PORTLAND, Maine — History is everywhere in Portland.
It’s got ancient cemeteries, studded with weathered stones, a downtown lined with stately, 19th century brick buildings and tour guides circling the city daily, pointing out landmarks to amazed summer people — and that’s just what we can see.
There’s lots of other historic details, events and lives which remain invisible. That’s why we have historic markers — to help us remember.
But sometimes they’re hard to spot.
Following our last list, here’s five more historic markers you probably never noticed.
The country’s 1st leopard
A 10-story office building stands at 1 Monument Square, directly behind the Our Lady of Victories Civil War monument. Among the shrubs at the tower’s gargantuan base is an easy-to-miss, horizontal bronze tablet announcing the United States Hotel once occupied the same spot of prime real estate.
It also makes a big claim about a large cat.
“A leopard, advertised as the first in America, was exhibited here in 1809,” it reads.
The marker also states the hotel was built by Dr. Nathaniel Coffin.
Coffin was born in 1774 and practiced medicine in Portland for many years before opening the four-story hotel in 1805. Coffin’s father was also a local doctor.
The younger Coffin once had his portrait made by famed American painter Gilbert Stuart, and when he died in 1826 at the age of 82, the Boston and Portland Advertiser newspapers ran lengthy obituaries in his honor.
He’s buried, with his father, in a family tomb in the Eastern Cemetery.
No additional details about the leopard seem to exist.
A plaza with 2 names
Ask a Portlander where Lobsterman Park or Lobsterman Plaza is and they’ll likely point you to the cobblestoned corner in front of the Nickelodeon Cinema on Temple Street.
In the middle, kneels the familiar lobsterman statue sculpted by Victor Kahill for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. It depicts real-life Maine trap hauler Elroy “Snoody” Johnson of Bailey Island, securing a lobster’s claw.
But neither one of those names is correct, according to a large marker placed off to the side by the City Council in 2016.
“John E. Menario Plaza,” it reads, in honor of the man who served as city manager from 1967 to 1976. “During his tenure, Mr. Menario provided the vision that laid the cornerstone for the revitalization of Portland.”
Menario was a powerful city leader, known to possess nearly total sway over the City Council at the time. Under his leadership, Portland embraced urban renewal, demolishing more than 100 homes and scores of businesses — including the entire “Little Italy” neighborhood — to make way for the car-centric widening of Franklin and Spring streets.
Criticized for his seeming lack of respect for historic buildings, Menario also oversaw the construction of parking garages and helped sell city property to make way for the Cumberland County Civic Center, now known as the Cross Insurance Arena.
Like him or not, there’s no denying his stamp on the city, including his plaza.
The Press Hotel looms over Congress Street, directly opposite City Hall. Decorated with typewriters and sporting a coffee bar called The Inkwell, the whole thing has a definite newspaper theme.
That’s because the building housed the Portland Press Herald from 1923 until 2009. A marker on the Exchange Street side of the building tells the tale.
“Publisher Guy P. Gannett commissioned this building to serve as the headquarters for the media empire he founded in 1922,” it reads.
Over the years, the edifice housed the Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram, Evening Express, WGAN radio and WGME television. It originally had a printing plant in the basement, as well.
Gannett died in 1954. The Press Herald and its current presses — which print every daily newspaper in the state — are now housed in a leased, nondescript building in a South Portland business park.
A war without a number
Weathered bronze tablets are affixed to the granite balustrades on either side of the staircase leading up to the gates of Portland City Hall.
On the left, the marker is in memory of Portlanders who served in World War I and the 1898 Spanish-American War. On the right, are the names of 67 local soldiers who died serving in WWI.
That’s not exactly true.
It doesn’t say “WWI.” Instead, it calls the conflict “The World War.” That’s because they were both placed in 1922, 17 years before the sequel broke out and we had to start numbering the wars for clarity.
Sometimes known as “the war to end all wars,” WWI sadly did not bring an end to fighting between nations. Two and a half decades after the tablets were erected, the city started putting up markers memorializing the even longer list of people who died in WWII.
You can’t mail that from here
Post Office Park is in the Old Port, just across Exchange Street from Tommy’s Park. Its name comes from the fact that there used to be a post office there. It’s not large and some people like to be funny, calling it Postage Stamp Park, instead.
It’s got a mailbox, too. But it doesn’t work. The mail slot is welded shut.
The red, fire hydrant-shaped structure is just for looks. A close examination reveals the Japanese writing on it.
The mailbox was a gift from Portland’s sister city, Shinagawa, Japan. Like Portland, it is a seaport, though it’s not technically a city, unto itself. Instead, Shinagawa is a highly commercialized, and densely populated, urban Borough of Tokyo with a population of 340,000.
It’s been Portland’s sister city since 1984. The two are connected by a Maine-born scientist who studied shell middens there in the late 19th century.
A label on the back of the post box states it was a gift to Portland in 1989.
Portland also has three other sister cities: Cap-Haitien in Haiti, Archangel in Russia and Mytilene in Greece.