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

IV. Transitions and troubles: Private enterprise shoulders an island’s needs

Left with no reliable connection to the mainland and few secure sources of income, Swan’s Island responded with resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and a push towards modernization. Transportation was taken over by individual boat owners, who served as an on-demand ferry system.


"Sunbeam" as a car ferry, Swan's Island, ca. 1960

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

The Seawind, run by Fred Thomas and George Stanley, departed Swan’s Island at seven in the morning from the Quarry Wharf in Minturn, stopped at nearby Frenchboro and McKinley (now known as Bass Harbor, on Mount Desert Island) and returned to Swan’s Island in the evening. The Seawind carried passengers and freight, and the Quarry Wharf became a social center at landing time when islanders gathered to exchange news and goods.

Another form of transportation was supplied by the Maine Seacoast Mission, an organization founded in 1905 to help Down East island communities. Their boat the Sunbeam provided periodic transportation, as well as teachers, doctors, and preachers when needed. In some of the coldest winters, the Sunbeam was the islander’s only option for reaching the mainland over icy waters.

Fire Department, Swan's Island, ca. 1972
Fire Department, Swan's Island, ca. 1972

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

With no larger boat to transport vehicles, for a period of time anyone wishing to bring a car to the island had to take it over on a barge. As a result, only the “well-heeled” islanders could afford to do more than walk, bicycle, or use livestock for transportation. Cars became more common after the war, increasing the contact between the villages on the island. Swan’s Island cars were often patched-together machines that were repaired enough to handle the shorter distances of island travel.

Public services also expanded with time. Fires on Swan's Island are fought with volunteer efforts, but a truck and fire station were acquired in the early 1950s. Police first came to the island on a temporary basis, with a deputy sheriff in the summer and a constable for the rest of the year. Full-time police presence came in the late 1970s. Private households and businesses first brought electricity to Swan's Island by purchasing generators. In 1950, island generated power brought electricity to all homes. Energy is now supplied by a submarine cable. Electricity made running water possible, and plumbing and heating changed in island houses. There was also a decrease in the popular Fourth of July prank of tipping over outhouses, although many other practical jokes survived the new technology!

SEE NOTES Consolidated School, Swan's Island, 1954
SEE NOTES Consolidated School, Swan's Island, 1954

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

The separation between islanders decreased further when the three schools consolidated into one in 1951. The Atlantic and Minturn schoolhouses shut down and all island students attended the old Harbor school. A new school was built in 1954, at the site of the current town office. Islanders have fond memories and horror stories of school life before and after consolidation. Island teachers, like many small-town teachers of the time, had to be flexible to teach multiple grade levels at the same time due to the lower student population. After graduating from eighth grade, Swan’s Island’s students either found jobs or went to the mainland for high school. Prior to the ferry service, this meant attending boarding school, or boarding with other families in the Rockland and Mount Desert Island area. Some were able to return to the island on weekends.

Mohler-Dewsnap family, Swan's Island, ca. 1950
Mohler-Dewsnap family, Swan's Island, ca. 1950

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

This period also saw a change in the nature of "summer people" on the island. The first wave of visitors were generalized as "preachers and teachers," those who had the free time to spend an entire summer on the island. Often, island homes were purchased by summer residents as people left for the mainland to seek work. Swan’s Island adapted to the economic and social presence of seasonal residents. It took a certain sort of person to choose Swan’s Island as a vacation site, particularly in the years prior to electricity, running water, and regular access to the mainland. Sally Lee, granddaughter of one of the first couples to come to Swan’s Island in the summer months, describes the group of family and friends from Baltimore, Maryland: "They were all sort of… somewhat fancy but impoverished people. They all have family trees… and they’re all ‘bon vivant’ whatever, but they’re not rich.” She continues, "The next sort of people who came… were kind of smart and wrote things. You come here if you don’t have a lot of money… at that point you did. Because, you know, Bar Harbor, Northeast… those are people with money." Interactions between seasonal and year-round residents varied, but there has always been fraternizing. Sally describes her childhood summers playing with native island kids: "When I was a child… we did have cars but if you went across the island to go to a store or something it was like a major expedition. So I was not taken around to play with other kids in Minturn or something like that, so it was whoever was right here. And right here I had the Joyce family."

Swan’s Islanders learned to cope with many changes in the years between the steamboat and the ferry. Despite the decrease in industry and communication and the confusion of post-war life, the island made the shift to modern utilities and once again became more self-supporting through private enterprise.