first published in Landings, February, 2020
Maine celebrates its 200th birthday this year. The coast of Maine was inhabited by indigenous people who were later joined by Europeans long before Maine’s incorporation as an independent state in 1820. Many of those newcomers made their homes along the state’s coastline, establishing communities around harbors where they could make a living from the sea. In celebration of Maine’s bicentennial, Landings provides a brief history of some of the state’s historic harbors, beginning Downeast in the town of Machiasport.
Along the jagged coast of Downeast Maine lies the fishing town of Machiasport. At one time part of Machias, the town was once known for its booming sardine industry as well as lobster, clam, scallop, and shrimp fisheries. The famous British sloop-of-war ship, Margaretta, was captured by Machias settlers and marked the first naval battle in American history. Machias also featured a two foot-wide wooden railroad used in the nineteenth century for logging. Today, lobster, clam digging and aquaculture prevail as Machiasport’s dominant industries.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Machiasport was an important area to Native Americans prior to European settlement. According to the Maine Historic Preservation Commission nineteen known prehistoric archaeological sites are located within Machiasport. The sites are along the shore and feature rock carvings of animals and other images.
The first Europeans arrived in the fall of 1762, when a British whale boat from Scarborough, England came up the Machias River. The travelers took notice of vast marshes, seemingly unlimited pine forests, and fast-running water suitable as a source of power. This led to Machias’ settlement in the spring of 1763. It would become the first incorporated town east of the Penobscot River.
The whale boat that brought these first settlers to the area was led by two masters, one of whom was Captain Thomas Buck, of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Several publications attribute the naming of Buck’s Harbor, one of Machiasport’s five districts and its busiest deep-water port, to Captain Buck. By 1826, just six years after Maine became a state, Machiasport was incorporated as its own town.
The town’s eastern location made it a primary post for land defense during the Revolutionary War. After the initial Battles of Lexington and Concord opened the Revolutionary War in 1775, word made it to Machias that the British war ship Margaretta, captained by James Moore, would arrive to ensure the delivery of lumber to the British barracks in Boston. The people of Machias displayed their anti-British sentiments by erecting a “liberty pole.” Moore threatened to attack if it was not taken down.
After a failed attempt to capture Moore during a negotiation session, a group of settlers led by Jeremiah O’Brien commandeered a merchant ship, the Unity. Wielding axes, pitchforks, rifles, and shovels, about twenty militant locals were able to use Unity to approach and storm Margaretta.
The ensuing hand-to-hand battle resulted in several historic feats. This skirmish, during which Captain Moore was killed, became the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War and the first of its kind in American history. The United States Navy considers Machias one of the birthplaces of the U.S. Navy. In recognition of the event, the Navy has named five different ships the Jeremiah O’Brien after this first naval battle victory. Fort O’Brien Historical Park, originally named Fort Machias, was built after the Margaretta battle, then taken over by the federal government in 1781. In 1814, the fort was captured by 900 British regulars, who took the fort’s guns and then burned the barracks. Machias hosts an annual weekend-long commemoration of this battle, known as Margaretta Days, which features a re-enactment of the battle of the Margaretta.
By 1826 marine and logging industries had taken hold in Machiasport. Maine’s first wooden railroad carried lumber from Whitneyville to Machiasport for export. Machiasport Canning Company and American Canning Company ushered in a sardine canning industry that employed men fishing for herring and women packing them around the clock at the factory.
Barbara Molloy, President of the Machiasport Historical Society, has close ties to those factories. “My daughters packed sardines,” she said. “And they packed through all kinds of conditions. One day, they were packing away in the packing room when they smelled smoke coming from the shipping room.” Unfazed, her daughters barely acknowledged the fire. “They kept on packing and packing while the fire was put out by someone in the shipping room,” Molloy said.
As the sardine industry waned in the 1970s due to the import of Norwegian sardines, one dilapidated factory was razed before it could topple into the water. “Whatever fell into the water would become the responsibility of the town,” Molloy explained. The other quietly closed. Today only an old concrete foundation remains as a remnant of this past industry.
Celeste Sherman, a member of the Machiasport Historical Society and Machiasport resident, notes more recent changes that have taken place since she and her husband arrived in 2002. “Dollar stores have been phased out. We haven’t had a store in Machiasport for a long time,” she said. “We have had [salmon] aquaculture, with pens just off the shore since we got here.”
While Machiasport has assured its place in American history and seen sardine and logging industries rise and fall over the course of four centuries, some occupations have remained constant since its inception: lobstering and clam digging. According to the town, 81 Machiasport residents hold shellfish licenses. Other fisheries have ebbed, however. “You don’t see any dragging anymore,” Sherman said. “No more shrimp, and a lot less scalloping.” Cooke Aquaculture now has a marine farm and a value-added processing facility in Machiasport.
Here’s to many centuries more of Machiasport’s thriving lobster and clam fisheries, and to the people of Machiasport.