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  • A Short History
    of Rockland, Maine

    Rockland was originally part of Thomaston, owned by Samuel Waldo, the Great Proprietor, and later by Waldo’s granddaughter, Lucy Flucker, and her husband, Henry Knox. The Waldo Patent covered the no-man’s land that lay between the English colonies to the southwest and the French territory northeast of Castine. Following the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763), settlers came to this area — mostly by ship, because there were no roads except a few Indian trails.

    The Traders

    The early settlers called this part of Thomaston the Shore Village. They came to harvest lumber and to farm and fish. The virgin forest covering the shore and the mountains provided tall, straight masts for the ships of the king’s navy. Traders in the shipping industry carried lumber, wheat, and dried fish to Europe and returned with hardware, cloth, and rum. The shipping industry made shipbuilding flourish all along the coast. Traders built houses and shops along the shore, and their long, narrow wheat fields spread back toward Dodge’s Mountain like the spokes of a wheel.

    Lime - The Lifeblood

    During the Revolution many local men went off to war, hoping to earn clear title to their land which had been confiscated from the Waldo heirs because of their sympathy to the British. Local sea captains became privateers, authorized to seize British ships and sell their cargoes. British privateers and soldiers did the same and plundered farms on the islands and along the coast.

    After the Revolution, the lime industry took off in earnest. A deep deposit of pure limestone ran along Old County Road from Thomaston to Lake Chickawaukie. Highly valued as mortar and plaster, this critical building material was shipped to Boston, New York, and beyond. Wagons hauled the stone down Limerock Street to the kilns along the shore. By 1850 there were 136 lime kilns burning day and night. Schooners brought wood from the islands and Canada to fire the kilns, and farmers in outlying towns made barrels in which to ship the powdered lime.

    Rockland Was Born

    The town of East Thomaston separated from Thomaston in 1848 and changed its name to Rockland in 1850. Rockland became a city in 1854. In 1860, the creation of Knox County, with Rockland as the county seat, added the services of the courts — judges, lawyers, surveyors, and a county jail — to Rockland’s busy downtown.

    In 1865 when billowing smokestacks were a sign of prosperity, historian Cyrus Eaton describes Rockland

    “This harbor, with its shore-built city, canopied by day with terebinthine smoke and illuminated by night with the brilliant fires of its innumerable lime kilns, presents a pleasing appearance from the water; and seen from the heights beyond, is full of magnificence and beauty… second only to the far-famed bay of Naples.”

    Four Generals & A Lot of Granite

    Then came the Civil War. Rockland men trained at Camp Knox in William Tilson’s field on the hill north of Talbot Avenue, and then went off to fight in battles including: Manassas, Fredericksburg, Bull Run, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, and in the Battle of the Wilderness. Rockland provided four generals to the Civil War: Hiram Berry who died at Chancellorsville, Jonathan Cilley who returned to a successful law practice, Adelbert Ames who became the governor of Mississippi, and Davis Tillson who returned to make his fortune in the granite industry.

    Granite was quarried along the mainland and on islands including: Vinalhaven, Hurricane Island, Dix Island, Swan’s Island, and many others. It was shipped from Rockland to build cathedrals, courthouses, and federal buildings all over the country. Offices for the Bryant & Cobb Marble and Granite Co., Bodewell Granite Co., and the Hurricane Granite Co. were all located on Main Street in Rockland.

    No Bridge? Build A Railway

    After the war, railroads gradually replaced sailing ships for transporting goods and passengers, but the Maine Central Railroad only came as far up the coast as Bath, because there was no bridge across the Kennebec River. Around 1870 the businessmen of Rockland passed a bond issue to build the Knox & Lincoln Railroad, a tax supported railroad running through Knox and Lincoln counties, connecting Rockland to Woolwich on the north side of the Kennebec.

    In the 1870s Francis Cobb purchased most of the small lime quarries to create the Cobb Lime Co., and in the 1880s a group of Rockland businessmen built the Lime Rock Railroad around the perimeter of Rockland to carry limestone from the quarries along Old County Road up on to the trestles above the many kilns on the shore.

    Protecting Rockland From Nor'easters

    From 1881 to 1899 the federal government built the Rockland Breakwater, and the Breakwater Lighthouse was completed in 1902, making Rockland Harbor safe from nor’easters. At the turn of the twentieth century, Rockland was the fourth busiest port along the east coast of the United States.

    The Power Of
    Electric Trolleys

    In the 1890s, businessmen created the Rockland, Thomaston, & Camden Street Railway, an interurban, electric trolley that ran from Camden, through Rockport and Glen Cove, with several branches in Rockland, to Owls Head, Thomaston, and Warren. An electric plant on Power House Hill in Glen Cove powered the trolleys and provided electricity for homes and businesses. It was purchased by the Central Maine Power Company in 1920.

    Also in the 1890s, a syndicate of Rockland businessmen built the Bay Point Hotel on Jameson’s Point overlooking Owls Head Bay. The fashionable resort attracted wealthy summer people from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The Ricker family purchased the Bay Point Hotel in 1902. They enlarged it, renamed it the Samoset, and added it to their chain of resort hotels. The Maine Central Railroad purchased the Samoset in the 1920s in an effort to promote summer tourism.

    William H. Glover, the successful contractor who built the Bay Point Hotel, also built the Knox County Courthouse, the Breakwater Lighthouse, commercial buildings, many fine homes in Rockland, and large summer cottages on the islands. He transported lumber and building supplies to the islands in his own special windjammer.

    Prolific Ship Builders

    As the rails proliferated, Rockland Harbor remained extremely busy. Steamboats had plied Penobscot Bay since the 1830s, bringing passengers from Boston and Portland to Rockland, Camden, Bangor, and Bar Harbor. The Vinalhaven & Rockland Steamboat Co. carried passengers to the islands. Steamboats landed at wharfs such as Atlantic Wharf on Atlantic Street, Tillson’s Wharf with its handsome terminal at the foot of Sea Street, and the Maine Central Railroad Wharf just south of Atlantic Wharf.

    There were 44 wharfs lining Rockland Harbor. They bustled with the loading of lime and processed fish, and the unloading of wood for the kilns, lumber for construction, coal, and goods from foreign ports. At twelve locations, in between the wharfs and lime kilns, shipbuilding companies hammered away, turning out from two to ten ships a year, including ten clipper ships. Beginning in 1795 with ships built by Jonathan Crockett and Icabod Barrows, sixty-nine shipbuilding companies took turns using the 12 shipyards and built over 400 ships. Deacon George Thomas launched the Clipper Ship Red Jacket in 1853 from his shipyard at the foot of Warren Street, and no large sailing vessel has matched its speed for crossing the Atlantic. The two largest and longest operating shipyards were located in the south end of Rockland. The Cobb Butler Shipyard, at the foot of Marine Street, built 58 vessels between 1856 and 1920. The Snow Shipyard on Mechanic Street had several names and built 63 vessels between 1863 and 2002.

    The Cobb Lime Company & Ice Before Freezers

    By the turn of the century, the Cobb Lime Company, led by William T. Cobb (Maine governor, 1905-1909), had purchased many of the small lime quarries and lime kilns. In 1900, the remaining local lime companies consolidated, forming the Rockland Rockport Lime Company with offices in Rockland, Portland, Boston, and New York. In 1910 President William Howard Taft visited and spoke in Rockland and then was taken to the Pleasant Street Bridge to peer into the deepest lime quarry in the world.

    The ice industry was also important to Rockland from shortly before the Civil War until the 1950s. Large blocks of ice were cut on Lake Chickawaukie from January to March and stored, packed in sawdust and stacked on top of each other, in two large warehouses at the south end of Chickawaukie, one large warehouse at the north end of Chickawaukie, and two ice houses on Tillson Avenue. The ice lasted all summer and sold locally to homes, restaurants, hotels, the Samoset, the Maine Central Railroad, and the fisheries.

    William T. Cobb (left) & General John J. Pershing

    Rockland’s Harbor & Waterfront is still a large economic driver for the City and the region as it was 100 years ago

    “There were 44 wharfs lining Rockland Harbor. They bustled with the loading of lime and processed fish, and the unloading of wood for the kilns, lumber for construction, coal, and goods from foreign ports”

    In The Business Of Fishing

    Fishing brought men to this area before the Revolution to salt and dry fish and ship them to Europe. In the 1880s, firms of the fishing industry began to move in – drying facilities, salt houses, ice houses, canneries, sardine factories, and lobster companies. The North Lubec Canning Co. canned sardines, The William Underwood Co. opened a fish processing plant on Tillson Avenue, and the Holmes Packing Co. employed 250 people packing sardines at their plant on Ocean St. F.J. O’Hara Co. opened on Tillson Avenue, in 1940, and processes frozen swordfish and tuna. In the late 1950s, Seapro Inc. began processing fish waste to create fish meal and fish oil, and the Port Clyde Packing Co. purchased the Green Island Packing Co. in 1971. There were many others, but today, they are all gone, except for F.J. O’Hara, the largest fishing company in the world.

    Another company that remains is FMC, located at the end of Crockett’s Point. It began in 1936 as the Algin Corporation to process seaweed into carrageenan, a food thickener used in ice cream, chocolate milk, and toothpaste. The name was changed to Marine Colloids in the 1960s, as the seaweed harvest stretched around the world, and the company was purchased by FMC in 1978.

    Rockland was known for its lobster fleet back when the fleet consisted of rowboats and dories. At the turn of the century, wholesale lobster companies began shipping lobsters from the islands and Canada all over the country. By the 1920s, more lobsters were shipped by rail from Rockland than from any other city in the country. Carl Simmons invented the lobster roll at Sim’s Lunch on Park Street in 1927. The Lobster Festival — a parade, a four-day picnic, games, booths, and the crowning of a Sea Goddess — began in Camden in 1947, moved to Rockland in 1948, and has brought crowds to the Rockland Public Landing every August since.

    A Changing City, the Depression & the Atlantic Charter

    For years Rockland had many truck farms, chicken farms, dairies, and several slaughter houses in the Highlands west of Old County Road. Carl Blackington delivered milk and eggs. Residents of the Poor Farm and commercial farmers farmed the meadow along Meadow Brook all the way from Lake Chickawaukie to Thomaston. The Ruohomaas grew blueberries on top of Dodge Mountain, and for many years Lloyd Clark drove a truck of fresh produce — strawberries, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and green beans to Boston every night.

    But then as the automobile became more common and the Depression deepened, things began to change. The Rockland, Thomaston, & Camden Street Railway stopped running in 1931 because of low ridership. The Eastern Steamship Co. discontinued its operation from Boston and Portland in 1936 for the same reason. The Lime Rock Railroad stopped operating in 1941, because trucks were available. During the Great Depression the WPA helped build sidewalks, the sea walls at the Public Landing, and the new Rockland Community Center. The Maine State Ferry Service would begin operating a ferry service to Vinalhaven and North Haven from the foot of Granite Street in 1958.

    During World War I and World War II, the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard trained in Rockland. Sailors often filled the Thorndike Hotel. In August of 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt landed at Tillson’s Wharf, after meeting with Winston Churchill at sea and signing the Atlantic Charter. At the Rockland Station he boarded a special train for Washington, D.C. Also in 1941, the U.S. government hired local workers to build an airfield for training navy pilots, on 375 acres of farmland in Owls Head. After the war was over, in 1946, the navy leased the airfield to the City of Rockland for use as a municipal airport. And the Coast Guard still maintains a base on Tillson Avenue.

    president-roosevelt-arriving-at-tillsons-wharf-rockland-maine
    President Roosevelt Arriving at Tillson’s Wharf, Rockland, Maine

    The Farnsworth

    In 1948, the William A. Farnsworth Art Museum opened. Farnsworth’s daughter, Lucy, had died several years before, leaving her entire estate to the city to establish a library and museum in memory of her father. The Farnsworth Art Museum focuses on the art of Maine, including art of local artists such as; sculptor Louise Nevelson, photographer Kosti Ruohomaa, and summer artists from the islands: Fitz Hugh Lane, Robert Henri, John Sloan, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Robert Indiana, and, of course, the three generations of Wyeths: N.C., Andrew, and Jamie.

    Rockland, The Business Incubator

    There have been many other businesses in Rockland — sail makers; a brass foundry; a large shoe factory that moved its entire operation including its building to Warren in 1882; a pants factory that burned to the ground in 1907; Van Baalen Pacific Corp., making robes and sportswear; Livingston Manufacturing Co. which became Bicknell Manufacturing Co. and made tools for the granite industry; Fisher Engineering which still makes the best snowplows in New England; Steel Pro, a metal fabricator; North End Marine which made fiberglass boats and was acquired by Sabre Yacht; Weatherend Furniture; MBNA the giant credit card company had offices in Rockland for several years; Boston Financial which handles the back-office accounting for many large banks and investment companies; and Maine Boats, Homes and Harbors which publishes a popular magazine of Maine.

    The population of Rockland reached 7,000 in 1860, and it grew to 9,000 in the 1950s. The lime kilns stopped burning in 1958, and Rockland’s population has fluctuated above 7,000 ever since. At one time there were many small, neighborhood schools, but as the number of children in Rockland decreased, in 2011 school districts merged. Now Rockland children attend the large South Side Elementary School, the Oceanside Middle School in Thomaston, and graduate from Oceanside High School in Rockland.

    A History Remains, A Future Begins

    As the lime industry and the fishing industry faded, art galleries, restaurants, and cultural institutions have brought tourism to Rockland. Along with the Farnsworth, Rockland’s cultural institutions include fifteen churches, the Rockland Public Library which opened in 1904 with a gift from Andrew Carnegie, the Rockland Historical Society, the Lighthouse Museum, the Island Institute, the Strand Theatre, the Sail Power and Steam Museum, and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.

    Rockland is a muscle town filled with beauty, and the mixture makes Rockland one of the most fascinating towns in Maine.

    Thank you to the Rockland Historical Society for providing this information. Feel free to contact the historical society for more information on the history of Rockland.

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