Ghost Towns of Maine
|Moss-covered granite slabs from an old foundation.
Ghost towns are most typically assumed to exist in the Old West, and particular imagery is associate with them – tumbleweeds blowing through dusty streets, old woodframe buildings silvered with weathering, abandoned shopfronts, a straggling huddle of buildings in the middle of the desert or the mountains. As the desolate wind howls through what used to be Main Street, a shutter or two bangs restlessly, startling unwary visitors, and at night the coyotes howl in the distance.
It wasn’t until I read William F. Robinson’s book, Abandoned New England, that it occurred to me that Maine has its own ghost towns. Our state’s most famous ghost town is Flagstaff Village, which today lies at the bottom of Flagstaff Lake, visited by many each year as part of the Appalachian Trail. But Flagstaff is not alone. Maine is peppered with ghost towns of varying size, left in settlers’ wakes as waves of citizens tried their hands at taming the land, attempting to balance making a living and making a livable home from available resources, and sometimes failing.
But what is a ghost town? The most succinct definition I found describes one as “a town where few or no people now live,” while the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is more specific, entailing “a once-flourishing town wholly or nearly deserted usually as a result of the exhaustion of some natural resource.” Maine has many abandoned town sites that fit into the second category – the industrial age certainly took its fickle toll on our state. However, not all of our ghost towns were based around the plundering of natural resources. A smattering of Maine towns were formed around more idealized concepts. Many represented new starts for groups of settlers, some as religious communities, while others seem to have started simply as a common collecting point for previously unassociated frontier families looking for others to live near.
A unique example of a town’s founding is that of Freeman Ridge, which was formed by survivors of the burning of Portland (then called Falmouth) during the Revolutionary War. The land was granted to them by the state of Massachusetts (of which Maine was then a part) in the wake of that devastation, and was the westerly one of two such relief grants, the other being New Portland. Freeman was surveyed and settled around 1797, incorporated in 1808 (despite various sources citing dates ranging from 1803 to 1807), and repealed it incorporation in 1937. Like many ghost towns, its population peaked early, and then declined steadily.
In 1840 its population was 838, and these townsfolk had cleared thousands of acres of land to accommodate some of the largest sheep farms in Maine, but by 1900 town numbers had declined to 397, and by 1930 only 219 people remained in the town. The Civil War and the Industrial Age took their toll, creating in Freeman a snapshot of the transition from the colonial to the modern world. Today Freeman, while no longer officially a town, still serves as a commuter bedroom community for workers in nearby towns like Farmington, and as a pleasant seasonal home for skiers at nearby mountains like Saddleback and Sugarloaf. [Source: “A Maine Ghost Town: What Happened to the Lost Hamlet of Freeman Ridge” by Jeff Clark, Down East, Sept 2006, pg 74] If you are feeling curious, you can actually take a peek at the original handwritten grant for the Freeman township, which dates back to 1791, available on the Maine Historical Society’s website at http://www.mainememory.net/artifact/9220
A large part of Maine’s ghost town heritage revolves around the use of land by timber companies and other major business concerns, including but not limited to hide tanning, slate or granite quarrying, organized seasonal recreation, grain milling, sheep farming, rough iron mining, and ice harvesting. Land would be acquired to turn a profit from whatever resources existed there – lumber, quarrying stone, or other – and in the process, some land might be leased to workers of the company, or others looking for affordable land in the area. Land leasing from the big companies has always been a tricky business. There is no guarantee, even today, that the ownership won’t suddenly decide that they need your land, and that you need to vacate the premises in short order. Sort of like the private business version of eminent domain.
Some of Maine’s more famous ghost towns have resulted from this sort of short-notice abandonment of property, like Hurricane Island. Located off the coast of Rockland near Vinalhaven, and owned by Civil War veteran General Tillson, “Hurricane was supposed to be a chartered town but Tillson made it a company town.” Like most company towns, the general store and most of the houses were owned by Tillson’s business.
This subtle form of indentured servitude ensured that the island-bound workers, although drawing a paycheck, would find themselves paying much of their wages back to Tillson in the form of rent or when purchasing necessary goods at the store. “The few families who scraped enough together to build their own dwellings were charged land rent, and often they were ordered to move their houses to another site if the company decided to quarry the granite beneath their kitchens.” [Source: Ghost Towns of New England by Fessenden S. Blanchard, 1960]
The end of Hurricane was abrupt. As assessed in the brief article, “Four Disappeared Towns and One Mighty Tiny One” in the Maine Times, “the people of Hurricane Island were said to have left the sheets on their beds when they left in 1915.” All it took was word from the quarry manager that Tillson’s company was about to go bankrupt. Workers and their families vacated the island in a mere days. Residents of nearby Vinalhaven Island allegedly ferried away the lumber from the residences and buildings, and only the foundations and the quarry pits were left behind. [Source: Maine Times 12/19/1980, pg 20] Since 1963, the subsequent private owner of the island has leased a portion of the island to Outward Bound, resulting in the now-famous island-named wilderness survival school. The tremendous, multi-story cliff that was created by quarrying out granite from the island bed is now used by the school to teach rock climbing.
Others, like Flagstaff Village and its neighbors Bigelow Plantation and Dead River Plantation, suffered their fate in the name of hydropower. In 1948, after two decades of rumors, Central Maine Power took final steps to organize the damming of Dead River. A 1927 legislative bill had allowed CMP to utilize eminent domain to seize land necessary for damming in order to provide more reliable power to the state’s population. The citizens of Flagstaff Village, Bigelow Plantation, and Dead River Plantation found themselves with little choice. They had to sell their homes to CMP or face the inevitable fate of having their homes flooded out from under them. Many moved to nearby Eustis, forming the New Flagstaff neighborhood. Family graves from the town graveyards were reinterred in Eustis, and even a few houses were moved to new ground ahead of the floodwaters.
This simple iteration of facts leaves out the anguish of those last months for longtime residents. The Flagstaff community’s last farewells were shaken by worry, as fires set to clear land raged out of control, dusting partygoers with cinders and smoke, hastening the packing up of cars for the move. A local, interviewed by Fessenden Blanchard for his book, Ghost Towns of New England, recounted the scene: “The fires weren’t properly controlled and there was a lot of fire fighting. Some of it went on when we were having our farewell party and it kind of spoiled it for some.”
Even Captain Wing’s daydream of building a big Noah’s ark for everyone seemed wistfully futile. Nothing was going to avert the dissolution of this close-knit community, and by late 1949 the town was abandoned to the encroaching waters. In March 1950 a newspaper headline summed up the ordeal’s end: “Creeping, Watery Death to Smother Beauties of Spring in Rural Flagstaff. All Roads Are Cut. Residents Gone as Reservoir Grows.” Soon Flagstaff Lake was in residence, the second largest lake in Maine, and the only one I know of with the curious relics of a town lurking in its lower levels. The years have smoothed the outlines of the town streets and foundation holes, making it difficult to discern them even when the lake’s water level is cooperatively low, but visitors still find old kitchen utensils and other traces of the community’s daily life when wading in the shallows of the lake.
However many towns fell by the wayside in the wake of the brutal plunder of commerce, some dissolved from pure lack of volition, and what their better-organized neighbors felt was their sure moral and civil dissolution. Early Maine towns also disbanded when tragedies occurred, such as the death of the town founder or benefactor. Other towns fell by the wayside as farming practices changed, transportation expenses rose, railroad and ferry lines shifted their operations, changing age demographics caused closure of the local schools, or too many non-residents took over land, causing tax-collection trouble.
The arrival of gas-powered engines also did its own share of shifting, as traffic and citizen needs changed accordingly. Communities that depended on boats found it necessary to move closer to gas supplies as they shifted to using gas-powered motors to increase their vessels’ productivity. Train lines shrank and went out of service as trucks took over much of the shipping industry. The Great Depression took a heavy toll, as did the needs of quick modernization after World War II, when citizens began demanding reliable access to phone and power lines. Clearly Merriam-Webster’s summation of what “ghost town” means does not adequately convey all the complexities involved.
The early use of the term ghost town dates from 1931, according to Merriam-Webster, and it seems about this time that a greater civic awareness of humanity’s condition in out of the way places, and the drive to improve it (often whether or not the locals perceived of themselves as needing improvement) began making regular appearances in print publications, of both professional and layperson readership. An example of this would be the publication an article by O. J. Scoville, which found its way into the August 1937 issue of The Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics, titled “Liquidating Town Government in Decadent Rural Areas of Maine.” I don’t think they were using the word “decadent” in a way that we are accustomed to today, when it tends to reference a dissolute state of luxury and excess!
Ghost towns, despite their name, are not necessarily completely dead. Some are absorbed into nearby towns, and some even continue today, eking out an existence as an unorganized township, or existing unnamed on the edge of a more developed town. Some ghost towns cycle back to life, as the allure of the small town lifestyle attracts people from the rest of the country to Maine’s rural areas, locations which are perceived to present a simpler, more affordable, self-sustaining opportunity, and the type of community which is supposed to be a good place to raise a family.
Out of the 615 town areas reporting in Maine’s 2010 U.S. Census figures, 90 towns had less than 300 people in their total population. Many of these are now considered plantations instead of towns. In general, municipal organization in Maine occurs in the following pattern according to population/size of community: 1) Cities 2) Towns 3) Plantations 4) Unorganized townships
It’s not surprising that a lot of ghost towns linger in Maine’s limbo of Unorganized Territories (UT), but I was a little astonished to find that the unorganized territory of Maine accounts for just over half the area of the entire state, which translates to a lot of open area. I hadn’t paid much attention to Maine’s UT until I started looking for locations to send copies of the Gazette in search of a wider Maine audience. To my surprise, I found huge swathes of land in the northern and western regions of the state where there simply weren’t any substantial population centers! The Main Streets, the cafes, all those little niceties of town life that we here in the southern part of the state take for granted, just disappear for huge areas across the map, swallowed up by the piney forest. So I did some more research about this mammoth part of the state that doesn’t have as many folks to speak for it.
An Unorganized Territory (UT) is defined as an area of Maine that has no local, incorporated municipal government. According to the State’s website at maine.gov, “Duties related to providing services and property tax administration in the UT are shared among various State agencies and County government. The Maine Legislature serves as the ‘local governing body’ for the UT, as it annually reviews and approves the various budgets from State agencies and County government necessary to provide services and property tax administration in the UT.”
Maine’s Unorganized Territory is made up of over 400 townships, as well as many coastal islands that are not located within the bounds of nearby mainland towns. Out of Maine’s U.S. Census population total of 1,328,361, only about 9,000 live permanently in the Unorganized Territory, although that population swells with seasonal residents each year. Many Maine ghost towns are now seasonal recreation locales, attracting tourists and visitors to their area in the warmer months or during hunting and winter sport season. A select few have even become historic sites, maintained as part of Maine’s park service system, a unique educational opportunity which other New England states such as New Hampshire have also fostered. See Recommended Reading below for a great NH guide book to these sites in our neighbor state.
How do you know if you’ve stumbled across a ghost town site? Few are easy to find if you set out with that goal in mind, since identifying markers have crumbled or been removed as the area’s status changed. Ghost towns are far more likely to be discovered by accident during a tromp in the woods. You may find clusters of cellar holes and accompanying stone walls, indicating a defunct farming community like the towns of Montville, Knox, and Morrill, now dissolved and recombined into the Frye Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Or you may be lucky enough to stumble across the remains of outbuildings, or old unpaved access roads which have yet to be overgrown by rampant nature.
Think in terms of where settlements would have formed, and why. Most communities needed a mills nearby as settlers had to be able to get their grain ground for flour, and lumber cut to built with. Mills required a good source of water energy to run productively. Maine has lots of rivers and lakes which provided this important resource to newcomers. Early ghost towns will be in locations which are well-placed to allow the survival and sustenance of a growing population, while later ghost towns often gravitated to locations further afield where industry was created out of lumber, stone, or other raw material in the area, supplemented by a nearby railroad or carriage road system. Access to a transportation network was essential for these later settlement, both for importing harder-to-find supplies to fill the needs of employees and their families.
Tracking ghost towns through records is also tricky. For example, when researching Freeman Ridge, there are multiple “previous designations” for the Freeman area (located between Kingfield and Strong), including: Township No. 3, 2nd Range North of Plymouth Claim, West of Kennebec River (T3 R2 NPC WKR); Little River; West Falmouth; and Falmouth Township. Beyond the recorded names, you find additional anomalies such as the fact that residents were enumerated as living in “West Portland” in the 1800 census. As if that wasn’t enough, part of Freeman was set off to form North Salem (now Salem Township) in 1823, and another part was set off as part of New Portland in 1833. As with many other topics of historic research, it is like looking for a needle in a haystack – a haystack that just keeps growing larger the longer you dig!
Although I only mention a small sample of Maine’s ghost towns here, my initial research turned up at least a couple dozen sites, and those signify just the first brief casting of the net. There are many more out there, “moldering in the forest and collapsing under the pressure of sprouting trees and strangling bittersweet vines,” to quote Jeff Clark of Down East. Some lie just off heavily traveled roads, while others have relinquished themselves in more solitary surroundings, tucked up against mountains or at the far end of long-defunct railway lines. Like the ghost streets of Portland, their time has passed, but traces of them still linger if one brings a searching eye to their old neighborhoods.
Ghost Towns of New England by Fessenden Blanchard
Abandoned New England by William F. Robinson
Haunted Hikes of New Hampshire by Marianne O’Connor
Buried in the Woods: Sawmill Ghost Towns of Nova Scotia by Mike Parker