Wiscasset Village, A History

Samuel Chamberlain, in his book Towns of New England, chose Wiscasset to represent the State of Maine—noting that millions were spent restoring Williamsburg, while Wiscasset remains essentially intact.

The first recorded settlement at Wiscasset was in 1660 by George and John Davie. By 1740, there were 30 families at Wiscasset Point, numbering about 150 people. Wiscasset Point was one of three parishes incorporated in Pownalborough in 1760, after colonial governor Thomas Pownal. Many historians have parsed the earliest Abenaki and First Nation variations of the name “Wiscasset” for its meaning, which, in the main, is “comes from you don’t see where.” That is, the harbor area is hidden from ocean view by islands in the Sheepscot River.

Fishing

A great abundance of fish encouraged Europeans to settle in the Wiscasset area in the early 1600s. As late as 1871 there were 122 vessels engaged in cod and mackerel fishing. Fishing was not the only commodity or industry that the area’s waterways offered to Wiscasset. In the early 19th century, Wiscasset became the most important seaport north of Boston.

Timber Trade

The spruce and pine trees that thickly lined the banks of local rivers and streams were initially used for building dwellings and small vessels. But lumbering quickly became one of Wiscasset’s most important industries. Saw mills were built in many locations along rivers and streams, along with grist, shingle and fulling mills. Seven mills were located on Montsweag Stream alone. The largest was the Gould mill, which wove cloth and was built at the site of the largest water cascade on the stream.

In the summer of 1834, saw and gristmills were also built on White’s Island (then Holbrook’s Island). In 1857, Isaac Hobson bought the steam sawmill from Harriman and Clark, and for the next 20 years ran a thriving business. Some of the mills ran day and night, and lumber was shipped on sailing vessels year-round—unlike the Kennebec and other nearby rivers, the Sheepscot never froze over. Three steamers were built at Hobson’s mill—but as the cutting of forests farther and farther inland undermined this coastal industry, and Hobson’s mill shut down in 1887. In 1910, Erastus Foote bought White’s Island and rented part of it to Fred Pendleton who ran a boat yard there. F. F. Pendleton’s boat building became acclaimed as the highest quality on the Atlantic seaboard, and so it was Pendleton who built the When And If in 1938-39.

At the height of the shipping trade, each of the New England seaports had their own particular niche regarding commodities and recipient ports. Wiscasset had her timber trade, which later evolved into a three-way trade: south to Charleston and the Caribbean where they picked up rum, sugar and cotton destined for British ports; Portsmouth and Newburyport shipped fish to Martinique, Guadeloupe and Puerto Rico; Newport traded largely in rum and slaves; while Providence had the corner on spice and tea, to name a few.

Maritime exchange with the Spanish colonies resulted in the influx of Spanish dollars, known as pieces of eight and Spanish doubloons, and both currencies were used in the execution of deeds and contracts in Wiscasset.

Shipbuilding

From the end of the Revolution to the Embargo of 1807, Wiscasset had no equal in any part of Maine as the chief shipping port east of Boston. It was a very prosperous era with so many ships registered here that it was said one could walk from deck-to-deck across the harbor, and masts were everywhere as far as the eye could see.

In her book Wiscasset in Pownalborough, Fannie Chase said that sailors and poets believe that ships have souls. And she continued with the thought that, when the ships of the Sheepscot “all fresh from the sail-maker and rigger, spread their canvas and glided away through the Narrows to meet the distant water, even the most prosaic would admit that, if not endowed with a soul, they at least responded to the breath of life.” Chase’s vision from the 1930s provides a glimpse into Wiscasset’s magnificent maritime history.

Vessels of varying sizes and rigs were built all along the Sheepscot as far inland as Head Tide. There were shipyards at Sheepscot Falls, Newcastle, and Edgecomb. The Virginia, a 30-ton ship, was the first ship made in America and was built close to the mouth of the Sheepscot River. The first record of a ship built at Wiscasset Point is from the record of Michael Sevey in 1797, which said he had come to Wiscasset to “help build a ship.”

It was not until the incorporation of Pownalborough that records of sizeable vessels built in Wiscasset appear. Abiel Wod, Wiscasset’s biggest ship-owner, came to Birch Point in 1776 and evidently opened a shipyard soon after. It is believed the yard was located on the shore of Bradbury’s Cove.. Later, Morrill Hilton, Jr., had his yard there, parts of which could still be seen at low tide for many years. Another early shipyard, owned by Seth Tinkham, is thought to have been situated at the foot of Main Street (then State Street), close to the Town Landing.

Interestingly, a newspaper of the time reported that Daniel Broklebank sailed in the fifth ship he built in America from the Sheepscot River in May of 1778, reaching Whitehaven, England 32 days later. The Anchor-Brocklebank Line of England, founded by him in 1770, was the forerunner of the Cunard Steamship Company.

The Embargo of 1807—intended to prevent war with England—failed, and Wiscasset shipping fortunes declined rapidly from that time.

Brickyards

Birch Point took the lead in the manufacturing of brick. Local soil was composed of large amounts of clay needed in the making of bricks. When the Lincoln County Courthouse was built in 1824, Silas Porter’s brickyard, near Birch Point, supplied on-third of the bricks for the building project. There were at least seven brickyards on Brick Yard Brook, along with may other kilns along the rivers and creeks of surrounding areas.

Silas Porter ran another yard at his pottery on Birch Point that furnished bricks for many Wiscasset buildings. According to Chase, many of Wiscasset’s old village houses are lined with bricks made by Porter.

The most productive yard was owned by Captain Richard H. Tucker in 1875, and was the largest brickyard in the county. The kiln was large enough to hold one million bricks along with the wood for burning. In 1883, the Wiscasset Brick & Pottery Co. Works at Birch Point—formerly the Porters’ yard—had a daily output of 22,00 bricks. The remains of some of these brickyards can still be seen around Wiscasset.

Ice

The very word “ice” conjures all sorts of images—from tall, cool summer drinks that clink with the movement of cubes in a frosted glass to skating parties and bonfires to a glistening wonderland coating trees and shrubs in winter. Back in the days of early Wiscasset, ice harvesting was a profitable industry that made possible the necessary cooling to preserve food and liquids.

In the early years of 1870, the ice industry began to flourish along the Sheepscot River and elsewhere. By 1890, the business had boomed to the point that three million tons of ice were cut in Maine. At the Mason Station site, David Stinson started an ice works. Subsequently, the Kennebec Land and Lumber Company erected icehouses with a capacity of 16,000 tons. Ice was shipped to Baltimore, Norfolk, and Newport News as well as used locally.

In 1875, the Walrus Ice Company of Wiscasset was formed. The ice was generally cut from the ponds in January, at a thickness of 16-18 inches. First, snow-scraper teams removed snow and debris. Next, the ice was planed smooth and marked into squares—checkerboard fashion—with a “groover.” The grooves were further scored by an ice plow. The ice was then sawed into cakes by an up-and-down ice saw, broken apart with a busting bar, and stored in sawdust-lined storehouses. The Ellsworth Holbrook’s Ice Home Delivery Service stored ice in sawdust at the ice house beside the pond, and delivered ice in the Village through the ‘30s and even after WWII.

Ships were loaded with ice squares, each weighing about 400 pounds. The ice was “dunnaged” (packed) to prevent it from shifting or melting during southern transit. Each year, Birch Point ice works depended on a crew from Westport Island—always the same men—to supplement their own workforce. The manufacture of artificial ice eventually deprived Wiscasset—and the State of Maine—of this industry.

Railroad

The Knox and Lincoln Railroad line—from Woolwich to Rockland—was built in 1871, covering a distance of 48 miles. This stretch completed the system connecting Boston with Rockland. The line was constructed almost entirely with local money, and was estimated to cost $57,000 per mile. The astronomical cost resulted from a change in the siting of a ferry crossing from Richmond to Bath—necessitating the building of bridges, deep rock cutting, and the construction of an expensive ferry to Bath to reroute.

According to Chase, the project impoverished the Town of Wiscasset, and it was jestingly said of the engineers that “when they came to a swamp, they bridged it; when they came to a rock ledge, they blasted it; but when they came to a cow, they went around it.”

President Grant and his party passed through Wiscasset on a special train in 1873 on their way to Rockland. Even so, the Knox and Lincoln was not a success financially, and Wiscasset was bankrupted. But there was a silver lining—due to a complex judgement-recovery process in place at the time, little was gained by creditors from legal proceedings, so most of the buildings remained intact … in effect, preservation by default. The original Federal architecture of Wiscasset remained essentially unchanged.

Additionally, in the Spring of 1854, the Wiscasset & Quebec Railroad was authorized for construction of a line from Wiscasset to the boundary of the Canadian province of Quebec. A charter was granted and renewed, but ultimately it was decided to build a narrow-gauge line to the same point. By 1892, it looked as though Wiscasset would become the winter port for the St Laurence River (Canada).

Rails were brought to Wiscasset by schooner. Trains began running along the line in 1894, and in 1895 the line extended as far as Albion. Through changes of ownership and charter, the railroad became known as the Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railroad Company. It was hoped the railroad would merge with one of the major trunk lines and change to standard-gauge rail—and that a western, transcontinental connection would ensue making Wiscasset the eastern end of a coast-to-coast system. This plan failed, and the railroad was sold in 1906. The buyer operated the railroad for some years until the advent of an electric line in East Vallasboro and the increasing proliferation of motorcars. The railroad’s best year was 1921—and the last narrow-gauge train ran over the tracks in 1933.

Architecture

Wiscasset prospered as a deep-harbor shipping port during the late 18th and 19th century, and grand homes were built beyond the initial simple, smaller homes closer to the harbor. These “grande dames” include the Nickels-Sortwell House, the Wood-Foote House, and the Governor Smith House. Other structures of note are the elegant brick courthouse, which is home to the longest continuously operating courthouse in the country; the Old Jail, in operation until the 1950s; the Wiscasset Library; the Town Common; the Sunken Garden; the Powder House; the Ancient Cemetery.

In 1973, Wiscasset was the first historic district in Maine listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and the architectural importance of the Village has long been recognized.

Necessitated by the computer mapping technology available at the time, a rectangle was drawn on a map which included historic Federal Street houses just beyond the Old Jail. The southwest corner is at the intersection of Flood Avenue and Route 1, across from Holbrook Pond. The northwest corner is in the Sortwell Forest and includes some of Bradford Road and Willow Lane. The northeast corner is in the Sheepscot River. The southeast corner is also in the Sheepscot, south of the Village.

Old map of history Wiscasset village

It is interesting to read the 1973 description of the historic homes and to appreciate the historic resources that qualified Wiscasset for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places:

“...Wiscasset is an authentic late 18th and 19th century sea and river port. Its growth is visible in its buildings which remain, as a whole, intact, and are a type of field museum that should be preserved … Included in the district are several distinct types of houses. The early, small houses, some incorporating earlier hovels, were built about 1760-80, reflecting less prosperous surroundings …

With the affluence occurring around 1800, grander homes were built. Today, one sees those about the ‘rim’… as a series of fires ‘gutted’ the center of town. The most noteworthy of these are the Nickels-Sortwell House, the Wood-Foote House, and that of Governor Smith. Equally important to the town are the lesser homes or farmhouses that stretch out Federal Street, a true road of 19th century living, little changed by newer buildings.

Another criterion for listing on the National Register of Historic Places is that notable people occupied these houses … Judges Bailey, Orchard Cook, Honorable JD McCrae, and Abiel Wood, of this town, have been representatives in Congress, and Hon. Samuel E. Smith, another citizen, was for three years Governor of Maine.”

Private Properties Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

The following properties are listed in the National Register of Historic Places or are in the Historic District. These properties were chosen and listed here as keystones to represent others in the District.

1. Foye-Sortwell Farm - Gardiner Road and Willow Lane

Owned by Daniel Sortwell, a descendant of a family that was among the earliest settlers in Wiscasset.

2. Judge Thomas Rice House - Route 1

Until later years, this home was owned by Wolcott Andrews, a descendent of Judge Rice. The house incorporates the original “hovel,” built before 1766 on the site and is considered one of the oldest homes in town. It is an example of a “Cape Cod,” pre-revolutionary structure. It has been restored to its original rooms downstairs.

2a. Kingsbury House - Federal & Washington Streets

The house was built by Colonel John Kingsbury in 1763 on the site of the Nickels-Sortwell Mansion. Nickels moved the house to its present site when he had his mansion built. It is the oldest two-story house recorded on “Wiscasset Point.” The simple early woodwork has been restored.

3. Tucker-Nash House - Main and Pleasant Street.

Built by David Silvester before 1784 and moved in 1792 from Water Street to its present site by Capt. Richard Tucker. At the time, it was a hovel among mansions. For many years, it was the home of Henry Nash, acting Minister of St. Philips Church.

4. Erskine-Marston House - Main and Middle Streets

This house was built by Capt. Alexander Erskine in 1785 and was once the home of Col. Erastus Foote, Maine’s first Attorney General. Later, it functioned as both an antique shop and home.

5. Hodge House - Route 1 and Hodge Street

Built by Henry Hodge in 1787, this house has interesting bay windows. It also has the distinction of being listed in the Historic American Building Survey, HABS, #1949. The survey project was one of the Depression-era WPA projects. Each house identified was assigned a number. It was restored in the 1990s and housed an antique store in the barn.

6. Lilac Cottage - Washington and Main Streets

Built before 1789. The cellar is of primitive construction. The house was a tea-room for many years and then an antique shop.

7. Gov. Smith House (Lee House) - High Street

Built by Silas Lee in 1792. Considered one of the best architectural houses in Maine. An attached long wing burned in the 1950s. It is known, too, for having its own “ghosts.” Fanny Chase, in her book Wiscasset in Pownalborough, says “the Lee House, monumental in proportion and precision of outline, with its captain’s walk, its semi-circular portico—whose exquisite entablature is supported by Ionic columns, its staircase both unique and beautiful, its mullioned windows and superb interior finish, place it in the foremost rank as one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in Maine.” Artists and architects come annually to sketch or measure this masterpiece.

8. The Elms - Pleasant and Bradbury Streets

Built by General Abiel Wood in 1793. General Wood’s last wife, Sally Sayward Wood, was the first Maine female novelist. William Elms moved the house to its present site from the foot of the Common in 1847.

9. Bradford House - Bradford Road

Built in 1794 by Alden Bradford, a descendent of Governor Bradford. Alden Bradford was the second Congregational minister of Wiscasset and later became Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He wrote History of Massachusetts and A Gentleman’s House.

10. Frances Cook House – Pleasant and Main Streets

Built in 1795 by Frances Cook, who was the first Collector of Customs and a personal friend of George Washington. The structure was three-storied with a mansard roof and 17 fireplaces. The roof was lowered and only 14 fireplaces remain.

11. Manasseh Smith House - Main and Pleasant Streets

Built by Manasseh Smith in 1797 and thought to be the first brick house in town. Later, it became used as an office building.

12. Moses Carleton House - High Street

Built by Joseph Tinkham Wood in 1804-05. The architect is said to have been Nicholas Codd, who designed the Cavanaugh House in Newcastle, the Spite House in Rockport and possibly the Nickels - Sortwell House in Wiscasset. Captain Moses Carleton bought the house for a hundred puncheons of rum. Carleton lived there until he died in his 90s. He was a poor man but known for taking in needy children to live with his own family. The house was restored to its original design by Logan Luke, former resident of Wiscasset.

13. Pink House (no longer pink), or Damon House - Federal and Washington Streets

Built by William Stacey in 1805, this is one of five federal houses built by him and still standing. Joshua Damon was a craftsman of note at the time and some of his furniture is now in museums. His descendants left the house to Harvard University to be used as a house for artists in all fields. That will was later broken.

14. Pumpkin House - Fore and Fort Hill Streets

Built by Hartley Wood in 1807. This house—and the house of his brother, Abiel Wood—contained the only marble-faced fireplaces in town. As one of Frances Sortwell’s “saved” houses, it was the summer home of Sidney Howard, author and playwright, from 1925-30. Its name was derived from the color of the house.

15. Nickels-Sortwell House - Main and Federal Street

Owned by Historic New England, formerly SPNEA (Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities). This well-known local tourist attraction was built by William Nickels in 1807 (HABS., ME-102). It was a boarding house for many years until Alvin Sortwell—a descendent of the Foyes, and former mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts— bought it as a summer home. His widow and daughter lived there year-round and turned the empty cellar hole (from the burned down Hilton Hotel) across the street into today’s “Sunken Garden.” The Sunken Garden (and upper park area) was left to the town, provided it remain a garden. Frances Sortwell gave the house to the SPNEA (now New England Historical Society).

16. Castle Tucker - High and Lee Street

Owned by Historic New England. Built by Silas Lee in 1807, the house had a number of owners until Captain Richard Tucker bought it in 1858. He added the portico, extended the house, and furnished it with Victorian furniture, much of which is still in the house. Captain Tucker’s heir, Jane Tucker, lived in the house for many years before donating the house to SPNEA.

It is an authentic Victorian house, containing no reproductions. The elliptical flying staircase is outstanding, and the double piazza is a landmark. It is open to the public in the summer.

17. Wood-Foote House - High and Lee Streets

Built by Major Abiel Wood between 1811 and 1825. Building was stopped early on by the death of Wood’s wife and the War of 1812, but was finally finished in 1825. It has double-brick insulation and is a three-story mansion with a graceful Palladian doorway and window.

18. Blagdon-Emerson House - Federal Street near Danforth

Built before 1819. A typical two-story “manse and mart,” or home and shop, where Charles Emerson published Lilliputian (1881-91) and then the Sheepscot Echo (both newspapers of the era). This type of house was placed at right angles to the street level to accommodate the “mart.” There are several examples of this arrangement still in town.

19. Samuel Page House - Lee Street

Built in 1837. By the 1920s, it had become a “slum” and was rescued and repaired by Frances Sortwell, who added the hand-carved porch by Edbury Hatch of Damariscotta (HABS ME-91).

20. Clark-Wood House (Musical Wonder House) - High Street

Built as a double house in 1852 by Henry Clark and Captain George H. Wood. Fannie Chase made it into a single dwelling in the 1920s. Her son, Charles G. “Chippie” Chase carved birds from single logs, many of which are now museum pieces.

21. Octagon House - 63 Federal Street

Built by Captain George Scott in 1855, it is a two-story brick, octagonal house, a unique architectural design (HABS ME-85) and was listed in the National Register in 1972. Once used as a school administration building, Hildreth Hawes later restored it as a residence.

22. Old Custom House - Water, Fore & Middle Streets

Built in 1869-70, the building was initially used as a customs house, and later housed Wiscasset’s post office up until the 1960s. At that time, the present post office was built on Route 1. It was then offered to the Lincoln County Historical Association, but was refused because an estimate to replace the slate roof was more than the association could afford. It was. Put up for auction and purchased by Charlotte Rust Hodgeman. The upper story was turned into living quarters and the downstairs became commercial space. Today it is a private residence.

Public Properties Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

P1. Ancient Cemetery - Federal and Lincoln Streets

Owned by the Town of Wiscasset. The oldest stone dates from 1739.

P2. Wiscasset Public Library - High and Main Streets

Built in 1803. The second brick structure in Wiscasset. Originally it was built to house the Lincoln & Kennebec Bank, and later the Wiscasset Bank and Mariner’s Bank. The county offices were located there until the Lincoln County Courthouse was built in 1824. The bank vault was sited, underwater, in a deep well for protection.

Originally a two- story building with a mansard roof, it was an example of how commercial buildings were then built as houses. Later, it was used as a residence for many years.

In 1903, Andrew Carnegie came to this country as a passenger on the Wiscasset, a ship owned by Captain Johnston. He offered $4,000 to the town to erect a new library, but the Town couldn’t afford the money for its upkeep, so the offer was not accepted. Frances Sortwell, along with others, founded the present library.

P3. Old Academy - Hodge and Warren Streets

Now owned by the Town of Wiscasset and leased by the Maine Art Gallery. The gallery was founded by Mildred Burrage and was one of the earliest galleries to show the work of Maine artists. Built in 1807 for the Wiscasset Academical Association, the building was used as a school until 1923 (HABS ME-48). It was listed in the National Register on October 6, 1970. The Maine Art Gallery is open to the public except in winter.

P4. Lincoln County Museum and Old Jail - Upper Federal Street

Owned by Lincoln County Historical Association. The jail was built in 1809-11 and was considered, at the time, to be humanitarian as it had separate cells and windows (slits). There was no heat until late in the 19th century. It was the third jail in town and the first building in Maine to be built for the safekeeping of criminals. Until the state prison in Thomaston was established, the Old Jail was used for the confinement of many notorious felons.

The granite slabs used in its construction were from Edgecomb quarries and are 41 inches thick at the foundation and 30 inches at the eaves.

These great stones also form the ceilings of the cells. There are six cells on each of the two floors. The third story had quarters for debtors who were allowed out during the day to earn money, but had to return at night. There was a large room used for a work area.

In the 1920s, the jail provided holding cells for prisoners appearing in the nearby courthouse. In 1954, it was turned over to the Lincoln County Historic Association, with the proviso that the group maintain it as a museum and open it to the public in the summer.

The Jailer’s House burned and was rebuilt in 1837. The jailer’s wife provided food for the prisoners, and their diet depended upon her generosity and thriftiness. The kitchen has a large hearth and a beehive oven, and the barn contains a large collection of old tools.

P5. Old Powder House

Owned by the Town of Wiscasset. Built in 1813 of brick, the structure was used to store gunpowder during War of 1812 (HABS ME-70).

P6. Wawenock Block - Main Street

A brick commercial building, designed in 1856 by Alexander Johnston, Jr. It represents one of three such commercial buildings in our downtown. Until then, residential house designs were used for commercial buildings. These buildings are gems of their time and are an important part of our historic Village.

Schools

The following is a list of early schools in Wiscasset. Only the current school buildings and the Old Academy are still in existence. It is interesting to note that, in the early 19th century, every family kept flocks of geese to supply students with quills.

1792 - School on the site of current Episcopal Rectory

1800 - School in center of town near the Common

1807-1923 - Old Academy Brick Building (currently leased by the Town to the Maine Art Gallery)

1816 - Latin Grammar School

1860-1910 - Garrison Hill School on Fort Hill, now the Masonic Hall

N.B. Most of the material here has been excerpted or edited from an undated, unattributed document available from Town files at https://www.wiscasset.org/uploads/files/1_history_10-06.pdf