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History of Camden, Maine

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Camden Maine is the quintessential coastal Maine village. Set at the foot of the wooded Camden Hills on a picturesque harbor that no Hollywood movie set could improve, the coastal town of Camden has a long, rich and celebrated history.

Camden was first discovered in 1605 by Captain George Weymouth of the Archangel who first sighted the Camden Hills on his voyage to midcoast Maine. He sailed up Penobscot Bay and anchored on June 12, 1605 not far from the land "abreast the mountains since called Penobscot Hills" (Camden Hills). In 1614, Captain John Smith described the Camden Hills as "the high mountains of Penobscot, against whose feet doth beat the sea". However, it was not until 1769 that the first settlers arrived. At that time, the area was known as part of the "Megunticook Plantation", from an Indian name meaning "great sea swells." In 1769 James Richards, the first settler, built his log cabin but it was not until after the American Revolution in 1791 that the town was named for Charles Pratt, first Earl of Camden. Pratt was a judge and nobleman who sympathized with the colonists during the Revolution.

During Camden's first 100 years the town had a steady growth in population and a prosperous economy. The 1870 census recorded a population of 4512 and a valuation of $1,497,631. Numerous industries supported the population including shipbuilding, an anchor factory and the lime industry. The latter was located in what today is known as Rockport but was then called Goose River.

Goose River separated from Camden in 1891 and became the town of Rockport. This separation not only deprived Camden of three-quarters of the town's territory and half of the population but also the profitable lime and ice harvesting industries.

In 1892 a fire destroyed nearly all of Camden's business district. However, Camden citizens quickly rebuilt the downtown area using brick instead of wood, thus leaving a legacy of permanence and grace that exists to this day.

As the 19th century came to an end, Camden was very much a shipbuilding town with the H.M. Bean Yard launching the largest four-masted schooner and the first six-master ever built-the George W. Wells. Several woolen mills along the Megunticook River prospered well into the 20th century. The Knox Woolen Company. made the world's first endless paper-making felt and was Camden's largest employer.

The turn of the century brought a new era to Camden as its natural beauty began to attract some of the wealthiest families in the country. These families built large summer "cottages" to rival those in Bar Harbor. Families such as Curtis, Bok, Keep, Gribbel, Dillingham and Borland not only built beautiful estates but their generosity to the community resulted in the elegant public library and Amphitheatre, Harbor Park, the Village Green, the Camden Yacht Club and the Camden Opera House. Magnificent private yachts such as Cyrus Curtis' Lyndonia filled the harbor. Yachting continued throughout the 20th century with the unique HAJ Boat racing fleet at the Yacht Club with the younger sailors in their turnabouts. In the 1940's the cruise schooner business was started by Captain Frank Swift and the windjammer fleet continues to this day.

Music and cultural interests flourished with the establishment of the internationally renowned Summer Harp Colony founded by Carlos Salzedo and the founding of Bay Chamber Concerts. Theatre productions at the Opera House and Shakespeare in the Amphitheatre enriched the lives of residents and summer visitors. Edna St. Vincent Millay, who grew up in Camden, achieved world-wide recognition for her poetry and won the Pulitzer Prize. The movies came to Camden in 1957 when the controversial film, Peyton Place, was filmed here. Hollywood used the Camden area for the locale of many more movies in later years.

Throughout the 20th century Camden became both a resort town and a retirement community. Because of its natural beauty-mountains, lakes and ocean,-- many summer visitors came to enjoy this area. In 1965 a road was built up to the top of Mt. Battie through the Camden Hills State Park enabling thousands of people to enjoy an expansive view of Penobscot Bay as well as Megunticook Lake.

During the last half of the 20th century, Camden's economy thrived due to the tourist industry, electronics industry, tannery, woolen mills and boat yards. In the 1990's, MBNA, one of the nation's largest credit card companies moved into the former Knox Woolen Mill buildings. Not only were the buildings beautifully restored but hundreds of jobs were available to the young people of the area.

As Camden entered the 21st century, it has succeeded in preserving its natural beauty, has a strong economy, provides diverse educational and cultural opportunities and fosters a strong sense of community for its residents.

Today, Camden vies with Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Maine. The elaborate mansions of the well-to-do still dominate the shady side streets (many have been converted into bed-and-breakfasts), and the continued presence of old-money New Englanders has given Camden a grace and sophistication that eludes most of Maine's other coastal towns.

Penobscot Abenaki Indians called the area Megunticook, meaning "great swells of the sea", a reference to the Camden Hills. Part of the Waldo Patent, it remained wilderness until after the French and Indian War. It was first settled about 1771–1772 by James Richards, who built a home at the mouth of the Megunticook River. Others soon followed, some making modest attempts to farm the broken and often mountainous terrain. The first home in the area was the Conway House, a Cape Cod style home built in 1770. In 1962, it was purchased and renovated into a history museum.

When Castine was held by the British in 1779, Camden became a rendezvous point and encampment for the Americans, who were commanded by Major George Ulmer. During a raid, the British burned a sawmill. On February 17, 1791, the Massachusetts General Court incorporated Megunticook Plantation as Camden, named for Charles Pratt, 1st Earl Camden, a member of the British Parliament and proponent of civil liberties. During the War of 1812, a battery was built atop Mount Battie near the village. It had both a 12- and 18-pounder gun, but no gunner qualified to operate them. Nevertheless, the fort's appearance of readiness kept the British at bay.

When peace returned, Camden grew rapidly. The Megunticook River provided excellent water power sites for mills. In addition to sawmills and gristmills, by 1858 the town had carriage factories, sash and blind factories and blacksmith shops. There were six shipyards, launching ten to twelve vessels annually. By 1886, the town also made foundry products, railroad cars, woolens and paper mill feltings, anchors, wedges, plugs and treenails, planking, powder kegs, excelsior, mattresses, powder, tinware, oakum, wool rools, boots and shoes, leather, flour and meal, corn brooms and barrels. Camden was second only to nearby Rockland in the lucrative manufacture of lime, excavated at quarries and processed in kilns before being shipped to various ports around the United States until 1891, when Rockport was set off as a separate town. As the 19th century came to an end, Camden was very much a shipbuilding town with the H.M. Bean Yard launching the largest four-masted schooner and the first six-master ever built-the George W. Wells.

In the 1880s, sportsmen and "rusticators," began to discover the natural beauty of Camden during the summer and autumn, becoming seasonal residents. Sarah Orne Jewett’s stories of nostalgia for the sea, Camden’s unique scenery, fine old homes of sea captains, and the paintings of Fitz Hugh Lane, Frederick Church, and Childe Hassam evoked a romantic vision of Maine and induced many to come to stay at the Bayview House Hotel, Ocean House, and Mrs. Hosmer’s Boarding House. In 1880, Edwin Dillingham built the first purpose-built summer cottages in Camden on Dillingham Point. Thereafter, the summer colony at Camden quickly grew to include some of the wealthiest, most prominent families in the country. These new summer residents from Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. and even Chicago, built large, rambling Shingle Style "cottages" along High Street, Bay View Street and on Beauchamp Point to rival those in Bar Harbor. The summer people arrived on the Boston Boats or on the Maine Central Railroad at Rockland. Local residents, who had formerly gone to sea to earn a living, found jobs as caretakers, gardeners, and carpenters to the rich and powerful.

In November 1892, a fire fed by a strong easterly wind-burned the business district to the ground. Immediately, Camden businessmen drew together to make the tremendous investment to build 12 large brick buildings, including the Camden Opera House and, controversially, the Masonic Temple (now the Lord Camden Inn). The Great Fire, as it became known, did not, however, discourage increasing numbers of affluent summer people from making Camden their summer enclave. Indeed, in 1897 a road was built to the top of Mt. Battie, one of the two mountains rising majestically above the town, and an inn was erected at the summit. In 1898, a group of wealthy summer residents from Philadelphia established the Megunticook Golf Club on Beauchamp Point. And in 1901, the famous Whitehall Inn opened on High Street in an old mansion built by a sea captain, catering to a well-to-do clientele. Around the turn of the century families such as Curtis, Bok, Keep, Gribbel, Dillingham and Borland not only built beautiful estates but their generosity to the community resulted in the elegant public library, the classical amphitheatre, which was designed by Fletcher Steele, the Camden Harbor Park, which was designed by the Olmstead Brothers, the Village Green, and the Camden Opera House. The Philadelphia publishing tycoon, Cyrus Curtis, maintained a summer home and several yachts in Camden. Given the many other magnificent private yachts of the upper class that filled Camden Harbor as well, Curtis decided in 1912 to establish and build the Camden Yacht Club. Yachting continues to thrive in Camden, particularly during the summer months, with the unique HAJ Boat racing fleet at the Yacht Club with the younger sailors in their turnabouts. In 1936 the cruise schooner business was started by Captain Frank Swift and the windjammer fleet continues to this day.

Music and cultural interests have long flourished in Camden. In 1912, Edna St. Vincent Millay read “Renascence,” a poem she wrote from the top of Mt. Battie, to the guests at the Whitehall Inn, one of whom offered to pay her tuition to Vassar. After graduating from Vassar, she went on to write poetry and plays that made her one of the most famous women in America and an inspiration for the Roaring Twenties, winning the Pulitzer Prize. The world famous french harpist, composer and conductor, Carlos Salzedo, founded the internationally renowned Salzedo Summer Harp Colony in Camden and each summer held a Harp Festival in the amphitheater beside the library. Camden/Rockport also is home to the Bay Chamber Concert Company. Theatre productions at the Opera House and Shakespeare in the Amphitheatre enriched the lives of residents and summer visitors for generations. In the 1950s, artists and writers of significant reputation began moving to Camden and neighboring Rockport, where local artists organized Maine Coast Artists. Wayne Doolittle began publishing Down East Magazine in 1954, and in 1956 Carousel was filmed in Camden, followed by Peyton Place in 1957, because the quaint, old town with its extremely picturesque harbor and the beautiful scenery, looked like the picture-perfect American town. Since then Camden's charm and beautiful setting have not gone unnoticed by Hollywood with In the Bedroom filmed in Camden in 2001, and with the soap opera Passions using Camden for shots depicting the fictional town Harmony.

Camden's many prominent summer and year-round residents have been a valuable resource to the town in many ways over the past 125 years, a tradition of partnership which continues today in many forms, not least by helping to establish some internationally renowned events, namely The Camden Conference and Pop!Tech. The Camden Conference has been held annually for nearly a quarter of a century to foster informed discourse on world issues. Convened in the historic Camden Opera House, the event draws some of the best minds on foreign policy to share their insights and expertise on a range of global issues. The Pop!Tech conference, which takes place each fall, gathers a global community of cutting-edge leaders, thinkers, and doers from many different disciplines to explore the social impact of new technologies, the forces of change shaping our future, and new approaches to solving the world’s most significant challenges.

During the second weekend of February, the annual U.S. National Toboggan Championships are held at the town-owned Camden Snow Bowl. This nationally-known race started as a lark for something to do during the long Maine winters, and 18 years later is one of New England's premier cold-weather events. The iced chute is 400 feet (120 m) long, and the four-man teams attain speeds of up to 35 miles (56 km) an hour. Most racers arrive in costume, and 100% percent of race revenue is used to offset operating expenses for this recreation area.

Camden is the location of the 2000 HGTV Dream Home.

History of Knox County

Knox County is situated on the south-eastern side of Penobscot Bay, and includes its islands south of Isleboro, and west of Isle au Haut Bay. It was organized in 1860, being formed from Lincoln and Waldo, and named for General Knox, the friend of Washington, who was a resident of the county during the later years of his life. It contains thirteen towns, one city, and two organized plantations, viz.: Appleton, Camden, Cushing, Friendship, Hope, Hurricane Isle, North Haven, City of Rockland, St. George, South Thomaston, Thomaston, Union, Vanalhaven Warren, Washington, Matinicus Isle Plantation, and Muscle Ridge Plantation. Rockland is the shire town. The St. George’s River runs through the county in a general south course, dividing it into two nearly equal sections. On this stream and its branches, the outlets of a large number of ponds, are many waterpowers. The principal elevations of land are the Camden Hills, extending from Thomaston through the western part of Rockland to the Penobscot on the northeastern side of Camden. Of these, Mount Megunticook is 1,265 feet high; Ragged Mountain, 1,230; Mount Pleasant, probably about the same height as the latter; Bald Mountain, 1,140 feet; and Mount Battie, nearly 1,000 feet. Mount Hatchet, in Hope is a considerable eminence, and another in Rockland, 558 feet in height, is known as Madambettox, Mathabesec, and also as Dodge’s and Marsh’s Mountain. The soil compares well with that of other counties, being generally fertile in the valleys and on the interior slopes, and sterile on the ridges and along the coast. St. George’s and its neighborhood was one of the earliest points visited and occupied by Europeans. In 1630, Leverett and Beauchamp, two English merchants, received by grant from the Plymouth Company, the territory lying between the Penobscot and Muscongus Rivers, extending north far enough to form a tract 30 miles square, or nearly 600,000 acres. This was first known as the Muscongus, and, subsequently, the Waldo patent, from having passed into the ownership of that family. This patent forms the basis of most of the land titles in Kirnx and Waldo counties. In 1694, Sir William Phips acquired a partial title to lands in the southern part of Knox County, by purchase from Madockawando, a famous chief of the Tarratines. The two blockhouses that, by subsequent enlargements, became Fort St. George, were erected in 1719—1720.

Lovewell's, or the “Three Years’ War” that began in 1722 and continued into 1725. During this time the inhabitants of Knox County suffered greatly; and in July of this year two Massachusetts commissioners held a conference at the fort with thirteen Indian chiefs. This was adjourned to Boston, where for a month the discussion of the differences between them and the settlers in this region were discussed by the State authorities and two chiefs representing the tribe; the Indians denying Madockawando's right to make a sale of land here as he had to Governor Phips. At length the chiefs were pacified by an agreement to establish trading-houses on the St. George’s, where goods should be sold to the Indians at a slight advance on cost. This arrangement was known as the Dummer Treaty, and was ratified in the following summer by a large concourse of Indians at what is now Portland.

It was at this epoch that we first hear of Samuel Waldo, a young Boston merchant, who, about this time, by inheritance and by subsequent purchase came into possession of nearly the whole of the Muscongus patent, all, in fact, of Knox and Waldo counties, except what is now included in the towns of Camden, Hope and Appleton. Thus Mr. Waldo became sole patentee of half a million acres, whose northern boundary was claimed by him to be but very little south of the site of Bangor. One of his first acts was to open the lime-quarry that was long afterward enclosed by the walls of the Maine State Prison, where he commenced the manufacture of lime for the Boston market,—thus being the pioneer of what has become a leading industry in the region. In 1735, Mr. Waldo contracted to deed to each settler a lot 40 rods wide on the River St. George, and running back so as to contain 100 acres; the settlers on their part agreeing to build houses, and clear four acres of land on the lots occupied within two years. The first party consisted of 27 families of Scotch-Irish extraction.

Among the names of these were Patterson, Boggs, Creighton, Starrett, Spear, Lermond, McIntyre, Robinson, and Kallock,—still represented in these towns. Mr. Waldo in the same year rebuilt the sawmill at Mill River; in 1740, he erected a grist-mill at Oyster River, and erected a house for religious meetings. About this time he also located 40 lots on the western side of the river, on what is now Cushing, about 30 of which were at once occupied. In 1743 a settlement was effected in what is now Friendship (then Meduncook), by several families of English Puritan extraction. In 1744, an Indian war again visited the eastern regions, and the inhabitants again endured the horrors of savage warfare. In 1745 occurred the famous expedition that resulted in the capture of Louisburg. In the laud force Waldo, who had some time previously become a militia colonel, bore the rank of Brigadier General. With the return of peace, prosperity again smiled upon the settlement. In 1753, General Waldo settled another colony of twenty Scottish families some two miles from the river on the western side. Anderson, Dicke, Crawford, Malcolm and Kirkpatrick are the names of some of them. They called their settlement Stirling, and the name still adheres to the locality. Again from 1754 to 1758 an Indian war raged in Maine, to the great distress of the St. George’s settlers. With the fall of the French power in the north, the Indians realized that they could no longer contend with the English, and in the treaty with them that closed this war they acknowledged they had forfeited their lands, and all contention ceased. General Waldo died in 1759, and the larger part of this patent came into the hands of his son-in-law, Thomas Flucker, of Boston.

At the breaking out of the Revolution, the inhabitants of this region were generally found on the patriot side. All signed the “Solemn League and Covenant” binding to non-intercourse with Great Britain until the Boston Port Bill should be repealed; and in June, 1775, they formed a Committee of Safety and Correspondence. After the failure of the expedition against the British at Castine in 1779, General Peleg Wadsworth, the second in command of the land forces, bad his headquarters as commander of the Eastern Department at Thomaston. It happened by the expiration of enlistments that he was at one time left with only a bodyguard of six men, when his house was attacked in the night by twenty-five British soldiers from Castine. After brave resistance the General was wounded and carried as prisoner to the British garrison at Castine. After being for some months in confinement there, he together with a companion in misfortune—Major Benjamin Burton — escaped during a severe thunderstorm; and, crossing the Penobscot, quickly found safety among their countrymen.

At the close of the war, there was much uncertainty in regard to land titles. Thomas Flucker, the heir of General Waldo, had espoused the cause of the king, and was therefore included in the act of proscription. In a few years, such portion of the patent as had not been disposed of, came into the possession of Flucker’s son in law, General Henry Knox. On resigning his commission as secretary of war in 1195, he removed to the mansion he had prepared in Thomaston. The mansion, to which Mrs. Knox had given the name, Montpelier, was opened with a grand feast, to which were invited all the neighboring inhabitants—rich and poor; and here he continued for the remainder of his life to dispense the most bountiful hospitality. Among his distinguished guests were Talleyrand and Louis Phitippe. General Knox entered upon the development of his estate with energy. Lie commenced the manufacture of lime, erected mills, introduced new varieties of fruits and vegetables, and improved breeds of cattle and sheep. His extensive operations brought in many new settlers; but his expensive establishment drew heavily on his income, and an ardent temperament sometimes involved him in unprofitable schemes, so that the great estate was after his death found to be insolvent. He died suddenly in 1805; and his remains now rest in the cemetery at Thomaston. In the war of 1812, the chief interest centered in the privateering on the coast and the importation of foreign goods in neutral vessels,—which having run the British blockade were transported across the country to Boston by ox-teams. In the war of the Rebellion, Knox County sustained her credit for patriotism and bravery. Major General Hiram G. Berry, who fell at Chancellorsville, was the most eminent among her sons in this period of our history.

By the census of 1880, the amount of shipping owned in Knox County was 84,931 tons, having a value of $1,660,584. The amount of personal estate was $4,032,582; and of real estate $6,846,154. The population in 1870 was 30,823; and 1880, 32,862.