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

V. Changing times: the Swan’s Island Ferry

Waiting for the first ferry run, Swan's Island, 1960
Waiting for the first ferry run, Swan's Island, 1960

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

The William S. Silsby was the first ferry to serve Swan’s Island, welcomed with a festive inaugural ceremony in July of 1960. This vessel could transport seven to eight vehicles, opening up a new era of island history. The ferry service operates out of Bass Harbor for convenience, and the current boat, Captain Henry Lee, can carry up to seventeen vehicles and makes multiple daily trips year round.

It was now possible for islanders to take a car to the mainland, run errands, and return on the same day. Due to the lower price of goods on the mainland, this new accessibility led to a decline in island stores. There is currently one store supplying groceries and basic goods on the island, though seasonal businesses cater to the increased population in summer. Vacationers can now visit the island for a week or a day, rather than making a commitment of a month or more. This has been a challenging shift to make for some of the island residents who were accustomed to recognizing the faces and names of those they met on the street.


"William S. Silsby" Ferry, Swan's Island, ca. 1965

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

Increased vehicle use caused more change on the island, requiring the construction of better roads and making travel between the separate island villages easier. One by one, the post masters who had run offices out of their homes retired, and a single post office now serves the entire island. This was a controversial issue, as separate post offices were one of the last remaining elements of separate village life. Combined with the single school, single store, and ease of travel, the post office consolidation has all but eliminated the practical separation between Minturn, Atlantic, and Swan’s Island village.

After the close of other island industries, lobster fishing remains predominant. A successful trap limit was enforced in 1984 that reduced the pressure on younger fishermen and the lobster fishery in general. The current trap limit continues to be 475. In addition to fishing, private businesses have come to the island. There are restaurants, shops, and motels that have come and gone over the years. In 1988, Mariculture Products started a salmon farm that was obtained and renamed "Island Aquaculture" by a local group in 1993. The business employed seven or eight islanders full time and up to a dozen part time, but the business could not be sustained. It was purchased by a Norwegian company in 2000 and closed in 2003.

Unloading the first ferry, Swan's Island, 1960
Unloading the first ferry, Swan's Island, 1960

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

The 2010 census listed 332 year-round residents, with the summer population making a jump to around 1000. The K-8 school has a student population which ranges in the thirties. Students are divided into three classrooms that encompass three grade levels each. Island teachers have a unique challenge and opportunity in educating these small, mixed-level classes. High school students now have the option of taking the ferry to school every day, although some choose to simply board on the mainland.

In 2008, a fire at the Swan’s Island Library tragically destroyed many of the town’s historical records, including photographs, artifacts, documents and artwork. The community banded together in an effort to preserve what history remained—donating family photograph collections, participating in oral history interviews, and volunteering their time and their efforts to rebuild what was lost. The new library was opened in the summer of 2011, and currently hosts many community events. This website is a part of the efforts that are made to preserve the heritage of Swan’s Island, and to make it more accessible than ever before.

New library under construction, Swan's Island, 2011
New library under construction, Swan's Island, 2011

Item Contributed by
Swan's Island Educational Society

The identity of Swan’s Island and its residents, both native-born and those who have adopted it as their home, continues to be shaped by the stretch of water between it and the mainland. Whether viewed as a blessing or a curse, this separation has created a resilient community. Many of the old ties have been broken as the generation that remembers "the old days" passes on. The island is not the same now as it was twenty years ago, let alone a century ago, and many worry what changes the future will bring. However, if anything is apparent from the island’s history, it is the fact that Swan’s islanders have faced and adapted to challenges since the first settlers scraped a living from the soil and the sea. Here you will still find a community of a different nature, where even strangers wave to each other as they cross paths on the roads. Whether they are carried by a horse drawn wagon, or a 320 horsepower truck, the island spirit survives.