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A New Preserve on Birch Island in 2016

By Christine N. Farrell

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Photographs © Jym St. Pierre

How lucky we are! How lucky we are to be in Maine. How lucky we are to live in a community that cares for the diverse and fragile habitats found here in Harpswell.

On Sept. 30, Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT) completed protection of another piece of important coastal habitat on Birch Island — conserving forever the land and waterfront for wildlife and people. The new acquisition includes 43 acres on the northeast corner of Birch Island, 3,000 feet of shoreline and 50 acres of associated coastal wetlands and mudflats. It will be open to the public for low-impact recreation.

2016-birch-island-preserves“The people on the island are thrilled that the property will be protected,” said Dick Snow, local resident and historian. “They are happy to be able to walk the wonderful trails, visit the shoreline and know that the land will be kept pristine forever.”

Conservation of this land is made possible by a grant from the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Program — the fifth such grant HHLT has received in the last five years. Collaborative efforts of HHLT, Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust have led to a series of successful conservation projects in Middle Bay and eastern Casco Bay.

In honor of their contributions to conservation in Harpswell and beyond, HHLT are naming the new preserve after Walter and Helen Norton.

The new preserve not only has exceptional natural features, but it also has a fascinating history as the site of a boatyard and boys’ camp.

For centuries, Birch Island has been a pretty special place. Shell middens show evidence that Native Americans used the island before Europeans began to settle there in the 1700s. Located in the northern third of Middle Bay, Birch Island is one of the largest islands in Middle Bay, lying between Harpswell Neck on the eastern side and Mere Point on the west.

Families famous for establishing Harpswell used Birch Island for timber and farming, and it has been reported that there were once 40 children in the island’s grammar school.

In addition to a number of farms, there were at least two boatyards on the island, one of which was operated by the Durgins on the property HHLT will acquire. The Durgins were close friends with Reverend Elijah Kellogg, the Harpswell pastor and namesake of the church on Harpswell Neck Road, and two boats were built for Kellogg at the Durgin boatyard in the mid-1800s.

As time went on, fewer and fewer families stayed on the island year round, and it became known for “solace and serenity.”* Maine and Massachusetts cottage owners and summer visitors from New England to Virginia came to enjoy the island’s casino, baseball field, hotel, scenic views and hiking trails.

In the early 1900s, the Durgin homestead became the site for Camp Narragansett, which educated boys from Boston ages 6 to 16.

The camp offered “wholesome and profitable entertainment,” as well as gains in physical condition and character-building. A boy was taught “how to take care of himself in the woods and on the water; how to make baskets, build boats and toys; how to play tennis, baseball, basketball, quoits and squash; how to fish, row a boat, and swim; and how to use a rifle, bow and arrow; how to cook, eat, sleep and live in the open.”*

The camp also offered field trips to “fish canning factories, paper mills, Longfellow’s home, White Mountains and Old Orchard Beach.”*

The main lodge of the camp was the Durgin farmhouse. The camp advertised its full kitchen and “large airy dining room capable of seating 100 people.” An icehouse stored ice cut in the winter for the campers and staff. The cost for each boy in 1932 was $215 for eight weeks.

Today, little evidence of the camp exists. The lodge and chapel and former cabins have disappeared and the property has reverted to its natural state.

Today this corner of Birch Island is entering a new chapter in its history, as it is set aside for future generations to enjoy. Conserving this property has many benefits, including providing access for the public, preserving our clean marine waters and wildlife habitat in the eel grass and mudflats, protecting habitat for many shorebirds and preserving the wild shoreline that makes Middle Bay such a special place to visit and recreate.

HHLT will continue to update the community as plans for public access and opportunities for public programs on the island unfold.

To take advantage of the National Coastal Wetlands Grant Program, HHLT has to pitch in $47,000 towards the cost of the project. If you value this addition to Harpswell’s conserved land, please consider donating to help cover the costs. Click here to donate or mail a check to HHLT, PO Box 359, Harpswell, ME 04079.

*Quotes in this article are from Dick Snow’s 1992 book: A History of Birch Island, Casco Bay, Maine.

September 2016