A sense of place: Westport Island

Posted Wednesday, July 27, 2011 in Features

A sense of place: Westport Island

The remains of a tidal mill at Westport island.

by Kitty Wheeler

Jeremysquam, Westport, Westport Island

A 12-mile-long island, Westport Island, lies in the middle of the Sheepscot and Back rivers. Edgecomb, Wiscasset and Woolwich are the towns that dot the far edges of the river, and one lone bridge connects the island to the mainland. Centuries ago, residents called this island Jeremysquam. It had been purchased from the Abenaki Indians. Then Edgecomb, formerly known as Freeport, inherited the island.

However, this dual township didn’t work out. The island residents didn’t have churches, school or stores they could easily access, and by 1828 they petitioned the state Legislature to secede from Edgecomb and become their own town. Westport, the given name to the island, became its own entity. No one knows where that name came from. Several years ago, the residents decided to have a vote to change the name to Westport Island. It passed, and its third moniker has taken hold.

There are two books on the history of Westport Island. Cora Tarbox, whose husband’s family is one of the original residents of the island, has written Westport Island, Maine, 1605-1972John and Louise Swanton wrote Westport Island, Maine, once Jeremysquam in the early 1990s. These books detail the early history of the island, the first settlers, and their livelihoods; the ferries and bridges that connected the island to the mainland are also included.

Farming was the mainstay for the residents. Then logging and fishing became important. On the west side of the island, there are relics of two tidal mills whose stone dams are still visible. Gristmills were also developed, and it’s possible to see an original stone on the shore that ground the grain. Vegetables were planted, not only to feed the residents but also to deliver to islands off Boothbay Harbor. Harry Swanton was one of the first farmers in the early 20th century to grow food for the express purpose of servicing summer residents on these islands; he delivered his vegetables in a motorboat that could navigate the shallow waters.

Fort Edgecomb, an octagonal blockhouse, was built in 1809; it was perched on a hill that looked straight down the Sheepscot River so that the guns would be prepared to shoot at British ships that might be encroaching on Maine’s land during the embargo years.  Westport citizens felt that they, too, should have fortifications after the War of 1812. Fort McDonough was an earthen structure on the north end of the island, constructed in 1814. For years, it was a historic landmark. Today the fort is no longer visible due to recent building of houses.

Without ferries or a bridge running between the mainland and the island, the settlers could not sell their timber and farming produce to mainland communities. The first ferry to Wiscasset started in 1845. It ran between the two shores where a new boat landing and a Wiscasset boat launch were built. 

In 1857, a bridge was built between the island’s West Shore Road and Phipps Point in Woolwich. The final cost of the 1,350-foot bridge was $6,000, funded by the state. Within 12 years, the island community bought the bridge and maintained it. The tolls were lowered to 25 cents for a cart, 5 cents for a passenger.

The fate of the bridge was tenuous at best. Ice jams clustered around the hand-driven piles that supported the bridge; in time, the jams knocked out part of the structure, and Westport decided to let it self-destruct, as it was too expensive to maintain.

Large ferryboats cruised between Bath, Westport and Boothbay at the end of the 19th century. These boats landed at large docks on the south end of the island. Summer visitors would disembark and stay in residents’ farmhouses for a week or more. They were some of the first summer rusticators in our state. Now, thanks to Squire Tarbox Inn, built in 1763, tourists can spend the night, and the public may enjoy a delicious dinner in the National Register house.

In the 1940s, the island decided to push for another bridge. A causeway was built and christened in 1950; it cost $300,000, and there were five years of tolls. However, there was only a small opening to allow boats to motor through from Wiscasset, and this became an issue. When the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant was built on the Wiscasset shore in the early 1970s, it was clear that a new bridge needed to be constructed. It is the one link with the mainland. Private boats course the waters as well.

Mary Ellen Barnes, a member of the island’s History Committee, is delighted to be a newcomer to the community. “With woods and water, the island is a beautiful place. You can see the past in the stone walls, graveyards and old buildings. A great group of people lives here that care about preserving their older homes. We used to have the Marie Antoinette house sitting in the north end, but it was moved to Edgecomb hundreds of years ago.”

According to family legend, Westport's Capt. Stephen Clough was preparing a house to be a refuge for the doomed French queen. He filled it with French furniture and china. In 1838 the house was taken to Edgecomb by boat. 

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One of the earlier buildings that is now the Old Town Hall was built in 1790. It was originally the First Free Baptist Church. Next door is the former Westport Community Church; now the Westport Community Association owns it. A Christmas celebration is held in the building, and the association sponsors barbecues and other activities for the islanders.

Seventy private cemeteries are scattered around the island, and a dedicated group of citizens preserves the tombstones. Each family had its own cemetery on its land. As a result, there are no public cemeteries. When a new family moved to the island, it would have to ask a long-time resident if its family members could be buried in their cemetery.

Jack Swanton, grandnephew of Harry Swanton, continues to live in the family farmhouse on East Shore Road. He comments that there will be a Swanton centennial reunion next month; about 35 far-flung family members will gather at the farm to celebrate the family's 100 years of living on the island.

“Maintaining our identity and living within limited resources are our two main challenges now. Wiscasset is our town center, as we don’t have a post office, school, library or store. Many new residents have arrived on the island that wanted to make changes. Now, the politics have settled down, and everyone is proud of the new Bonyun conservation project. Clough Point at the north end of the island is also popular for picnics. And the new boat landing is working out well.”

With 720 residents, the island is holding its own in today’s world. Although the population was much larger in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the residents are continuing to draw on their ancestors’ heritage. Tourists rarely come due to lack of facilities and a main road that bisects the island without water views. From Jeremysquam to Westport and now Westport Island, the residents are happy to live on a lovely island that cares about its history and its future.

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