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Visiting Ghosts on Birch Island

Articles and photographs by Jym St. Pierre

On Saturday, August 20, 2016, we dipped the kayaks into the blue water of Mere Point Bay and paddled the short distance to Birch Island. The goal was to visit a property that Harpswell Heritage Land Trust is working to preserve.

Casco Bay is a drowned landscape. After the last glaciers melted from this part of the planet about 12,000 years ago, sea level rose, leaving the ridges and hills as long peninsulas and islands. Neighbors include Mere Point to the northwest and Harpswell Neck to the southeast. Little Birch, White, Little Iron, Scrag, Sister, Shelter and the Goose islands appear to float nearby.

Over millennia soil developed on the peak that is now Birch Island. Seeds washed ashore, plants took hold, forests grew. Today, stands of hardwoods (oak, maple, birch, beech) and softwoods (pine, spruce) blanket the upland. In disturbed areas, apples and roses have gone wild, while sumacs and dandelions have snuck in. Berry bushes (rasp, black, blue, goose, choke, straw) thrive.

In the surrounding waters a fishy chowder of species swim. When the first Old World explorers arrived, cod, lobsters and other critters were superabundant. After five centuries of overfishing, most of the tastiest species have been decimated. Lobsters still crawl around on the fossiliferous marine muds, a departing gift of the glaciers that is up to 150 feet thick in Casco Bay, but their numbers are approaching lobster apocalypse. Clam and mussel populations too are losing strength. Green crabs and other invaders, driven by climate change, are wreaking ecological havoc.

The island was probably used for thousands of years by Native Americans who set up summer fishing camps, but when white folks arrived everything changed. The documentation is imperfect, but it is likely that Estefan Gomez (1525), Martin Pring (1603) and John Smith (1614) each sailed very nearby Birch Island centuries ago.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, as they battled for western world dominance and the right to impose their version of Christianity on everyone else, the royal sovereigns of England and France granted the lands that became Maine to various speculators. The locals, who had been living here for a hundred centuries, had a different idea, but they too got caught up in the epic struggle to carve up the region, mostly on the side of the losing French.

In 1630, Ferdinando Gorges secured a grant from English King Charles I to the Province of Maine, which included the land between the Piscataqua and Kennebec rivers, extending 120 miles inland. Gorges named it Lygonia after his mother Cicely Lygon. King Charles also separately granted an overlapping Plough Patent, the area from Cape Porpoise to Merrymeeting Bay, to the Company of Husbandmen. A flurry of other conflicting land grants further confused ownership of the region. By 1677, Gorges’ heirs gave up and sold their rights to Massachusetts, which tried to sort out the mess. Hearings starting in 1700 went on for years while fighting continued in the courts and on the ground. Finally, the legal wrangling ended with treaties in the 1760s and 1780s. Except it didn’t. Ownership of some coastal islands is still disputed.

Birch Island may have been the site of the first permanent white settlement in Casco Bay, according to the Harpswell Historical Society. Walter Merryman, a Scot-Irish ship carpenter, settled his family there probably shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Nehemiah Curtiss landed on the island in the early 1790s. Before long, they were joined by Allens, Alexanders, Durgins, Hodgkins, Gardners, Henleys and Skolfields. There were probably 10 to 12 families living on the island in the early 1800’s, logging, farming and fishing. Inevitably, the farm families intertwined. A school set up to educate the dozens of island kids lasted until about 1845. A couple of boatyards cranked out watercraft. The Durgins, at a cove on the northeastern end of the island, crafted one vessel built for, and another named for, famous local author and preacher Elijah Kellogg.

A couple of other Maine celebs also make cameo appearances in the history of Birch Island. In 1875, island farmer John Miller shot his son during a domestic dispute. Miller’s lawyer was Thomas Brackett Reed, who went on to become “Czar Reed,” legendary Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Bowdoin educator and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Robert P.T. Coffin spent part of his youth growing up on the island. His poem “Birches” was inspired by his childhood experiences on Birch Island.

Like other inhabited islands along the Maine coast, human activity on Birch Island has ebbed and flowed. According to William E. Meryman in “The Wind Blew and the Ships Flew” (1982), many of the island families left when gold fever in California gripped New England in 1849.

Photograph © Jym St. Pierre

Some stayed, but as subsistence farming gave way to seasonal tourism, human settlement shifted from the east to the west side of the island. By the 1890s, families from Brunswick and teachers from Arlington, Massachusetts, began to summer on Birch Island. Richard Snow in “A History of Birch Island” (1992) reports that around the turn of the 20th century lots were subdivided, cottages were erected, steamers came and went.

Richard Wescott, in “A History of Harpswell, Maine” (2010), says in the early 1880s Frederick Johnson developed a summer colony on the west side of the island with steamer service, a post office, water system, tennis court, store, casino and other amenities. The Birch Island Land Company was set up in 1895 to sell half acre lots on the east side. In fact, town tax maps still show dozens of cookie cutter paper lots on that side of Birch Island.

A World War hurt tourism. Then the icy winter of 1917-18 damaged the steamer landings. Then one of the main boats blew up the following November. Finally the Great Depression brought a screeching halt to the remainder of the fun and games. Except it didn’t. The era after World War II through the late 1960s saw a revival of island life before the social tide went out again. In recent years, summer activity seems to have had another uptick.

This warm late August afternoon, our kayaks wend among the fleet of moored boats at Paul’s Marina and round the northwestern point of Birch Island. I glide into a cove where eel grass outlines a creek in vibrant green. Wriggling out of the cockpit, I scramble up the steep slope to find a hole in the forest cover, a field reverting to woods. Butterflies flit about in a sea of goldenrod. An eagle surveys the land and bay from atop a dead tree. There is no sign of human buildings.

A century ago this opening in the woods was abuzz with boys. From 1919 till the late 1930s, Camp Narragansett provided a “Pleasure-giving, health-giving, educational, and character-strengthening” summer experience to Catholic young men 6 to 16 years old from the Boston area. A main lodge, the former Durgin farmhouse, with a “completely equipped kitchen and a large airy dining room capable of seating 100 people” served meals. There were also “cool and airy cabins,” tents, a library, doctor’s office, chapel, ice house, shop, a room for pool and billiards, two baseball fields, three tennis courts, rifle and archery ranges, and a ruffed grouse in a pear tree. I may have made up that last part. A 1932 camp brochure advertised that, for $215 for two months, a boy at the camp could take advantage of all those amenities as well as swimming, diving and boating at the wharf at Durgin’s Point.

Teenage camp counselors from Camp Narragansett on their time off often migrated to the island Casino in the hope of encountering young women from Birchknoll Camp, a girls encampment near the other end of the island. Serious necking probably ensued. Kids from both camps also took frequent excursions ashore to Brunswick and other points of interest along the mid coast. Today, no trace of Camp Narragansett remains. Only ghosts.

Back in my kayak, I round the northeasternmost point of Birch Island and pull ashore on a steep gravelly beach. There is detritus to be removed, but the view up and down Middle Bay is spectacular. Clouds sail by. Gulls and ducks sail by. A while-sailed sailboat sails by. I revel in taking photos of the Queen Anne’s Lace that decorates the upland above the beach. Wandering into the woods I find the other edge of the field I had visited just half an hour ago. The eagle lifts off from its favorite snag.

Back at the beach a gaggle of swimsuited girls searching for sea glass materializes. Then, just as suddenly, they vanish like the ghosts of the island I sensed earlier. Though there have been no year-round residents living on Birch Island for more than half a century, the old spirits and the modern summer colonists keep the place hopping.

My companion is in a rush to leave, but I have to stand on the point for one more moment. The sky blue sky merges into the deep blue sea. The yellowing sun behind me drifts toward the forested horizon. The flowers in the tiny meadow around my feet nod their lacy heads. For this moment the world is perfect.

I am back in the kayak paddling south in the shadow of massive oaks along the eastern shore. Rounding the southern point I recall that three chunks of Birch Island are already protected from misplaced development. One, a 43-acre parcel here on the south end, was donated to Harpswell Heritage Land Trust in 1988. Another 50 acres on the southeastern point is under conservation easement held by Maine Coast Heritage Trust. The third, a 58-acre forest encompassing most of the northwest quarter of the island, was procured by HHLT in 2002.

I pray that the land trust now can add one more peaceful little plot on this island in the bay to the green spots on the chart.

August 2016