and Greek-Revival style homes along Main Street, Court Street, and Perkins Street.
When war broke out in 1861, Castiners rallied to the cause of the Union sending 157 men to serve. The Civil War statue on the Common was erected in 1881, a tribute to their memory. By then the fishing vessels that had once occupied the town’s wharves were replaced by steamboats carrying tourists and summer visitors, sometimes called “rusticators”, to Castine’s hotels and summer “cottages.”
By the 1920s, more and more Americans traveled by automobile and fewer by railroad or steamboat. This impacted Castine’s tourism, and many of the hotels of the 1880s and 1890s closed or were torn down. Today only two or three of them remain. But it appears that a combination of locals and summer residents take beautiful care of the historic houses in town. Ironically, the population today is very close to what it was in 1810!
The Maine Maritime Academy, which enrolls about 1,000 students is the central industry in town. The incoming 220 freshmen started classes yesterday and today we saw the students learning how to march in formation.
After seeing most of town Stewie pooped out on us and we returned to the Bonni Jean. There was good news aboard. The repairs I made to the watermaker and generator seem to have worked and we are now producing upwards of 14 gallons of freshwater per hour!