Eastport, Maine: The Little Town That Might

A fishing community on the country's easternmost edge is an exemplar of American reinvention.

Scenes from Eastport, Maine, include a lobsterman, a fisherman statue given to the city by Fox TV, and folk art made from salvaged materials (Peter Frank Edwards/Redux)

Flying across a landscape on a clear day, at low altitude, always reveals things you had not known. From 1,500 feet up, about the height of the Empire State Building, you are far enough from the ground to discern patterns not visible at street level but close enough to pick out details that to airline passengers would be just blurs. From 2,500 feet above the ground, nearly the height of the world’s tallest building, you can see far enough in all directions to notice how cities interleave with suburbs, or how the course of a river, a ridge, a tree line shapes the farmland and settlements around it.

Often the speed and perspective of the aerial view make economic and social gradients amazingly vivid. For instance: Last fall, on a clear, warm Saturday, my wife and I flew in our small propeller airplane, at 2,500 feet, along the full extent of the Maine coast, from the New Hampshire border north. An hour in, when we passed over Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, it became clear that we were simultaneously crossing not just a geographic but a gentrification line.

Behind us, to the south and west—in Kennebunkport, in the thriving city of Portland, in Rockland and Camden and other well-known resort towns—houses with big porches had faced out toward the sea, the waters had been crowded with sailboats and other pleasure craft, and we could see families with children walking or taking bicycle rides. As the miles past Bar Harbor wore on, the houses got smaller and less summery, the sailboats gave way to commercial fishing rigs, and the major sign of human activity was the occasional pickup truck bouncing down a road. This was too far for most vacationers or second-home shoppers to come. The population of Maine is poorer (and whiter) than America as a whole, and much older. The communities generally get poorer and older as you move north and east, a shift whose effects were quite visible even from above.

We were headed that day to the easternmost point in the state, and for that matter the entire country. This is the tiny town of Eastport, population 1,300, which sits across a mile-wide strait from Campobello Island, which is on the Bay of Fundy in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Physically, Eastport resembles the more celebrated resort areas along the Maine coast. Rocky fingers reach out into the sea; pine trees line the low hills; the downtown waterside structures are mainly two- and three-story brick storefronts, most of them built soon after a fire in 1886 destroyed all the wooden buildings of the old downtown. Eastport’s residential areas are mainly classic New England clapboard, at dramatically cheaper prices than in other seaside sites. You could buy a rundown house with a water view on two sides for less than $100,000. Eastport is so compact that as we circled over Campobello to land at Eastport’s small airport, we could easily keep all its houses, office buildings, and retail shops and cafés in view. That same view took in the 20 large, round enclosures in the bay in which 500,000 farmed salmon were swimming in circles nonstop.

A century ago, Eastport was a center of the Atlantic Seaboard sardine-canning industry, and its population was more than 5,000. The population has decreased in every census since then, and Maine’s state economist recently projected that if current trends prevail, by 2025 it will fall below 1,000. The people who remain in town are old even by Maine’s standards, with a median age of 55. By national standards they are also quite poor: across the country, the median household income was about $50,000 in 2012; in Eastport, it was less than $27,000. The income is even lower in the adjoining Passamaquoddy tribal reservation.

We had come to Eastport because we had heard that this little, hard-pressed town was the scene of an audacious and creative recovery attempt. By the time we left, a week later, we were convinced of the breadth and intensity of the effort. Whether this will be enough to return the town to economic and demographic health, I can’t say, nor can anyone living there. But the next time you hear some generality about the need for “resilience” and “reinvention” in America, give a thought to the 1,300 people of Eastport.

We came to Eastport as part of a project called American Futures. Since last summer, my wife and I have been visiting smallish cities, usually much bigger than Eastport, in which promising feats of economic or cultural reinvention are under way. The road-trip-by-air angle is partly a gimmick, but not entirely. America is full of small cities you would never happen to go through, because they’re not on an interstate or between points A and B. Eastport is an example. Yet virtually every town in America is, like Eastport, within a reasonable drive of one of the nation’s 4,000-plus small airports. This has been an intentionally skewed (and obviously unscientific) sample, in that we’ve looked for cities on the rebound to see what distinguishes them. But there have been more of them than we expected, including ones as seemingly beleaguered as Eastport.

Our original idea with this project was to find answers to questions we’d formulated ahead of time. Why was this city able to maintain a manufacturing base? How did that city revive its downtown? But as we have learned through our years of travel in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, the most-important questions are usually those you didn’t know to ask before you made the trip.

One of the surprises so far has been the power of the local “turnaround narrative,” that is, the way people in a town understand and try to apply the lessons of their success. For instance, the little lakeside town of Holland, Michigan, has long had a healthy manufacturing base, but in the 1980s its historic downtown was on the verge of being hollowed out by new suburban malls. Rich local families that still owned the local factories put their own money into a downtown-revival program, including a weird-sounding but effective system that uses waste heat from the city’s power plant to warm its streets and sidewalks and keep them snow-free all year long. Everyone in Holland knows this story, and uses it to underscore the ongoing importance of committed local leadership.

We’ve visited other cities, with other stories, and will keep collecting more. After we put up an online request for suggestions, readers offered nearly 1,000 nominations for small cities in the midst of reinventing themselves. This isn’t a random sampling of America, but it says something about the local tenacity and ingenuity that observers have associated with our country from the time of Tocqueville onward. Eastport is emblematic of the towns we’ve visited so far in that its people are telling their own success story, as part of willing it to come true. At the end of each conversation we had in town—at least 50 in all, a statistically significant sample!—I asked whether Eastport seemed to still be declining, to have leveled off, or to have begun an ascent. “We’re beginning the ascent,” people told me, or “we’re poised.” “We’ve always thought of this as a 20-year effort,” an Eastport native named Hugh French told me. “We’re 10 years in.”

French’s parents moved to Eastport in the early 1950s. His father became the town doctor, and in the 1960s his mother founded a still-going twice-monthly paper, The Quoddy Tides. French and his brother Edward were raised in town, went away to college, worked in big-city America, and decided to return. Edward and his wife, Lora Whelan, now run The Quoddy Tides; Hugh and his wife, Kristin McKinlay, have set up a local museum and art institute and have converted a derelict downtown building into studio space for their artist-in-residency program. “Each thing you do, it adds to the whole,” Hugh French said as he showed us around some of the studios—and a new coffee shop, and a gift store. “It builds.”

We talked with him at his Tides Institute and Museum of Art just after arriving in Eastport. A few hours later, on our first night in town, we went to the local presentation of The Glass Menagerie, last year one of the three major productions that Stage East, a part of the Eastport Arts Center, puts on annually. (There is also a local string group that performs classical music.) The man taking tickets was the newspaper editor, Edward French. “I think we are reinventing ourselves,” he told me the next day.

In 2012, the Ocean Renewable Power Company ran an eight-month trial in Cobscook Bay, off Eastport, to test tidal-power electricity-generating systems. The trial was a success: the system fed power into Maine's electric grid and survived the harsh undersea environment. (Courtesy of Ocean Renewable Power Company)

What, specifically, does that mean? Varied and startling efforts. Here are some:

Reviving the port. Maine’s fjord-like coast gives Eastport the deepest natural harbor in the lower 48 states. (Valdez, in Alaska, is slightly deeper.) I learned to check myself before saying to Eastporters that their city was the easternmost point in America, or in any other way suggesting that it was remote. “We like to think we’re ideally positioned,” Chris Gardner, a lifelong Maine resident and former policeman who, as the Port Authority director over the past five years, has overseen a major increase in shipments through Eastport, told me. “We’re a day closer in sea time to Europe than New York is.” As the melting Canadian arctic permits more northwest passages to Asia—such passages were not possible without icebreakers 10 years ago, but they are expected (or feared) to be routine 10 years from now—Eastport becomes by far the closest U.S. Atlantic Seaboard port to China, Korea, and Japan. “We in Eastport think we are living in a crown jewel,” Gardner told me. “We automatically wake up with an advantage.”

Depth and location do not in themselves ensure a port’s commercial success. Eastport’s lack of a rail connection to the rest of North America is a major handicap to the port. The money that shippers save in sea-freight costs because of Eastport’s favorable location is often less than the extra money they have to spend to bring cargo in on trucks. The city has been lobbying hard for state and federal help in restoring the rail link that connected Eastport with the Maine Central Railroad until it was abandoned in 1978. But even without a rail connection, it has steadily increased its shipments by sea. One of its specialties is container ships full of (live) pregnant cows, bound for Turkey.

Pregnant cows? European beef and dairy herds, reduced by mad cow disease and other factors, are now being rebuilt, largely with American stock. When cows make the sea voyage while pregnant, their calves can be born on European soil and have the advantages of native-born treatment. To put it in American terms, the mother cows would not be eligible to run for president, but the calves would. A company called Sexing Technologies, based in Navasota, Texas, has devised a sperm-sorting system to ensure that nearly all those calves will be female, a plus for dairy herds. Chris Gardner convinced Sexing Technologies that Eastport would be an ideal transit point, and since 2010 some 40,000 cattle have been loaded aboard ships there.

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?”