PORTLAND, Maine — A lot of history has happened since Europeans first started settling the peninsula in the 1630s. In the past 400 years or so, battles were won and lost, fortunes made and obliterated, lives built and rebuilt.
In the course of these human events, citizens have marked the passage of time with something durable and solid that will last against the ravages of decay. In other words, they put up a sign.
Here are five Portland historic markers you might have missed. Most are small or out of the way and easy to pass over, but you have no excuse to not see them now.
A seat not made for sitting
A rather uncomfortable stone bench sits in the middle of a grassy section of Fort Allen Park on the city’s Eastern Prom. It’s easy to miss amid all the cannons and views of Portland Harbor.
It was dedicated Sept. 9, 1929, in memory of the Grand Army of the Republic — better known as the Union Army of the Civil War.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” its plaque pronounces, “One country and one flag.”
The bench was placed by the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War. The organization still exists and is headquartered in Springfield, Illinois. Maine’s branch was chartered in 1912. If you’re a woman, older than 8 and can prove a direct ancestor who was a member of the Union Army, you can join.
Armenian Genocide survivors
A bricked space, two benches and a granite post make up this marker dedicated to Portland’s survivors of the Armenian Genocide on Cumberland Avenue across from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and on the edge of the no-man’s-land in the middle of Franklin Street. Hundreds of cars whizz by every day.
As many as 1.2 million people died during the genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in the first decades of the 20th century, according to the United States Holocuast Memorial and Museum. Portland’s memorial post is carved with an inscription and cross.
“250 Armenian families lived in Portland where they established business and a vibrant social life,” it reads.
The city tore down most of the Armenian neighborhood in the 1960s to make way for Franklin Street. The split-lane roadway was part of the city’s urban renewal plan to quickly get cars from the interstate to the waterfront.
A living Christmas tree
A small plaque at the foot of an evergreen in the Franklin Street median strip in Portland on Wednesday, July 14, states the tree was a gift from the 103rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
This weatherbeaten plaque — and evergreen — are just to the left of the Armenian Genocide marker in Franklin Street’s median strip. You have to look hard to see it even if you know it’s there.
Details are scant but the green metal marker reads, “A living Christmas tree presented to the city of Portland.”
It goes on to indicate the conifer was planted by the 103rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in November 1960. It doesn’t state a reason or what the occasion marked. Judging by the not-very-advanced age of the tree, it’s a safe bet the original was since replaced. It’s also possible that the marker was moved.
The regiment was newly formed at the time the plaque was placed but its roots were in the 240th Coast Guard anti-aircraft battery protecting Portland Harbor during World War II. After the tree was planted, the unit went through numerous name changes and redesignations, eventually becoming Maine’s present-day 133rd Engineer Battalion, based in Bangor.
John Bundy Brown’s brick building
The plaque on the corner of 529 Congress Street commemorates the former Rines Brothers department store. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
The huge and elegant John Bundy Brown Memorial Building stands at 529 Congress St. A good-sized plaque is attached at the eastern end. The brown marker is rather plain and it’s not hard to walk by without reading. It says nothing about Brown.
Instead, it memorializes the Rines Brothers Department Store which occupied the building from 1884 until 1977. Through most of the 20th century, it was one of the city’s four large anchor stores on Congress Street. One 1914 advertisement for Rines touts its free telephones, street car stop and second-floor restrooms.
The building’s namesake, Brown, was a 19th century sugar refining magnate. He lost his Portland factory in the Great Fire of 1866 but not his fortune. After the blaze, he sank his dough into real estate, extending his wealth further. His company, J.B. Brown and Sons, survives today.
Its offices are not in the building, though. They are on Commercial Street.
A plaque at the foot of a trio of pine trees in Portland’s Deering oaks Park states they are dedicated to the Constitution’s sesquicentennial. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Deering Oaks Park is famous for its oak trees, as the name suggests. But it’s got other varieties, as well. A trio of pines near the Deering Avenue border are dedicated to the 150th birthday of the United States Constitution, according to a tiny plaque at their bases.
The bronze marker reads, in part: “Elizabeth Wadsworth Chapter D.A.R May 16, 1937.” But the Daughters of the American Revolution were a little early. The Constitution was signed in 1798 and it’s sesquicentennial was in 1939, two years later. But they say it’s the thought that counts.
The trees appear healthy but not large. It’s likely they were replanted sometime after the plaque appeared, or the marker was moved at some point.