In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Swan's Island: Six miles east of ordinary

The lives and stories of a unique community

III. Boom, bustle, bust: The Steamboat Years to WWII

Fishing and shipbuilding led the state of Maine into its “Golden Economic Age” in the 1850s, as demand for Maine products grew and statewide population more than doubled. This expansion was short lived, however; the bounty of land out West drew away many Maine farmers, and the Civil War (1860-1864) marked an end to the age of East coast shipping and reliance on forest products. The nation turned to coal, iron, and oil. Maine’s decreased role in the national trend toward industrial growth would later become an attraction when the state was sought out by tourists and homemakers as a symbol of a bygone era, “The Way Life Should Be.”

Governor Bodwell Steamboat, Swan's Island, ca. 1920
Governor Bodwell Steamboat, Swan's Island, ca. 1920

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Swan's Island Educational Society

Despite the statewide trend, the decades following the American Civil War continued to be a period of growth on Swan’s Island. Steam power ushered in a golden age of sorts for the island, with growth on all fronts. The first steam powered seiner, the Novelty, was commissioned in 1882, and was one of the largest vessels in the fishing fleet. In 1894, a steamboat company contracted to bring a daily mail run from Rockland, and in 1898 when Dr. Small published his history, the island received newspapers the same day that they were issued. The steamboat made a daily trip year-round from Swan’s Island to Stonington, Vinalhaven, Rockland and back. In some summers North Haven was also included in the stops.

Ruth Orcutt remembers the steamboat years with fondness, and points out, “you knew people in Rockland better at that point than you do some people on the island.” She grew up in the Harbor village, and saw the daily stream of people gather at the steamboat wharf to collect the mail, visit the shops, travel, or just see people. Ruth says of the steamboat schedule, “Life did revolve around it. And the storekeepers and the fishing community and the church…it was a close-knit community.”

Steamboat crew, ca. 1910
Steamboat crew, ca. 1910

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

As population and commerce increased, so did the need to support it. Islanders petitioned for a light house in 1857, and by 1872 the Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station was in operation. Communication also improved with the advent of the telephone in the 1890s, putting islanders in touch with each other as well as the mainland. The first post office was established in 1844 after fifty years of sporadic mail brought from the Deer Isle or Mount Desert Island post offices whenever a sailboat happened to be heading through. As population grew, the volume of mail increased and more post offices were built.

By 1870, Swan’s Island had a population of 570 and was listed for the first time as a separate community in the U.S. Census. In 1896, the island officially became a town. Swan’s Island is still divided into three distinct areas: Atlantic, Minturn, and Swan’s Island village. The latter was also divided into the North and Harbor village. These distinct areas historically had their own schools, stores, and post offices, so that each could operate on their own. Before car use became common, two people on opposite ends of the island could go years without seeing each other.

Model T. Ford by E.R. Spurling's Store, Swan's Island, ca. 1925
Model T. Ford by E.R. Spurling's Store, Swan's Island, ca. 1925

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

Island stores received regular supplies from the mainland, and as many as two operated in each village. They sold all manner of necessities and delicacies, from flour, candy and gasoline to the "rat cheese" much favored on the island. Store owners on the island did not always expect to make a handsome profit, sometimes giving food on semi-permanent credit when they saw neighbors in need. The practice of helping neighbors is still common on the island, and the community pulls together for events such as funerals and fundraisers for those who are ill.

Religious communities grew with years of preachers visiting the island, and prior to a church structure, services were held in an island schoolhouse. The Baptist Church was founded in 1817, and the church building itself was constructed in 1883. Baptists, Methodists, Advent Christians, and the Church of God established organizations with time. The religious communities on the island continue to operate as important social and charitable organizations. Historically, they encouraged Swan’s Island’s status as a "dry island" even after Maine repealed statewide prohibition in 1856. Today, the sale of alcohol continues to be prohibited on the island, and was voted down in both 2010 and 2011.

Red Men's Hall, Swan's Island, ca. 1930
Red Men's Hall, Swan's Island, ca. 1930

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

Fraternal organizations such as the Redmen and the Odd Fellows appeared on Swan’s Island in the early 1900s with their sister groups: the Degree of Pocahontas and the Rebekahs. Redmen's Hall was a two-story building constructed around 1905 in Swan’s Island village. It housed dances, social gatherings, and had a movie projector. Odd Fellows' Hall was constructed soon afterward, and its three stories still stand tall on Harbor Road. It was also used for dances, social gatherings, and this hall hosted the annual eighth grade graduation. Epworth Hall and Seaside Hall also housed community events.

Apart from the fishing industry, many laborers were attracted to Swan’s Island’s quarries. The largest of these, the Baird's Quarry in Minturn, opened in 1890. Quarry work followed fishing as the second largest form of employment and source of traffic in island harbors. During the busy years, the increase in workers had a visible result on the island; there were boarding houses, boardwalks, sidewalks, hotels, restaurants, movies, and dances.

The mackerel population had been fished to exhaustion by 1900, and around 1857 lobster fishing began to grow in popularity. A lobster canning factory was built in Old Harbor, although demand fluctuated. By 1890 prices grew higher and boats grew larger as the easy to reach lobsters closer inland grew scarce. Some of the lobster canning factories were converted to can clams instead. In 1895 H.W. Joyce built a sardine factory for the herring that were plentiful at the time. Later industries included a cod liver oil plant, the smell of which is still remembered by some islanders. Despite efforts at expanding industry, lobster fishing could not support the number of jobs brought in by the earlier fishing and quarrying.

Wheaton brothers, Swan's Island, ca. 1945
Wheaton brothers, Swan's Island, ca. 1945

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

The nation’s wars and troubles did not spare even this remote island. Many Swan’s Islanders enlisted throughout the years, and those who didn’t fight found other ways to help war efforts. The Great Depression finished off many industries on Swan’s Island, and ushered in a quiet period of change. Hard times hit the nation. Some of those who had moved onto the island to work had married and now struggled to remain on the island after their jobs disappeared; others followed jobs to Rockland as those on the mainland followed jobs west. As in the past, in hard times Swan’s Islanders turned to the sea to make ends meet—fishing for their family’s food and for profit.

World War II further quieted the island as young and old left; either voluntarily to join the war effort or by necessity to seek work on the mainland. The shipyards of South Portland were a destination for many able-bodied workers, who helped with the construction of Liberty Ships. After a period of busy growth, industry, and prosperity, the change shook the island. Swan’s Island’s final steam boat, the North Haven, was commandeered for war service in 1941. Over sixty years of steam service, two captains and three ships: the Vinalhaven, Governor Bodwell, and the North Haven, served the needs of Swan’s Island. After the North Haven departed, no replacement was supplied.