In 1605 the first Europeans arrived to the area where Camden is now, but the first settlers came only one hundred years after. The native Algonquin Indians lived here much before, and their life depended on hunting and fishing. The first Europeans too depended on hunting and fishing, but they started farming too. Thanks to its abundant natural resources and the protected harbor, Camden became a center of commerce and industry.
The town was incorporated in 1791, being the 72nd town in Maine. The population consisted only of 332 people. The town was named in honor of an 18th century English lord, Charles Pratt, Earl of Camden.
At that time Maine was still part of Massachusetts, and remained so until 1820, when Maine joined the union after the Missouri compromise.
The British captured Castine, historically a French village, during the Revolutionary War. From there they could control the Penobscot Bay. There was a strong division among the Camden residents. The Rebels of the town, with the help of others from the surrounding area, harassed the British, while their Torre neighbors fully supported the Crown. Camden was definitely seen as a center of revolutionary fervor, therefore in 1779 the British troops burned the Harbor.
After the war of independence, Camden’s economy focused on the industry. In 1792 the first ship was launched from the Camden Harbor. No surprise that it was named “Industry”, a 26-ton sloop. This marked the beginning of a new era that would thrive though to the middle of the 20th century. Even today boat building, mostly wooden boats and their maintenance, has an important role in the life of this community. Lyman-Morse at Wayfarer Marine in Camden Harbor, and Rockport Marine in nearby Rockport, employ local craftsman and are world renown for their quality and craftsmanship. Godspeed, constructed by Rockport Marine, is a replica of the good ship that brought the first settlers to Jamestown and is a good example of their projects.
In the early 19th century, it was mandatory for a town to employ a full time minister, therefore Rev. Thomas Cochran was the first one to be installed in 1805. His ordination was followed by much celebration, but the new minister and the town did not agree much on religious matters, and ten years later Rev. Cochran was fired. Cochran lived on High Street in a house originally built by Alden Bass, who was a direct descendant to the Mayflower settlers. This house is now the Maine Stay Inn.
During the war of 1812 Bass, together with a few friends, became famous when the British arrested them for espionage. They were sent to jail in Castine, which was again under the British rule, until their release was negotiated a few weeks later.
In the 1800’s two events left a mark in Camden, showing how those times were different compared to today.
The first is related to the climate. The year 1816 saw an extremely poor growing season. Every month of that year had frost on the ground. In other times it was not uncommon to see the Camden harbor completely frozen, with the ice encircling Curtis Island. In 1875 the ice extended all the way to Islesboro. Climate change became a reality.
The other almost impossible phenomenon was the abundance of lobsters, which were so abundant they could be picked up right from the beach. In those times there was little demand for lobsters as they were not considered good eating! Prisoners protested at being fed with lobsters often, calling it a cruel and unusual punishment! What a difference with today!
The citizens of Camden played their role in the Civil War fighting courageously at Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. In that war William Conway was awarded with a gold medal for bravery because he refused to strike the American flag at Pensacola, when he said, “I won’t do it sir, that’s the flag of my country”. During the Civil War a young girl, named Zadock French, fell to death from a cliff overlooking lake Megunticook, after a sudden gust of wind filled her parasol. There is a cross today that marks the spot which is now called Maiden Cliff. A wonderful hiking trail leads you there.
When crossing Union Street, you will see a stately arch welcoming northbound travelers to Camden, and southbound travelers to Rockport. Visitors traveling in either direction were not so welcomed at the end of 19th century. In those times Camden and Rockport were a single community – Camden proper and Goose River. Then in 1890 there was a strong debate over the funding of a new bridge who had to cross Goose River. The debate was so intense that it broke into a fistfight during a meeting of the select board. The consequence was a divorce, so that in 1891, exactly one hundred years after the date of the original incorporation, Rockport and Camden became separate communities. The wounds needed time to heal, but now the towns get along very well, and the arch reflects this new friendship.
In November of 1891, a wild fire destroyed the business district. Within a few years Camdenites rebuilt it with structures made of brick and stone. Today the downtown looks very similar to the one of 1900, especially in its two historic districts, High Street and Chestnut Street. In both of these areas you can find homes dating from the late eighteenth century. To appreciate how little Camden is changed it’s enough to compare the actual town to the one showed in the classic film “Peyton Place,” which was filmed here in the 1950’s. The Town is aware of its heritage, and residents are careful in preserving the past.
In the early 1900’s, a young poet spent her childhood in Camden. Her name was Edna St. Vincent Millay. She read Renaissance, her first major work at the White Hall Inn. She then became the first woman to win a Pulitzer. Her work symbolized the “roaring twenties,” especially in these 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
In the Harbor Park, on the east side hidden in the trees, there is a statue of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Today, a number of poets, historians and novelists have their home in Camden.
Thanks to its historic business district, beautiful old homes and enchanting 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. Although tourism has become an important component to the town’s economy, it does not overwhelm its basic character. The traditions of Camden: independence, industry, 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
Written by Bob Topper, former owner of the Maine Stay Inn
June 6, 2007