Maine State Pier: A Look Back At Its History

By Carol McCracken

The recently well- attended series of meetings held by the city’s planning division on the future and past of the Maine State Pier indicates that there is indeed almost an insatiable interest in Portland Harbor. The first in the series of meetings held at the Ocean Gateway facility focused on the past and it was well attended – the following then is another look at the history of how the Maine State Pier came into being.

Portland Harbor has long been recognized for its natural advantages over other ports on the East Coast. In fact, so well-regarded were the harbor’s “natural characteristics” that a report issued in 1918 stated persuasively that Portland Harbor could become a “great trans-Atlantic harbor,” given the opportunity. The agenda of the report was to support the construction of the Maine State Pier.

Some of the harbor’s attributes listed in the same 1918 report, buried in Portland’s archives, include its proximity to Liverpool, England and its three-and-a-half mile closeness to open ocean with an easy channel to navigate. Additionally, the ice-free harbor is protected from storms by a string of islands across the channel.

As of 1918, the City of Portland had 37 piers in the harbor; today the number is far less. All were privately owned including some owned by the railroads. This meant there were no piers on the east end of the harbor available for other ships and suitable for overseas commerce and even in some cases for coastwise transportation. By 1918 some of the private wharves had fallen into such disrepair they could barely service their own companies. The exceptions to this were the coal, oil and lumber wharves which remained in good condition. One of the wharves, Union Wharf, had remained particularly financially successfully. All important considerations when advocating the construction of the Maine State Pier. And convincing enough to persuade the State Legislature to proceed with the project.

The winter and spring of 1920 were spent identifying the best location for the new Maine State Pier – it was decided that the best location would be over the site of the Galt and Franklin wharves on the east end of the harbor. Then, in 1921, Portland and So. Portland purchased the site and deeded it to the State of Maine. Later the same year, the construction of the Maine State Pier was begun. It was finished in 1923.

“…why and how did the city get into a predicament in which it now finds itself – shut in by private owners who forbid access to the waters of the ocean unless people pay tribute to them in the form of rent or wharfage or other charges? How did it come about that the city thus allowed itself to be hemmed in on all sides?” This long series of questions was asked by the writer of an article in “The Sunday Press” in January of 1915. The unidentified writer goes on to suggest that it didn’t happen at once – only over a period of years. Unfortunately, no public official was cognizant of the consequences this monopoly by private interests would have on the public and its ability to expand business overseas – which these private interests were incapable of doing even if there were markets for their products.

The building of the wharf system started after the American Revolution. On January 1 of 1793, the first organizing meeting of the owners of the Union Wharf occurred. Construction of the wharf began immediately following the meeting. Just one month later, the owners of Long Wharf began construction of their wharf. By 1806, Portland Harbor had become the sixth largest seaport in the US. The next wharf to be built was Portland Pier – begin in 1807. By 1823, Portland Harbor boasted the largest commercial fleet on the East Coast.

During the inevitable man-made obstacles to the success of the wharves of Portland Harbor, many continued to prosper. Union Wharf was at the top of this list of prosperous wharves through the ages. This was made possible through smart and attentive management that adjusted to the changes occurring around it on the waterfront. The owners constantly made improvements to the wharf and increased its size. And they tried new sources of income – whatever it took to keep Union Wharf viable – extremely viable in fact. However, by the early 1900s Portland Harbor had become hopelessly obsolete. The Harbor was temporarily salvaged by the development of the Old Port and by Bath Iron Works, when it leased wharf space from the city in 1981 to be used as a dry dock. But that didn’t last forever either. Subsequent zoning regulations restricting waterfront use to “marine-use only” did not bring the self-sustaining revenues hoped for either.

Two summers ago, the City Council voted to contract with Olympia Cos. to redevelop the Maine State Pier. When Olympia backed out, Ocean Properties, the only other bidder in the request for proposals won the contract by default. However, in another surprise move, Ocean Properties announced earlier this year they too were withdrawing from the redevelopment of the Maine State Pier.

What’s next in this ongoing struggle between private enterprise and the public’s desire for accessibility to the waterfront? Whatever it is, wouldn’t it nice if it weren’t so partisian as this remains?