SEARSPORT, Maine — Among the dozens of photographs included in the Penobscot Marine Museum’s new, rich and varied exhibit “ Summer Folk” is a 1931 image of the opening of the Waldo-Hancock Bridge linking Prospect with Verona Island. A parade is crossing the new bridge, while one of the Eastern Steamship Co.’s vessels passes below, perhaps on its way to dock in Bucksport.
Ben Fuller, museum curator, said he believes the photographer unknowingly captured a turning point in the history of Maine tourism. The bridge made it easier for drivers to travel to Bar Harbor.
“You no longer had to drive to Bangor and back down,” he said. “You could come straight up the coast.”
Just four years later, the Eastern Steamship Co., whose vessels carried passengers from harbors large and small along the Maine coast to and from Boston and beyond for nearly 50 years, was out of business.
This was no coincidence, Fuller believes. The era of the car-driving tourist was now in full swing. By 1936, Maine state government added the word “Vacationland” to license plates, further cementing the tie between tourism and the automobile. A decade later, the first stretch of the Maine Turnpike was completed, linking coastal New Hampshire with South Portland.
Fuller notes that in the late 1920s when closed cars began to be the norm — as opposed to open vehicles like the Model T — and middle class folks began to have vacations from their jobs as standard benefits, the coast of Maine became accessible to those living in population centers in Massachusetts and farther south.
With the museum’s focus on the Penobscot Bay region, “Summer Folk,” which spans the late 19th through mid-20th centuries, wisely tells the story of how tourism in this part of the coast developed quite differently from places like Mount Desert Island and the resort towns of southern Maine. Those differences remain, even as roads and airports have made travel faster and easier.
The grand hotels and summer mansions of Bar Harbor and southern Maine towns such as Ogunquit and the Kennebunks were established in the Gilded Age, the era after the Civil War in which the upper-income class grew even wealthier and sought places where they could escape the heat and disease that made city living unattractive in the summer. Patrons arrived by railroad or boat.
This sort of tourism did not take root in the Penobscot Bay region, with a couple of exceptions.
“The two towns I think of as tourism towns, where 100-bed hotels were built, are Castine and Camden,” Fuller said. “Camden, in particular, was a real estate play,” he said, with hotel backers hoping to persuade visitors to buy land and build houses in the area. Many did, as the grand homes on Dillingham Point and on Lake Megunticook in Camden attest.
Islesboro, where dozens of shingle-style mansions were built in the late 19th century and early 20th century, banned automobiles from the island in 1911. In 1933, the ban was repealed —- again, said Fuller, signaling a change in Maine tourism.
While grand hotels were rare in the Penobscot Bay region, the notable exceptions were the Fort Point Hotel on Cape Jellison in Stockton Springs and the Samoset in Rockland.
“They were the only two efforts at Mount Desert Island-style hotels,” with about 300 beds, Fuller said. The Fort Point Hotel was built in 1895 and burned three years later. The original Samoset was built in 1889 and burned in 1972.
Instead of the grand hotels, the Penobscot Bay region saw places like the Mountain Ash Inn and Cottages in Brooklin, and tent colonies like one established in 1901 in Sunset, on Deer Isle, shown in one of the exhibit’s photos. The Deer Isle bridge was constructed in 1939, opening the islands to driving tourists.
These sorts of places were geared “toward the middle class, the teacher-grade professional class,” Fuller said.
Car camping, tent sites and auto camps — the early versions of motels — began to proliferate in coastal Maine, many of which are represented in photos in the exhibit.
The exhibit spreads across the museum’s multibuilding campus. One component is found in the Fowler-True-Ross House, an old sea captain’s home, which has been staged to resemble an early bed-and-breakfast inn. Fuller said many families did just that, reconfiguring their home to allow a bedroom or two to be rented out to tourists.
In the gallery adjacent to the marine store all sorts of artifacts from the early 20th century tourist trade are displayed, including boat schedules, diaries, toys and more photos.
An adjunct to “Summer Folk” is a collection of paintings gathered under the heading “The Art of the Sea Battle.” One of the most striking images is the painting “Slaver Brig with Royal Navy Brig in Pursuit,” by E. Poulson, believed to have been painted around 1840.
Fuller explained that in 1816, Great Britain launched an anti-slavery trade naval force. The painting shows the slave ship in obvious trouble, a gaping hole in its mainsail, probably from a cannon ball. African crew members — yes, they did assist the Europeans in the shameful business — are laboring on deck, and if one looks closely, scores of captives can be seen chained to the rail.
“There’s so much going on in that painting,” Fuller said, “that I suspect Poulson was on that [British] ship” which is pursuing the slaver. It is the only painting of that era Fuller has seen depicting the slave trade.
The museum is on the north side of Main Street (U.S. Route 1) in downtown Searsport. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.