ROCKLAND, Maine — If you’re walking on Main Street and turn onto Tillson Avenue, once you pass the wine shop, florist and public bathrooms, you’re going to quickly realize there’s not much reason to be down there unless you have to be.
City officials have been trying to figure out how to attract developers to this industrial waterfront peninsula, which is home to a U.S. Coast Guard base, the sprawling Journey’s End marina, DuPont’s Carrageenan plant, the city fish pier, plus a number of vacant buildings and parking lots.
An updated vision for Tillson Avenue hasn’t fully been developed, though the City Council has made that a priority for 2020.
But in Rockland’s early days through the mid-1900s, the area, known as “The Point,” was a bustling neighborhood, home to the city’s first settlers and then immigrant families, according to Rockland Historical Society Curator Ann Morris.
As the city grew, the point garnered a reputation for being a rowdy place, home to prostitution and heavy drinking. However, Morris said this reputation was based more on prejudices than facts.
“It was very colorful and cosmopolitan. Everyone knew each other and they all spoke different languages,” Morris said. “But [discrimination is why residents] were glad to give [The Point] a reputation of all the wildest things that were going on all over Rockland.”
Looking at a map of Rockland, The Point is easy to spot — sticking out in the middle of the harbor like a boot, surrounded by water on nearly all sides. It’s the reason why it was the first area of the city to be settled in the 1790s, when Rockland was still a part of Thomaston.
Through the 19th century, residences were located in the middle of The Point, with wharves and lime kilns to support Rockland’s booming limestone industry along the waterfront.
“It was Rockland’s first residential neighborhood, with lots of houses,” Morris said. “There were no roads, so it was all travel by water.”
Once Rockland separated from Thomaston in 1848, the city began to grow westward, away from the waterfront. As this happened, people began to move off of The Point to newer homes in the downtown area — homes that had plumbing, unlike the residences on the point, according to Morris.
This left cheap housing open for the second wave of immigrants arriving in Rockland from countries including Poland, Italy and Armenia around the turn of the 20th century.
“These immigrants were really doing the difficult blue-collar jobs, working in the lime quarries and lime kilns, the fish-packing plants and the granite quarries out on the islands,” Morris said.
While these families were largely poor, they maintained a vibrant community on The Point through the mid-1900s. There were antique shops and junk shops, a well-frequented Army-Navy store and restaurants, according to Morris.
But still, “The Point had a reputation of being an undesirable neighborhood,” she said.
As two world wars brought sailors to Rockland’s former Navy base on The Point, the city became infamous along the eastern seaboard as the place to come for a good time.
“People said that if a geodesic dome was placed over Rockland it would be the biggest whorehouse in the country,” Morris said. “This was really a wild town for sailors.”
Across the city, there were bars and places where men could pay for sex. “Sex workers” hung out around the train station or the Myrtle House — places located outside of The Point.
“Those things were going on everywhere, but people like to ascribe it to The Point to keep it contained,” Morris said.
Between the 1950s and 1960s, as industry grew on the point and the homes became less desirable, the city of Rockland tore them down, according to city directories. While some homes were moved off The Point, most were razed leaving the history of the area as a residential neighborhood nearly forgotten. But the salacious reputation still lingers in the minds of many Rockland residents, whether it was true or not.
This is why Morris has spent the past year and a half researching a book on the history of The Point — she wants it to be remembered for what it actually was.
“Most of the people who live in Rockland don’t know what a wonderful place it really was,” she said.