Maine’s Historic Ports: Port Clyde, St. George

“Port Clyde, U.S.A.,” reads the T-shirt of a young man sauntering to the wharf. The short phrase encapsulates the view of a small village that knows precisely who and where it is. Port Clyde, part of the town of St. George, is the furthest east groundfishing port in the state, a precarious distinction in a time when groundfishing remains an extremely restricted fishery.
But that wasn’t always the case. When the St. George peninsula was first settled, originally by wandering explorers and more permanently by Scotch and Irish immigrants brought by landowner Samuel Waldo to the area in the early 1700s, the resources of land and sea were abundant. The harbor was first known as Herring Gut, a reference to the rich herring schools that traveled the Maine coast in mid to late summer.

The early Port Clyde residents turned their hands to the natural resources of the area to make their livings. Lumber was available for building homes and sea-going vessels. Granite was nearby to be quarried for wharves and city buildings. Even cutting ice became a profitable endeavor: the Port Clyde Cold Storage and Ice Company began operating in the 1870s. The village’s population peaked around 1880 at 3,000 individuals.
Marine resources, however, have been the keystone of Port Clyde’s economy. In recognition of the village’s seafaring economy, Congress authorized construction of the Marshall Point Lighthouse in 1832 at the eastern entrance to the harbor; the lighthouse was partially rebuilt in 1857 and 1896. It was automated in 1971 and is now operated as a museum by the town of St. George.

A cannery was operating in Port Clyde as early as 1859. The facility first canned lobsters, clams and mussels. As canning technology improved, sardines became a popular canning item. The Port Clyde Packing Company began operating in 1944 and remained successful until the factory burned down in 1970. It was the largest fire in the history of St. George and left 200 people jobless. When the factory exploded hundreds of cans flew out of the building and landed in the water. The adjacent beach took on the name “Can Beach” for the many cans that soon washed ashore.

In its heyday, Port Clyde featured all the small businesses associated with fishing: a salt factory, menhaden factory, ice businesses, shipyard, sawmill, blacksmith shops, sailmaker and stores selling marine supplies. Port Clyde fishermen, like many along the coast, fished through the seasons, shifting from lobster to herring to shrimp and other species depending on the time of year. Now fewer than 12 groundfishing vessels call Port Clyde their home port. The bulk of the fleet fishes for lobsters and scallops in the winter; the shrimp fishery closed in 2013 and has not reopened.
But the village’s understanding of its deep connection to the sea remains constant. In 2008 a fishermen’s memorial was dedicated near Marshall Point Lighthouse, honoring 11 fishermen who have died at sea since 1941. The motivation for the memorial came when Port Clyde fisherman Gary Thorbjornson was lost at sea in 2005. Thorbjornson made sure his son and son’s friend had their survival gear on before going below to get his own gear. For three years the community held raffles, suppers and auctions to raise the funds necessary to erect the monument.

George French Collection. French was a photographer who worked for the Maine Development Commission from 1936-1955. Photo 1942-1943. Courtesy of Marshall Point Lighthouse Museum

Port Clyde Fresh Catch, which began as a Community Supported Fishery in 2007, is a new face on the harbor although the company is peopled with old Port Clyde names. The idea behind Fresh Catch is simple: focus on quality, not quantity, and provide fishermen with a higher price per pound. Groundfishermen (and shrimp fishermen when the fishery was open) bring their daily catches to a small facility on the harbor, where the fish are cleaned and processed, then sold locally and also shipped throughout the country. As Glen Libby, manager of Port Clyde Fresh Catch and a former fisherman himself, says in Caught: Time. Place. Fish., “The most important lesson to learn…is if you become complacent and expect things to go along as they always have you are in for a big surprise. Change is never ending and ignoring that fact will lead to failure.” And that is a point of view that deftly sums up the fishing village of Port Clyde, U.S.A.

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