The Heart of Portland on Foot

Portland’s “Old Port” is perhaps one of the most popular destinations in southern Maine. Known for its exceptional restaurants, shops, lodging, waterfront, and general aesthetics, the area draws tourists and natives alike to sample its wares. But those who drive downtown to pop into a storefront or dining establishment and then drive back out may miss the rich and diverse history and architecture that has evolved over the past 300 years. The best way to appreciate that is by hoofing it, with a guide.

Docent John Serrage (seated) shows tour-goers a granite disk that features the names, dates, and descriptions of important city residents of the past.

Greater Portland Landmarks has long known that, which is why they’ve offered tours of the area in years past. This summer, however, they’ve passed the baton to Maine Historical Society. Beginning next week, MHS offers Old Port Walking Tours Thursday through Saturday throughout the summer. The 90-minute tours leave MHS headquarters on Congress Street at 10:30 AM and 1:00 PM and cost $10 per person. They are recommended for children age 12 and up. (Longfellow Walking Tours, a staple for some time now, are also available–on Mondays and Wednesdays at 11AM.)

An example of three architectural styles on Fore Street: Colonial Revival, Colonial, and Greek Revival (l to r).

The tours are led by experienced and knowledgeable docents–most of whom led them previously for Greater Portland Landmarks–and highlight the city’s colonial maritime heritage and wide varieties of architecture including Victorian, Greek Revival, Colonial, Colonial Revival, Second French Empire, and Bauhaus, among others.

A number of other topics make their way into the tour depending upon the specific interests and research of the docents. Some of these include:

Outside Brian Boru

Immigrant history. Did you know, for example, that the large parking lot just south of the Brian Boru pub used to be the heart of a significant Irish neighborhood?

Industries. Cod, wood, and ice were all shipped out of Portland beginning long before the American Revolution.

The Hub Furniture Co. building was built after the 1866 fire and has only had two tenants; the original tenant was the Curtis Chewing Gum Co.

The great fire of 1866. Given that two-thirds of the city was burned to the ground, the fire had a monumental impact on development in the latter half of the 19th century.

The area’s revitalization that began in the 1970s. Can you name the three landmark restaurants that helped turn the area around during this decade? (The Old Port Tavern on Moulton Street, and the Gaslight and F. Parker Reidy’s on Exchange Street.)

Famous city residents. In addition to Longfellow, one of Portland’s most beloved sons was film director John Ford (born John Martin Feeney). He won four Oscars for directing, a record that stands today. (Be sure to check out our Ford film series this summer!)

The group stops at the John Ford statue.
The iconic Bull Feeney’s

Social history. Fore Street once housed a Seamen’s Chapel, the Seamen’s Club (now Bull Feeney’s, named for Ford, who was known as “Bull” in high school), and–legend has it–a house of ill repute, all within a few steps of one another. Vice and repentance, conveniently aligned.

These tidbits barely scratch the surface of what you’ll learn on an Old Port Walking Tour. So grab your sunscreen, don a hat, and join us sometime this summer to discover the history behind one of Maine’s most historic downtowns.

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