Development, Conflict, and Community in Casco Bay

By Lucinda Gannon, MHS volunteer

Despite contents nearly a century apart in time, two newly processed collections at MHS nevertheless evidence strong commonalities of life on the Casco Bay islands. The larger of the two contains many of the historical records of the Casco Bay Island Development Association, which first became active on Peaks Island in the mid-1950s. The other collection contains a broad array of late nineteenth century material relating to Cushing Island. Each reflects strong efforts to “develop” the islands, even stronger debate about what “development” means, and both vividly illustrate some of the challenges not only of development, but also of daily life in Casco Bay.

CBIDA map Diamond Cove
CBIDA map of Diamond Cove (click to enlarge)

It’s difficult to know exactly what the founding members of the Casco Bay Island Development Association (CBIDA) meant when they named their organization in 1959. The documents clearly reflect a “can do” spirit and post-World War II optimism and quest for improvement. The early efforts of the organization were directed at basic matters such as tearing down dilapidated buildings, rebuilding piers, and improving ferry service and fire protection. There was talk of promoting “island development” and tourism. Simultaneously, the large tracts of land held by the U. S. government on Peaks, Long, and Great Diamond were offered for sale by the General Services Administration (GSA) and purchased by private individuals.

The CBIDA came to include representatives from most of the Casco Bay islands. The first large scale initiative of the CBIDA was the financing and purchase of that former government land on Peaks Island. The original ambitious plan, called Project Oceanside and spearheaded in large part by Bea Chapman of Peaks, included plans for an international center. While that never came to pass, the project mutated over time and came to include the development of the “Back Shore”, infrastructure improvements on Peaks, and the donation of conserved land on the island.

By the late 1960s the records start to reflect an increased concern for the impact of development on Casco Bay and its waters. In the 1970s the Casco Bay Lines’ strikes, service, and bankruptcy were critical issues for all islanders. The CBIDA was the lead player in obtaining service improvements, including the installation of radar on vessels, and, ultimately, in the formation of the Casco Bay Island Transportation District, which now serves the islands. Together with city and state officials, CBIDA was a key player in the redevelopment of Commercial Street, including the new ferry terminal and parking garage, and in boosting island tourism.

Portland’s newly proposed island zoning districts in the 1980s, together with the proposed development of Fort McKinley, were a watershed moment for the CBIDA, and it mounted a vigorous, time-consuming, and expensive challenge against what it saw as overdevelopment of the islands, especially Great Diamond Island. While the organization in partnership with the Island Institute and Audubon Society, among others, was able to limit some of the original plans of the development, especially its size and scope, in general it was the feeling of the CBIDA that the “development” of the islands had gone too far. The efforts of the organization since then have largely focused on the preservation of the island communities and environment, rather than on “development.”

Plan of Cushings Island, ca. 1888 | Collections of Maine Historical Society (MMN #23340)

The second newly processed collection pertains to Cushing Island and contains late 19th century ledgers from the Ottawa House, with a wealth of social and economic data from the period. Most of the records are from the time of Francis Cushing, who, with Frederick Law Olmsted developed the plan for the island. A copy of the plan (pictured, right) is in the collection, and is also available on the Maine Memory Network. The boom and bust economy of the 1890s, together with the high costs and risks of development, are evidenced in Francis Cushing’s lawsuit against the Cushing’s Island Hotel and Transportation Company, in which he alleged that Casco National Bank and others fraudulently obtained stock in and control of the Cushing’s Island Hotel and Transportation Company. Following the fire of 1888 he also complained bitterly to his business partners about their failure to insure the hotel. Finally , the collection contains correspondence from Francis Cushing regarding the potential sale of some of Cushing Island to the U.S. government in the 1890s, to become Fort Levett, and leading to one of the key unifying and defining elements of many of the Casco Bay islands, the extensive military presence there dating from about 1890.

For more information, see Coll. 2724 for the Casco Bay Island Development Association records, and Coll. 2775 for the Cushing Island collection, in the Brown Library Minerva catalog.

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