Eastport, Maine: The Little Town That Might

A fishing community on the country's easternmost edge is an exemplar of American reinvention.
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A cow marked for shipping to Turkey. Eastporters often talk about how the cows have escaped their containers and galloped through town, pursued by the Texas cowboys who accompany them during their trip. (Jim Lowe)

Nearly every person I met in Eastport had a tale about cows that had escaped their shipping containers and galloped through town, pursued by the Texas cowboys who accompany them on the entire trip. The cowboys ride with the cows on their truck journey from farms across America. When they get to Eastport, the cows are loaded 14 at a time into modified shipping containers, with ventilation ports, fans and cooling systems, and openings where the cows can look out. Cowboys ride along with them on the ship and shovel wood chips into the containers each day to absorb the cows’ excreta. On arrival in Turkey, I was told, they pass through something like a cow car wash to get cleaned up.

Another niche scheme: “torrefied” wood pellets. The decline of the newspaper-publishing industry is reducing demand for some kinds of wood products from Maine. The onslaught of global warming has increased demand for low-carbon fuels. Torrefaction—its name taken not from a person but from the Latin word torrefacere, meaning heating and drying (see torrid)—is a process designed to convert pulp and wood by-products, including stumps, into briquette-like pellets. When these are substituted for coal in electric-power plants, they can significantly cut carbon emissions. With state and federal aid, the Port Authority has invested $9 million in an enormous conveyer-belt system that will make Eastport the fastest, cheapest site for sending pellets and wood chips to Europe.

“A group of consultants looked us over long ago and said we would be lucky to do 50,000 tons of cargo a year,” Chris Gardner said. “It’s a good thing we didn’t listen to them, because now we have done about 450,000 tons of wood pulp alone in a year.” The port’s 60-plus stevedores are unionized, but work on an on-demand basis for an average of a week or two a month. The other days, they run lobster or sea-urchin boats, work as lumberjacks or handymen, or care for their families. The port jobs are some of the most sought-after in town because, even for part-timers, the union deal includes health insurance.

Tapping the tides. The Bay of Fundy is famous for some of the world’s most powerful tidal forces. The volume of water that flows in and out each day is equivalent to that of all the world’s rivers combined. Eight years ago, a group of engineers and investors decided that Eastport should be one of two places (the other is Cook Inlet, off the coast of Alaska) to test, design, and develop tidal-power electricity-generating systems made by their Ocean Renewable Power Company. “Generating electricity in seawater poses some obvious challenges,” Bob Lewis, an Eastport native who has been with the company since its start in Eastport, told me. “But it has great advantages. Water is so much denser than air—832 times as dense!—for turning turbines. And it is predictable. You can’t look out a year from now and know which way the wind will be blowing or how hard. But you know exactly what the tide will be doing.”

The company funded by private investors and research grants from the Department of Energy in roughly equal amounts. In 2012 it ran an eight-month trial of one large turbine in Cobscook Bay, off Eastport. The carbon-fiber foils were arranged to keep turning in the same direction, even as the tide ebbed and flowed. The trial was a success: the system fed power into Maine’s electric grid and survived the harsh undersea environment.

“We like to think we are the Kitty Hawk of hydrokinetic power,” Lewis told me. “I don’t know that the Wright brothers could have envisioned today’s Boeing and Airbus. We are trying to stimulate people to tinker and experiment and improve on what we’ve done.”

Salmon, scallops, and other harvest of the sea. The fish-farming industry had a rough start in the Eastport area some 30 years ago. Diseases swept through overcrowded pens, and the large corporations that then dominated the business pulled out of local operations. A family-owned Canadian firm, Cooke Aquaculture, set up salmon farms around Eastport and has been more successful.

“We have come so far since then,” Dave Morang told me. He is another local native, who now directs Cooke’s salmon-farming operations around Eastport. These days, he said, fish are segregated by age group, so that diseases will not spread from one generation to another. The fish are fed at dawn and dusk through a computer-controlled system that resembles a lawn sprinkler, shooting out pellets as it rotates. Each of the pellet-shooters is in the center of a circular net enclosure 100 feet across; within each of these enclosures, some 25,000 salmon grow to roughly 10 pounds. From a nearby floating control room on a barge, a Cooke employee monitors underwater cameras showing the fish as they eat, so that he can turn off the sprinkler as soon as the fish have had their fill and start letting the pellets drift down.

As needed, fish are sucked into a tanker boat and exposed to water treated with hydrogen peroxide. This kills some “sea lice”—a kind of parasitic crustacean that occurs in the wild but can be a problem in concentrated populations of farmed salmon—and makes most of them fall off the fish. (The peroxide dissipates and does no known environmental harm.) When the fish are about 18 months old, they are pulled out, killed, and processed. Then that pen is left fallow for two months to a year before the next crop of fish arrives—and yes, people in aquaculture do use these farming terms.

How should consumers feel about farmed fish?, I asked Morang. “Myself, I’m a beef eater,” he said. “But the reality is that we import 90 percent of our fish, and we’re the third-largest consumer of seafood in the world. The wild catch is not there, so we need to grow the fish.” One of Morang’s sons works at the salmon farm, and he said his goal was to make the business sustainable enough—economically and environmentally—that some or all of his six grandchildren would have that choice.

Catching lobsters is another important part of the marine economy. It’s a seasonal business, so the lobstermen of Eastport are also the stevedores, and the clammers, and the boatyard workers. Depending on the season, they supply the Asian markets not just with lobster but with sea urchins and sea cucumbers.

When I asked any lobstermen—they were all men—how business was going, each complained about the plummeting price per pound. When I asked other people, they said, “There’s never been so much money coming in over the docks.” I don’t know which is more true, but observations arise from the steady warming of the seawater, which is drawing lobsters north, and the devastating overfishing of Atlantic cod. Cod, I was told, had been the main predator of juvenile lobsters; now more lobsters survive to feed the current predator, man.

Is today’s boom in abundant, cheap lobster the prelude to another overfishing disaster?, I asked Captain Bob Peacock, a native of nearby Lubec, who worked around the world as a tanker captain starting in his 20s and now, in his 60s, serves from Eastport as the chief operating officer for a global fish business whose main facilities are in Norway and Vietnam. (He is also one of two local pilots who guide enormous cargo ships from a few miles offshore to their docking point in Eastport.) He and others contend that, for now, and in the absence of the cod, the increased lobster catch is sustainable.

Also, scallops: The typical North Atlantic scallop boat might spend two weeks at sea and return to port with a catch that has been on ice for many days. The waters in Cobscook Bay are the last good scallop grounds in Maine, and the local fishermen (some of them are also the stevedores, etc.) can bring in their catch each day. But until now, they had no way to distinguish their fresh day-boat scallops from the commercial norm on the market. Will Hopkins—who grew up on a Maine island, went off to and dropped out of Harvard, ran a variety of businesses in Boston, and came to Eastport 21 years ago—now heads a community organization called the Cobscook Bay Resource Center. When we visited, in the fall, he was getting ready to open the group’s latest facility: a dockside processing house and distribution center, which will get Eastport’s scallops marketed as a premium brand.

Building-by-building downtown renovation. Eastport’s four-block-long downtown, facing the water, is dominated by a cartoonish super-life-size statue of a bearded Viking-esque fisherman holding a big fish. It was a gift to the town from none other than Fox TV, in recognition of Eastport’s service as the filming site for a 2001 Fox reality series, Murder in Small Town X. For that summer, Eastport was cast as the mythical city of Sunrise, and its boarded-up storefronts were given a Potemkin prosperity.

The film crews left, the statue stayed, and so (according to people we met) did the idea of how the downtown might look if revived. A group called the Women of the Commons—two sisters, Meg McGarvey and Nancy Asante; their mother, Alice Otis; their aunt, Ruth Brown; and friends Suzanne Crawford and Linda Godfrey—bought a crumbling downtown building with a view across the water to Campobello. They carefully renovated it with luxurious rental condos upstairs (one of which we rented for the week) and a gallery featuring local artisans’ works below. As the Bangor Daily News wrote when the Commons opened 10 years ago, the six women have “returned [the building] to a former elegance while at the same time serving as Eastport’s newest symbol of hope for its re-emerging downtown.”

This is not even to mention the locavore farmers; the century-old Raye’s Mustard Mill, which ships jars of specialty mustards all around the country; the new boat-making company; nor the quiet defense contractor I kept hearing about (but was never able to visit) that makes hazmat suits for the Pentagon and police departments all around the country. All of this in a city with fewer inhabitants than one wing of an apartment building we lived in while we were in Beijing.

Will Eastport make it? I don’t know. But I believe that the story it is telling itself, that it is poised for success, makes that success more likely. This faith also improves life today, no matter where it leads, or doesn’t, tomorrow. Civic boosterism has been a central part of American culture since long before Sinclair Lewis wrote a whole book about it, Babbitt. But if willed optimism sometimes deludes people, it can also empower them. “I think it was Henry Ford who said, ‘Whether you think you can do something, or think you can’t, you’re right either way,’ ” Chris Gardner told me. In practical terms, a belief that you can shape your fate is more useful than a belief that you cannot.

After my wife and I first touched down at the Eastport airport, a man came out to greet us as we were getting out of the plane. This was Captain Bob, who had lived and worked in Europe, California, Asia, and South America, and still travels frequently for business all around the world.

So, why are you living here?, I asked him as I looked around at his minuscule hometown.

“This is where I’m from,” he said. “Where the hell else would I want to be?”

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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