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Johnson Field Preserve: Finding Safe Harbor

This is one in a series of articles exploring the history of HHLT preserves.

What makes Johnson Field Preserve precious is that it’s only a field—a field preserving a view that makes the hearts of locals and visitors sing. It’s a view to dream about when you’re longing for the best places of your life, with a harbor for boats that earn their living, a sandy beach for wading and swimming, and water that smells salty and fishy and right.

That dream doesn’t include three McMansions. With a minimum lot size of 40,000 square feet in Harpswell’s Shoreland Zone, the Preserve’s 3.5 acres would allow three houses to block the view of any passersbys on Harpswell Islands Road who seek a soul-soothing Maine experience. Between the Preserve and the town’s adjacent Mackerel Cove lot, both with conservation easements, all visitors, local or from away, can see the essence of coastal Maine forever. The view need not be only in their dreams.

Bailey Island lies east of “Mericonig Sound”. April 1776. J.F.W. Des Barres.

Visitors to Mackerel Cove have been accidental—and not. Will Black, the first settler, must have had friends visit on what was known as Will’s Island in Harpswell’s 1758 Act of Incorporation. If you’d been his friend, wouldn’t you have visited? He was displaced to Orr’s Island by Deacon Bailey and his wife, Hanna, who surely had company, too. A 1776 Royal Navy chart shows six structures on Bailey Island, implying that someone’s visitors stayed.

Bailies Island, July 1776. J.F.W. Des Barres.

A G-rated edition of the same chart three months later shows nine structures. I learned all this while trying to learn why the cove is called Mackerel Cove. Most Harpswell coves are named for people, not fish. And if named for fish, with cod king of early fisheries, why wasn’t it “Cod Cove”?

I still don’t know why the name, but I did pick up interesting tidbits. “Mackerel Cove” shows up in deeds around Johnson Field in 1803. Other early 1800 spellings were more phonetic: “Macril,” “Makrell,” and “Mackrell Cove,” for instance. An 1809 deed records the sale of land “…beginning at a head of a cove called Mackerel Cove…” by Lazarus Bates to Capt. David Perry.

While sailing from Rockland to Portland, a storm tossed Perry’s ship about. He bucked up his quaking crew with, “We shall find a safe shelter at Mackerel Cove, on Bailey’s Island. I know lots of Harpswell people, and they have the true kind of hospitality.” 1 While sheltering in the cove, he met Jane Alexander whom he married in 1804. Their daughter Margaret married Capt. Hugh Sinnett, acquiring the homestead in 1844. Hugh was a farmer, fisherman and California gold rusher. His cousin, William Sinnett, donated Giant’s Stairs to the town in 1909. You can still visit the Giant’s Stairs today!

Mackerel Cove has been a safe harbor for other accidental visitors. In 1826, a schooner with tobacco and flour foundered off Cape Elizabeth and was towed to Bailey Island to salvage cargo, sails, and rigging. 2 In September 1869, a Category 3 hurricane tore through New England, wreaking havoc onshore and at sea. “[T]he schooner Potomac, of Boston has gone to pieces in Mackerel Cove. The crews were saved.” 3 In the same storm, after hitting Halfway Rock, the schooner Lydia limped to Bailey Island without mainsail, rudder, lifeboats, and anchors. 4

Most people visit Mackerel Cove under sunnier circumstances of weddings, vacations, walks along Giant’s Stairs, and visits to the sculpture commemorating lobstermen at Lands End. H. Elroy Johnson, the lobsterman who posed for the sculpture (created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair), lived above Johnson Field Preserve.

Memorial to Maine fishermen at Lands End. (Photo by Nancy West)

Who has come to Bailey Island, and thence to Mackerel Cove? Enough people to warrant building hotels like the Ocean View, which advertised in 1904 as “New and Newly Furnished” with “Cool, Airy Rooms.”

“The Ocean View, as its name indicates, commands a wide and sweeping view of the ocean and shores of Bailey’s Island from each room in the hotel. We have no uncomfortable nights, and blankets are needed nearly all summer. The hotel is within two minutes walk of the steamboat wharf and post office, and centrally located as regards the places of natural beauty on the island. Excellent boating, fishing and bathing facilities. Fine sand beach at the head of the famous Mackerel Cove, near the hotel, and as clear as crystal.” 5 $2.00 per day and $8.00 per week.

York ferry landing, Mackerel Cove, 1910. Photo by Malcolm B. O’Brien.

Newspaper society pages were buzzing with news of Bailey Island. From New Haven in 1895: “Mrs. R. G. S. McNiel and Miss Louise McNiel of 476 Orange Street have gone to Bailey Island, Me.” 6 From Lexington, Kentucky in 1912: “Mr. W. D. Cochran arrived here on Tuesday from Bailey Island, on the coast of Maine. His family will remain until September 1st.” 7 (Poor guy). From Philadelphia in 1893: “Mrs. V. O. B. Miller and her daughter, Miss Jessie Miller, of Bryn Mawr, are at Bailey’s Island, Maine.” 8 By 1910, Philadelphians were migrating north like Common Terns, enough to warrant the term “colony.”

“At Bailey Island, Casco Bay, about twelve miles from Portland, there is a pleasantly located little Philadelphia colony, and already several of the Quaker City cottagers have arrived and opened their summer homes for the season.”

“One of the first of the Philadelphians to open her cottage was Mrs. S. T. Skidmore, wife of Professor Skidmore. The professor is expected this week and he will at once put his sloop yacht Aria in commission. There are few more enthusiastic cruising yachtsmen than Professor Skidmore, and yearly he makes short pleasure cruises to the resorts further down the coast.” 9

Some summer people were well enough known to appear in places as far flung as Duluth: “Clara Louise Burnham has left Chicago to spend the summer at her cottage on Bailey Island, Me., an island which should be well known her readers, as it is the scene of three of her books—‘The Opened Shutters,’ ‘Miss Archer Archer’ and ‘Dr. Latimore.’” 10 (I do not recommend Dr. Latimore as a gripping beach read….)

Ms. Burnham was the daughter of George Frederick Root, the composer of the “Battle Cry of Freedom.” He summered at his cottage until 1895, when he “died yesterday afternoon at Bailey’s Island, off Portland, Me., where he went last June to spend the summer. He was in perfect health when he went to Maine.” 11

Those who dream of refreshing summer nights under blankets visit the cove and the island. And, dreams themselves can bring people to the Preserve. Surely, in a break from his first American seminar on dreams at Library Hall, Carl Jung stepped out on the porch to admire Mackerel Cove. Because of Johnson Field Preserve, you will always be able to do that.


  1. Sinnett, Rev. Charles Nelson. 1911. Our Perry Family in Maine. Lewiston, The Journal Print Shop. P. 11.
  2. 4 Feb 1826. Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics.
  3. 13 Sept 1869. Daily State Gazette, Trenton.
  4. Rindlaub, Curtis. 2000. The Maine Coast Guide for Small Boats. Peaks Island, Diamond Pass Publishing, Inc. P. 111.
  5. 1904-5 Casco Bay Directory. Breeze Publishing Co., Portland. Pp. 34 and 37.
  6. 23 July 1895. New Haven Register.
  7. 4 Aug 1912. The Lexington Herald.
  8. 30 Jul 1893. The Philadelphia Inquirer.
  9. 26 Jun 1910. The Philadelphia Inquirer.
  10. 14 July 1907. Duluth News Tribune.
  11. 8 Aug 1895. Daily Charlotte Observer.

Image Sources

  • Des Barres, Joseph F. W. The Atlantic Neptune. Coast of Maine from Spurwink River to Moose Point. Published April 1776. Osher Map Library Item 46904.
  • Des Barres, Joseph F. W. The Atlantic Neptune. Coast of Maine from Portland Port to Stage Island. Published July 1776. Library of Congress. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3301pm.gan00003
  • Malcolm B. O’Brien. 1910. York Landing at Mackerel Cove. Item 25567 of the Maine Memory Network.