The Rise and Fall of Tourism on Peaks Island, Maine

by Olivia Smith

Purpose of this Project

This project illustrates the ways in which nature and culture of Peaks Island overlap and shape one another, both in their reciprocal causal effects and in their blurring together of categories. It connects the human and non-human worlds by telling a story that details a rich amount of the island’s texture and character. This project also explores the broad themes of change and interaction by honing in on a handful of distinct sites and times on Peaks Island. Each section will add to the storyline, spanning from the late 19th century to today. I will specifically look at what caused the rise and fall of tourism on Peaks Island, and how this complex historical narrative has had an impact on the island’s physical and cultural landscape today. The overall goal of this project is to examine the factors that caused the make and break of the “Coney Island era” of Peaks Island, and the implications this had on the island today.

Background of Peaks

In Peculiarities of American Cities, Willard W. Glazier describes Peaks Island as having a bold presentation to the sea, smiling upon the bay. “It is about a mile and a half long, by a mile and a quarter wide, and raises gradually to a central elevation of, perhaps, 100 feet, commanding extensive views of the ocean and harbor, and one of the mountains, eighty miles away” 1. Glazier then states: “It is on of the most beautiful Islands of Casco Bay.”

Originally a popular summer getaway by Abenaki tribes of the mainland, Peaks has always been a special spot. It was then settled, 350 years ago, by the Bracketts and the Palmers, and later then Sterlings, Trefethens, Mittons, Munjoys, and Trotts. From this origin, we will look at the factors that caused the rise and fall of tourism at the turn of the 20th century, and how this historical narrative has transformed tourism into being rooted by the romanticization of nature 2.

Rise of Tourism on Peaks

In order to look at what caused the rise of tourism on Peaks Island, we must take a step back and look at why tourism in Maine exists in the first place. The Industrial Revolution in America caused a boon in the demand for natural resources in the 1800’s. Maine had an abundance of these things, including fish for food, lumber for ships, ice for food preservation, and granite for construction. Because virtually everything was transported by ship, Maine found success because of its long coastline, deep-water harbors, and thousands of off-shore islands. As American and European populations grew, there was a huge increase in demand for dried cod, lumber, ice, and granite. By 1880, nearly half of Maine’s forests had been cleared 3. “The town of York in particular was almost completely deforested, ‘naked and bleak,’ with an air of ‘stillness and solitude,’ even of ‘antiquity.’ The generation following the War of 1812 saw the Piscatiqua River towns as a low point, losing population and unable to find viable substitutes for their former trade.” 4.

This is when the railroad industry steps in and changes everything. It caused the fall of Maine’s costal shipping industry decades after the Industrial Revolution because it opened up land west of the Appalachian Mountains, and “permanently reduced America’s reliance on costal shipping routes.” Maine’s economy started to plummet because costal commerce collapsed. Maine’s fishing fleet shrank by over 70%, and when reinforced was concrete was introduced, the granite industry collapsed. Mechanical refrigeration became widespread as well, causing the demand for Maine ice to disappear. “As decades wore on, costal Maine watched its once vibrant economy slowly decline. it wasn’t long before people turned to the only lucrative industry that was left: tourism” 5. Maine had scenery, and tourists traveled far from the urban centers of culture and commerce to experience these scenic attractions. In 1830, residents on Peaks started to take in seasonal boarders, and in 1850, the first summer hotel opened. After the industrial revolution, islanders really started to embrace the tourism industry as their economic niche, and the “Coney Island” culture was born 6.

flyer
Railroad Advertisement for Peaks Island, c. 1923. Image courtesy of the Maine Memory Network

By the 1860s, summer travel had become an established part of life for wealthy northeastern city dwellers, and by the 1890’s, the summer tourist industry in northern New England became a major business. Wealthy urban neighborhoods were almost empty in July and August. “Special ‘summer arrangements’ of railroad schedules were designed to accommodate these well-to-do crowds, and elegant hotels in the scenic regions were crowded with guests from New York to Boston” 7. “Trains brought tourists to the edges of the scenic areas; from there, stagecoaches carried them ‘inside’ to hotels, close by the chief scenic attractions” 8. Tourists were in search of scenic experiences, so they traveled into “another world altogether” where they “suffered more discomfort, but also perhaps experienced greater luxury than at home, and where they sought out intense private experiences and were expected to allow them to be overwhelming. In this new touring world, letters of introduction and social networks were no longer needed” 9. Maine scenery brought tourists because scenery was depicted to be a romantic experience. This acted as an advertisement for scenic touring.

landscape
Peaks Island, c. 1886. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

It promised that a person who valued and understood the landscape could “expect to be considered especially gifted.” This was a “tempting promise” for tourists in the early 19th century. Tourism “took on an element of fantasy, and scenic touring was designed to reign that sense of unreality” 10. By the end of the century, “the railroad, the newspaper, the porter, the Hackman, the trader, the merchant, the bootblack, the trolley, the livery stable, the barber…everyone gets some of [the summer guest’s] money” 11. There were theaters, roller rinks, musical entertainers, a 5 story observatory, dance halls, at least 16 hotels, restaurants, bird and animal houses, and amusement park rides 12.

coney
Waterfront at Peaks Island, featuring the Gem Theater at left, c. 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Gem Theater, first used as the Forest City Skating Rink, was run by a Portland entrepreneur named Bart MacCullum. He staged comedies and Broadway tryouts here. George M Cohan, an important figure of Broadway, produced some of his first popular performances here. Also, John Ford, one of America’s greatest film directors, worked as an usher here 13.

Greenwood Park, the characteristic “Coney Island-like amusement park,” attracted thousands of families. One big attraction was Prince Leo, a famous balloonist who parachuted from his balloon, landing on the island as a crazy spectacle. A man named Professor Oldie could “walk on water,” meaning he wore two outsize floats as shoes to make him appear to be walking across it 14.

It only cost 25 cents for a ticket on the ferry. This is a photo of one of the steamer boats, named Emita, in 1938. Cisco Bay Lines steamer Emita ran between the islands in Casco Bay and the mainland of Portland from around 1900 to the 1950s. This is a postcard as part of the Maine vacation series of postcards printed by the Tichnor Brothers printing company, which were printed from around 1930 to 1945 and were meant to strengthen Maine’s tourism industry.

emita
The Steamer Emita. Image courtesy of the Maine Memory Network

The growth in tourism was spurred in part by the growth of railroad and steamship travel, but also with the growth of leisure time among the American middle class. The Industrial Revolution plays a huge factor in the start of tourism on Peaks because it sparked the tourist industry in Maine, as well as allowed people to have more leisure time. Although railroads brought industry away from Maine at first, it eventually opened up a spot in the economy for tourism, and also physically carried city folks from Boston and New York up into Maine.

Downfall of Tourism on Peaks

The downfall of tourism on Peaks Island can be explained by many different factors, happening at varying times along the timeline. First, the automobile was introduced as a widespread mode of transportation for families. Second, fires and storms destroyed the island’s physical, man made attractions. Third, the Great Depression reduced people’s ability to go on vacations. And finally, World War II created unfavorable conditions for tourism on the island.

As mentioned earlier, the main made of transportation for tourists was the railroad. It brought the traveler to “fixed points at fixed times.” Most tourists in 1900 expected to travel to a single destination “as a home base for their explorations of mountains or beaches or historical buildings” 15. Within a decade of the introduction of the automobile, it became the most popular means of transportation for tourists. Early automobile travelers imagined themselves as “more adventurous than said Victorian vacationers, idealizing the speed and mobility of modern travel” 16. They liked to explore the backroads and towns off the beaten path, staying only for a few nights at each spot so they could see more. “Instead of large numbers of stationary guests who stayed for a month or more, the automobile brought unpredictable, vagrant overnight guest, a less reliable and less lucrative business that hastened the hotels’ decline” 17. Cars changed the landscape of tourism.

There were three fires that destroyed many of the hotels and entertainment facilities at Greenwood Gardens. One occurred in 1918, one in 1934, and another in 1936. These fires physically destroyed the foundation for much of the attraction on the island, so it is no wonder that tourism declined during this period 18.

The Great Depression caused families to be unable to afford vacations. On Peaks Island, the ownership of many of the foreclosed properties went to the city, which devoted them to housing the homeless 19.

Peaks Island has a special history in the context of World War II because it housed around 800 soldiers on the back side of the island, the portion facing away from Portland 20. During the war, Casco Bay became the northern base for the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, and they built a military installation, Battery Steele, which contained two 50 ton guns 21. The military occupied the back side of the island until they left in 1948. As you can imagine, the island was far from a tourist location [^22]. Everything was run down, and it was not until the 1970s that people started to see the island’s potential.

Tourist Culture of Peaks Island Today

Today, Peaks Island is still a tourist destination, just not in the same way it used to be during the “Coney Island of Maine” era. Peaks is now defined more by its lack of commercial activity. “It is an ideal place for people– year round residents and second homeowners alike– who happily forgo certain conveniences to spend time interacting with their neighbors and with nature” 22.

For decades, Peaks Island has attracted all types of people looking for “the best of both worlds– the peace and quiet and beauty of rural living combined with the cultural offerings of a city” 23. In July and August, the population more than doubles from around 850 people to between 2000 and 4000 (including day trippers). “There isn’t a whole lot to do here, but that’s the point” 24. People can circumnavigate the island on bike or on foot leisurely in a few hours, spending a full day or longer. There is no rush to get anywhere, unless you’re late for the next ferry. The island remains a “tolerant, cozy, vibrant place where visitors can enjoy the idiosyncratic lifestyle, still distant from the turmoil of the mainland, through it looms just three miles away” 25.

The Peaks Island Land Preserve has protected the back side of the island since 1948, when the military left. This conservation effort has helped keep the island from developing new real estate, maintaining a natural, beautiful, scenic landscape 26.

The development of scenery “transformed the landscape of the northern route. And more than any other attraction along the northern route, scenery would also change the experience of tourism” 27. During these later years of more relaxed tourism, people are drawn to places of simplicity and nature, rather than amusement and attractions. Nowadays, we live our lives going from one thing to the next, always with our minds stimulated. When we think of vacation, we think of relaxation. Peaks Island has become the perfect place for this. A Boston Globe article about the island says: “life moves slower on Peaks” 28. Tourists can still achieve the hustle and bustle side of tourism in downtown Portland, but a ferry ride of only about 20 minutes quickly transforms the scene. A Portland native describes it this way: “it is a gift for those of us living in Portland that if ever the city seems too small, the neighborhoods of the peninsula too familiar, there is another one, an island neighborhood, just a 20 minute ferry ride away” 29. “Peaks Island is where I go to spend a morning or afternoon by myself in a place that feels both extremely close to home, as if I’m adventuring into the heart of it, or delightfully far away” 30. She says: “despite the number of day trippers, it hardly feels touristy at all.” Jane Newark, who runs Gem Gallery, which features local artists, says: “no one comes for… convenience. They come for the inconvenience… Something else has to draw you here, like the community, the beauty of the island, the safety, the freedom, the fact that you can walk everywhere” 31.

The Author

Olivia Smith is a student at Dartmouth College who comes from the Portland, ME area and for a time was a resident on Peaks Island.

Cover Image Public Domain


  1. Glazier, Willard W. Peculiarities of American Cities. Philadelphia, Hubbard Brothers, Publishers, 1886. Online Text. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/13005993/.: 364 

  2. Caldwell, Bill. Islands of Maine: where America really began. Camden, ME: Down East Books, 2001: 108 

  3. Kaiser, James. Acadia: The Complete Guide. Destination Press, 2016. 

  4. Dona Brown, “That Dream of Home,” in Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995: 178. 

  5. Kaiser, Acadia: The Complete Guide, 2016: 116. 

  6. Gaines, Judith. 2005. “Arts, Laughter, Relaxation Make Peaks Experience.” Boston Globe, Sep 11. 

  7. Brown, Inventing New England, 1995: 75 

  8. Ibid., 62. 

  9. Ibid., 33-34. 

  10. Ibid., 33. 

  11. Ibid., 182. 

  12. Gaines, Arts, Laughter, Relaxation, 2005. 

  13. Caldwell, Islands of Maine, 2001: 108. 

  14. Ibid., 108. 

  15. Brown, 1995: 205-6. 

  16. Ibid., 206. 

  17. Ibid., 207. 

  18. “Peaks Island Amusement District.” Greater Portland Landmarks. Accessed November 11, 2017. http://www.portlandlandmarks.org/peaks-island-amusement-district/

  19. Dougherty, Steve. 2004. “The Seductions of Autumn Visitors from ‘Away’ Depart, Leaving an Island to its Own.” International Herald Tribune, Sep 13, 18. https://search.proquest.com/docview/318474218?accountid=10422

  20. Nangle, Hilary. 2009. “Maine Islands Perfect for a Fall Foray.” Boston Globe, Sep 27, M.7. https://search.proquest.com/docview/405177035?accountid=10422

  21. Nelson, Sophie. “A Peek at Peaks.” Old Port Magazine. March 9, 2015. http://oldport.com/around-town/peek-peaks/ 

  22. Nelson, “A Peek at Peaks”, 2015. 

  23. Ibid. 

  24. Nangle, 2009. 

  25. Gaines, 2005. 

  26. Nelson, 2015. 

  27. Brown, 1995: 34. 

  28. Nangle, 2009. 

  29. Nelson, 2015. 

  30. Ibid. 

  31. Gaines, 2005.