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Brief History of Maine

By The Numbers Tax rate: $24.56/$1,000 valuation City Hall: 389 Congress St., 874-8300. Public schools: 874-8111.

The largest city in Maine, Portland, with a population of about 64,500 in an area of 26 square miles, is in a superb position on the Casco Bay Peninsula. In its infancy it quickly prospered by building ships and exporting the great island pines for use as masts. A long line of wooden wharves stretched along the seafront, with the merchant's houses on the hillside above.

From the earliest days it was a cosmopolitan city, with a large free black population who traditionally worked as longshoremen; there was great bitterness when Irish immigrants began to muscle in on the scene in the 1830's. When the railroads came, the Canada Trunk Line had its terminus right on Portland's quayside, bringing the produce of Canada and the Great Plains one hundred miles closer to Europe than it would be at any other major US port. Some of the wharves are now taken up by new condo developments, through Custom House Wharf remains much as it must have looked when Anthony Trollope passed through in 1861 and said "I doubt whether I ever saw a town with more evident signs of prosperity." Most of the town he saw was destroyed by an accidental fire in 1866 (Indians in 1675, and the British in 1775, had previously burned Portland deliberately).

Grand Trunk Station was torn down in 1966, and downtown Portland appeared to be in terminal decline until a group of committed residents undertook the energetic redevelopment of the area now known as Old Port Exchange. Their success has revitalized the city, keeping it at the heart of Maine life - but you shouldn't expect a hive of energy. Portland is simply a pleasant, sophisticated, and attractive town, not a major urban center.

Maine History Timeline

Portland Peninsula

English settlers inhabited the Portland Peninsula, then called by the Indian name Machigonne. The name was changed to Casco and, in 1658 to Falmouth.


1652 The entire Casco Bay area became part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.


1675 Area completely destroyed by a fire started by Native Americans during King Phillip's War

Portland Commerce Grows

1776 After the Revolutionary War, Portland was established as a commercial port and began rapid growth as a shipping center.

Portland adopted as town name

1786 Local Citizens name their town Portland.


1820 Maine became a state and Portland its first Capital.


1820's Portland recovers from the Embargo Act and War of 1812. Maine boats could trade all over the world

Steamship service to Boston

1823 First steamship from Boston; beginning of regular passenger service between the two cities.


1852 Commercial Street opened to connect railroad and water transportation networks.

Great fire of 1866

1866 The Great fire of 1866, started at a Fourth of July Celebration, destroyed most of the public buildings, half the churches, and hundreds of houses. The city was rebuilt with brick Victorian style and early 20th century houses, now seen throughout Portland.


1941 Portland became the home port of the U.S. North American Fleet during WW II


1961 Beginning of the preservation movement in Portland.

Old Port attracts artisans and retailers

1970's The Old Port became an area of artist's studios and a lively retail center.

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