Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2407
PEAKS ISLAND

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a changing island. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We've just ridden the Casco Bay ferry from Portland, Maine, to Peaks Island. Technically the Island is part of Portland, but it's also a place apart. Thousands of islands dot Maine's coast -- two hundred or so right here in Casco Bay. Peaks Island is a little over one square mile, with about a thousand year-round residents.

Casco Bay ferry and old Civil War Fort
Casco Ferry passing the Civil War era Fort Gorges

Thomas Brackett's gravestone Europeans first visited, then settled, the Island in the 17th century. Graves in the old cemetery date back two hundred years. The Island is a big rock under thin topsoil. That and a short growing season make it a poor bet for farming. But this was once a rich fishing region. Most on Maine's rocky shore lived by fishing, shipbuilding, and ocean commerce. Only a few families occupied Peaks Island over the centuries. They fished and traded with the mainland.

But the summer people began coming to Maine in the 19th century. For cool tranquil beauty, summer here has few peers. The Maine coast had been drawing wealthy vacationers for some time by the 1880s. Then after two centuries this fishing community exploded into a kind of Coney-Island-north -- hotels, restaurants, theatres, dancehalls, a theme park, all served by twelve steamboat lines.

Peaks Island
One of the Peaks Island landings today

Finally, the Depression hit. It was followed by fires that swept the overbuilt island. Before it recovered, WW-II began. Portland and the other harbors of southern Maine were terribly important ports. Civil War forts still dotted the islands around these harbors, but Portland now needed far more advanced fortifications to protect it from German attack.

So Peaks Island became home to over eight hundred soldiers. Concrete bunkers and observation posts are everywhere. On the far side of the Island are two huge abandoned gun turrets separated by several hundred feet of underground tunnel. Each held a monster 16-inch naval gun. The guns were test-fired only once. Their blasts broke windows all over the island and the recoil, transmitted through rock, caused small earthquakes. After the war, an Islander ran into a German U-boat captain who said he'd spent the war looking at Peaks Island -- through a periscope.

Invasive bittersweet vines, once planted as camouflage, now grow over that history. The Coney Island flavor has not come back, but Maine's waters are seriously fished out. Only that bottom-feeder, the lobster, remains plentiful. Nor do we see too many fish-feeding birds. Just gulls, cormorants, and an occasional bald eagle.

House built on a gun Battery But the summer people still come. And, as the wealthy discover the Island, concrete bunkers become foundations for really elegant homes -- swords into plowshares I suppose. Now this odd study of demography-in-microcosm is a place for bikers and hikers. But it's also a place where history is contained and magnified. As I walk through that old cemetery at twilight, I imagine ghosts watching it all -- and wondering what form their Island will take next.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Sustainable Design for Two Maine Islands, Final Report. (Boston: The Boston Architectural Center, 1985).

Much of Peaks Island history is available on line. See, e.g.:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peaks_Island
http://pages.cthome.net/fwc/FORTS.HTM
http://www.islandinstitute.org/peaks_island.php
http://www.peaksisland.info/

I am indebted to museum director Kim MacIsaac and her staff for their counsel. My thanks also to Maine Island Historians Jim Millinger and Pommy Hatfield for a great deal of information about Maine Island culture. All photos by J. Lienhard


WW-II observation post
A WW-II fire-control observation post next to Peaks Island

Battery Steel
The 16-inch gun turret at one end of "Battery Steel"

Connecting tunnel
The tunnel connecting the two 16-inch guns of Battery Steel

Graffiti
Graffiti on the wall adjacent to the old gun bed


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.