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Maine's Small Harbors: Winter Harbor

East main Street in winter harbor circa 1920. Image courtesy Maine Memory Network

There are deep roots in the community of Winter Harbor. The small town, once part of Gouldsboro, has been a haven for fishermen since European settlers first ventured into the area, in part because its large inner harbor typically does not freeze over in the winter months. Over time those who were successful as fishermen made homes for themselves and their children in the tiny Downeast town. The names of fishing families like Torrey, Knowles, and Backman can be found in the town’s earliest documents and in the phone book today. Winter Harbor was settled in 1762 as a plantation originally known by the unenticing name “Musquito Harbor.” It was renamed Winter Harbor in 1854 as it became a fishing community as well as a shipping port for lumber products. In 1856, the Coast Guard constructed the Winter Harbor Light on Mark Island to guide vessels to the harbor through the ledge-strewn waters of Frenchman’s Bay. The lighthouse was manned by lighthouse keepers and families until 1933. Lumber, cod fish and herring kept Winter Harbor a sturdy but not particularly prosperous community during the 1800s. It wasn’t until the latter part of the century that Winter Harbor’s economy began to change when wealthy “rusticators” from mainland Philadelphia found their way to the small town. A small hotel, the Hotel Hanover, was built in 1860. More than two decades later native Edward J. Hammond, founder of Hammond Lumber, started thinking big about his home town. The wealthy were flocking to nearby Mt. Desert Island; why not to Winter Harbor as well? With two Boston partners he built the 150-room Beacon Hotel in 1887, as well as a casino near the Town Dock. Hammond went on to provide the land and materials for construction of Winter Harbor’s Town Hall in 1904, now known as Hammond Hall.

The Grindstone Inn in 1930. It later burned in 1956. Image courtesy of Maine Memory network from the collection of the Winter harbor Historical Society

In 1889 the Gouldsboro Land Improvement Company purchased 300 acres of farmland on Grindstone Neck to construct a summer colony. The Company hired Nathan Franklin Barrett to design a subdivision. He planned for 198 cottage lots of one acre or larger and arranged the lots along parallel roads, with Grindstone Avenue running the length of the peninsula. Within the first year nearly 30 large summer cottages were built or under construction. Soon an oceanfront clubhouse and casino were constructed, followed by the Grindstone Inn and the Grindstone Neck Golf Course. The inn burned in 1956, but the clubhouse, church and golf course remain. The influx of wealthy summer residents and the related construction boom increased Winter Harbor’s population and brought new forms of employment to the town. The new residents required skills not typically associated with a working fishing and lumber port, such as carpentry, property maintenance and other services. Its growing population prompted Winter Harbor to separate from Gouldsboro and incorporate as a town in 1896. Another feature of Winter Harbor was its Naval Radio Station. The station, situated on Schoodic Point east of the harbor, came about due to another wealthy summer visitor, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Rockefeller petitioned the federal government to move the Otter Cliffs Naval Radio Station on Mt. Desert to land he had donated in Winter Harbor. Moving the Radio Station would allow construction of Acadia National Park’s motorcar loop road, a key element in Rockefeller’s vision of the Park. The government finally agreed to the change, and the Naval Security Group Activity Winter Harbor began operating in 1935. It was a critical radio station during World War II and was eventually decommissioned in 2001. The 100-acre site then reverted back to the National Park Service. The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor worked with Maine Sea Grant to conduct an oral history project in Winter Harbor in 2017. Stories, memories, and perspectives of local fishermen and families and other community members were captured in a geographically-referenced web site available through the Winter Harbor Historical Society and at this link.

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