Europeans first visited the Camden area in 1605, but it would be another hundred years before the first settlers arrived. Until then, the native people were Algonquin Indian, whose means of survival was hunting and fishing. The first Europeans also depended hunting, and fishing, and also farming. But with its protected harbor and abundant natural resources, Camden would become a center of commerce and industry.
Camden was incorporated in 1791, the 72nd town in Maine, with a population of 332. The town was named in honor of an 18th century English lord, Charles Pratt, Earl of Camden.
At that time Maine was part of Massachusetts, and would remain so until 1820, when it was admitted to the union as part of the Missouri compromise.
During the Revolutionary War the British had captured Castine, which was historically a French village. From there they controlled the Penobscot Bay. Camden residents were divided. The town’s Rebels together with others from the surrounding area harassed the British, while their Torre neighbors gave their full support to the Crown. But Camden was seen as a center of revolutionary fervor, and in 1779 the British troops burned the Harbor.
Following the war of independence, industry became the focus of Camden’s economy. In 1792 Camden launched its first ship, aptly named Industry, a 26 ton sloop, thus marking the beginning of an endeavor that would flourish though to the middle of the 20th century. Even today boat building, especially wooden boats and their maintenance, remains an important part of community life. Wayfarer Marine in Camden Harbor, and Rockport Marine in nearby Rockport, who employ local craftsman, are world renown for quality and craftsmanship. Typical of their projects is Godspeed, constructed by Rockport Marine, a replica of the good ship that delivered the first settlers to Jamestown.
During the early 19th century, the law required that towns employ a full time minister, and in 1805, Rev. Thomas Cochran was installed as Camden’s first. His ordination was cause for much celebration, but the town and its new minister did not quite see eye to eye on religious matters, and ten years later he was fired. Cochran lived on High Street in a house that was built by Alden Bass, who was a descendant to the Mayflower settlers. Bass and a few friends gained some notoriety during the war of 1812 when the British arrested them for espionage. They were put in jail in Castine, which was again occupied by the British, until their release was negotiated a few weeks later.
In the 1800’s two common occurrences, show a stark contrast to today’s experience. The first is climate. In 1816, the growing season was extremely poor. There was frost on the ground during every month of that year. In other years it was not uncommon for the Camden harbor to be entirely frozen, with the ice encompassing Curtis Island. And in 1875 ice extended all the way to Islesboro. Climate change is a reality. The other seemingly impossible phenomena is the abundance of lobsters, which were so plentiful they could be picked up from the beach. But there was little demand for lobster in those days. They were not considered good eating. Prisoners rebelled at being fed lobster more than twice a week, complaining that it was cruel and unusual punishment.
Camden’s sons played their part in the Civil War fighting bravely at Chancellorsville, Fredricksburg and Gettysburg. And William Conway was given a gold medal for bravery in that war for refusing to strike the American flag at Pensacola, saying, “I won’t do it sir, that’s the flag of my country.” It was also during the Civil War that a young girl, Zadock French, fell to her death from a cliff overlooking lake Megunticook, when a gust of wind suddenly filled her parasol. Today a cross marks the spot, called Maiden Cliff, to which there is a marvelous hiking trail.
On Union Street, there is a stately arch that welcomes northbound travelers to Camden, and southbound travelers to Rockport. At the end of the nineteenth century visitors traveling in either direction were not so welcomed. Camden and Rockport had been a single community – Camden proper and Goose River. But in 1890 there was a rather intense debate over the funding of a new bridge to cross Goose River – intense to the extent that a fistfight broke out at a select board meeting. The outcome was a divorce, and in 1891 Rockport and Camden become separate communities. This happened almost exactly one hundred years from the original incorporation date. It took time for the wounds to heal, but now the towns cooperate fully, with a relationship that is reflected in the welcoming arch.
In November of 1891, a raging fire destroyed the business district.
But within a few years Camdenites had rebuilt with brick and stone structures Today the down town appears much as it did in 1900, as do Camden’s two historic districts, High Street and Chestnut Street. Homes dating from the late eighteenth can be found in both of these areas. How little the town has changed is apparent in the classic film “Peyton Place,” which was filmed here in the 1950’s. The Town is conscientious of its heritage, and residents are dedicated to preserving the past.
Early in the twentieth century, a young poet who spent her childhood in Camden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, read Renaissance, her first major work at the White Hall Inn. She went on to become the first woman to win a Pulitzer. Her work came to symbolize the “roaring twenties,” especially the memorable lines:
My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night:
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-
It gives a lovely light
There is a statue of Millay hidden in the trees on the east side of Harbor Park. Today, a number of poets, novelists and historians make Camden their home.
With its historic business district, homes and harbor, Camden retains its old New England charm. The beauty of the town has been recorded throughout history by Captain John Smith and Samuel de Champlain. While tourism has become an essential component to the town’s economy, it does not overwhelm its basic character. Camden’s traditions of independence, and industry, of art and craftsmanship are alive and well.
“Camden Hills – An informal History of the Camden – Rockport Region,” Dietz, Lew, Camden Herald Publishing Co., 1966“History of Camden 1605 -1859,” Lock, John L, Masters and Smith Company, Hollowell, Me. 1859“History of Camden and Rockport,” Robinson, Reuel, The Camden Publishing Company, Camden Me., 1907“The Camden Chronology,” Morris, Ann, Owl and Turtle book Shop, Camden Me., 2004
Bob Topper, former owner of the Maine Stay Inn
June 6, 2007