Little Talks #1338, January 30, 1983
One of Maine’s most picturesque towns, both scenically and historically,
is Wiscasset. Its attractive village, on a broad reach of the Sheepscot
River, on its way to the ocean, has many points of interest to visitors.
Early in Maine history the site showed possibilities of white settlemente
When Champlain sailed up the Sheepscot in 1605, he noted the imposing
sight of the peninsula at the head of the broad reach. Forty-five years
later a Boston speculator in Maine land, Christopher Lawson, got a grant
from the Plymouth Colony. But to make sure settlement would not be interfered
with by hostile Indians, he also secured a deed from the· local chief. It took
eleven more years to get the first settler, when George Davies built a cabin
at Wiscasset Point, near the present site of the old jail.
About a dozen settlers had homes there when King Philip’s War broke out
in 1675. On several. previous broadcasts I have referred to the utter destructiveness
of that war and its successive uprisings, which by 1700 had
wiped out every Maine settlement from York to Georgetown. That was the case
with the Wiscasset area, which saw no white residents between 1677 and 1729.
The first settler to come after the Indian wars was Robert Hooper, who
put up a log cabin on what is now Wiscasset’s Winter Street. Then the popu-
1ation gradually increased until in 1760 the place became part of the newly
incorporated town of Pownal borough, -whose area included the current
towns of Alna and Dresden, as well as the Kennebec island called Perkins,
later Swan Island.
The incorporation of that large town was the accomplishment of the Proprietors
of the Kennebec Purchase who in 1749 obtained ownership of the old
Plymouth Grant, fifteen miles on each side of the Kennebec from Merrymeeting
Bay to Skowhegan Falls. Determined to get settlers on their lands, the company
arranged for a group of Germans from the Palatinate to come to America.
Landing in Boston, those immigrants were at once transported to the Kennebec,
where they built homes on the east bank of the river in what is now the Town
of Dresden. Called at first Frankfort, the name was changed to Pownalborough,
and the settlement was made the county seat of Lincoln County. The old courthouse
still stands, recently restored and opened to visitors. There, in colonial
days, a young attorney named John Adams tried cases before he became
George Washington’s vice-president. Much later Dresden became a center of the
important ice industry. Being at its birth in Massachusetts, Pownalborough
was named for Governor Pownal of that colony.
Old Pownal borough had such a large area that in 1773 it was divided into
two precincts called parishes. The second parish included what is now Wiscasset.
In 1794 the big town was broken up into three: Dresden, Alna and
Pownalborough. In the latter was still Wiscasset. Not until 1802 was the old
name abandoned and the name Wiscasset adopted, but in 1794 the county seat had
already been moved to that place.
Although actually on the broad reach of the Sheepscot River, rather than
directly on the ocean, Wiscasset was long a seaport, for the deep water enabled
the largest sailing vessels to reach its wharves. In 1800 it was the largest
port north of Boston, in its shipping exceeding even Portland. The wealth
of its most affluent sea captains accounted for its many fine mansions that
are points of interest today.
Twenty-five years apart, in 1855 and 1880, were published editions of the
Maine Business Directory, which, taken together, give us a picture of what was
happening in Wiscasset during that quarter of a century. It gives
evidence that Wiscasset shipping had notably declined from its boom days
at the beginning of the century. In 1854 Wiscasset built only 4,000 tons
of shipping, while Bowdoinham built 40,000 and Bath 50,000. Even up the
river at Richmond three times the amount of Wiscasset tonnage was launched.
Even Hallowell, farther up the Kennebec, built more ships than did
The 1855 Directory listed as Wiscasset shipbuilders N. Hilton, David
Gould and Shubael Castleton, but their yards could not have been very busy
to produce altogether only 4,000 tons. Though the Directory lists a whole
page of ship chandlers, not one was in Wiscasset. It also had no shipsmiths
or ship riggers, although it did have one sailmaker, Topham Daggett.
The period between 1855 and 1880 included the boom era of the Maine
clipper ships that sailed to all parts of the world. In 1880 Wiscasset had
no shipbuilder, but did have a ship chandler and two sailmakers. Yet a lot
of shipping was still going in and out of that port. The town had one of
Maine’s fourteen custom houses, and on its staff had two inspectors, one of
them located at Boothbay. Wiscasset, nevertheless, never quite recovered
from the disastrous influence of the Embargo Act of 1807 that closed Maine
Wiscasset was a leading port for shipping to the West Indies when the
embargo was imposed. Britain claimed that American ships violated its trading
regulations in the islands, and the British Navy proceeded to seize
American ships, especially the coasting schooners from Maine. President
Jefferson persuaded Congress to enact an embargo designed to keep all American
ships off the seas until the seizures should stop. That was the
Act that seriously hurt Wiscasset.
At the end of the century in 1900 Wiscasset had a population of 1,700.
It had five lawyers, three doctors and a dentist. There were ten grocers,
three dry goods stores, two druggists, and a large dealer in grain and
flour. The only manufacturers then listed in the Maine Register as doing
business there were three blacksmiths, two shoemakers and a grist mill.
stores included two for fish, one for men’s clothing and one for hardware.
Among the women workers were three dressmakers and a single milliner. The
place had a hotel, the Hilton House, and a newspaper, the Sheepscot Echo.
By 1900 the town was distinguished by having two railroads, the
Rockland Branch of the Maine Central, and the narrow gauge known as the
Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington, though its main line went only from
Wiscasset to Albion.
Today Wiscasset is distinguished, both in publicity and in political
stress, as the site of Maine Yankee, Maine’s only nuclear power plant.
While the safety hazard of atomic power has made the plant highly controversial,
it has been a notable financial asset to Wiscasset. It and
Central Maine Power’s Mason station are the largest taxpayers in town,
making electric power be for Wiscasset what paper has long been for Millinocket.
As a result, individual taxpayers in the Sheepscot town pay
only a small part of local taxation. This largesse has enabled Wiscasset
to have one of the State’s best school systems with a large, comprehensive,
modern high school. Despite attempts to close it by referendum, Maine Yankee
is now ten years old and still going strong.
Maine has a large number of historic buildings listed in the National
Register of Historic Places. Several of them are in Wiscasset. The old
jail is now a museum of the Lincoln County Historical Society. That and
other historical buildings have been carefully preserved, largely through
the efforts of Miss Mildred Burrage, daughter of Henry Burrage, Maine’s
first official historian. The Lincoln County Courthouse is the oldest
building in New England in which court sessions are still held. It contains
a wealth of ancient documents, among them John Brown’s famous deed
from the Indians, the first ever recorded.
The town has a unique fire museum, containing a hand tub of 1813.
The place is especially noted for its elegant mansions. The Nicke1ssortwell
House was built in 1807 by one of Maine’s most noted sea captains.
Its facade and its unique windows have been featured in many
books of architecture.
Unique to Wiscasset is the smallest church in the world. Built by
Rev. Louis West, for 35 years pastor of the South Boston Baptist Church,
who regularly vacationed in Wiscasset, it is just large enough to hold
three persons. When it became a popular scene of weddings, only the
bride, groom and clergyman could get inside. All other attendants had
to stand on the lawn outside. After his retirement, Dr. West made his
home in Wiscasset, and he died there in 1966.
Located on Route 1, the highway from Portland to Calais, Wiscasset
has one of the State’s longest bridges, extending across that broad expanse
of the Sheepscot. Being badly in need of repair, the old bridge
has recently been replaced by a modern structure farther upstream.
If you have only sped through Wiscasset, and have never truly seen
the place, I advise that you spend a whole day there next summer, preferably
during its well-advertised Open House Week.