Little Chebeague: Uncovering a Small Island’s Big History

The transportation from Portland Harbor to Little Chebeague for a recent site visit by Maine Memory Network staff.

According to the Maine Department of Transportation’s island ferry website, roughly 4,600 islands dot the waters off the Maine coast. Stop and think about that for a minute: 4,600. Now, mind you, only a relative handful of those are inhabited and some are just tiny granite outcroppings. But still: 4,600? It boggles the mind.

While most of those uninhabited islands always were that way–home only to  flora and fauna since the last Ice Age created them–some hide a heavily human-influenced past beneath their now-densely forested state.

One of several trails on Little Chebeague.

One of those islands is Little Chebeague, in Casco Bay. Don’t confuse Little Chebeague with its older sister, “Great Chebeague”–or more often just “Chebeague.” While the two islands are occasionally connected at low tide, Great Chebeague is home to both year-round and summer residents. Little Chebeague enjoys day-trippers only.

But at various times in its past, Little Chebeague was home to more than a handful of humans. A resort hotel and summer cottage colony dotted its landscape in the late 19th century, and the United States Navy used the island as a recreation and training site during World War II. Soldiers enjoyed ball fields, boxing rings, and a skeet range. While today the island is overgrown except for trails maintained by Maine Island Trail Association (MITA), Little Chebeague was mostly open field as recently as 1945. In fact, the island had been farmed as far back as the early 1800s.

A historic marker on the island explaining the history of the resort hotel that once stood there.

Several of these now-collapsed early 20th c. summer cottages are hidden away in the island's interior.

Now, MITA has joined with Maine Historical Society to reveal the Island’s largely unknown history in a Maine Memory Network exhibit. The project piggybacks onto a larger effort to interpret the island’s history and ecology through signage, much of which has been supported by a grant from Maine Humanities Council.

A steel structure on the southern beach of the island used by the U.S. Navy prior to and during World War II to train sailors in shipboard firefighting.

Awarded the Maine Memory grant during the spring 2011 grant cycle, the project team has set about processing the substantial archival material collected by island historian Richard Innes, converting oral history audio files, and beginning work on the narrative. The final exhibit, expected to be unveiled in November will, according to MITA’s grant application, “present the story of Little Chebeague’s history and its relationship to regional, cultural, social, and environmental events and influences.”

Once that’s completed, maybe MITA will consider add more exhibits on other historically-significant islands along the Maine coastline. With 4,600 to choose from, there’s no telling how substantial this project could become!

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About mainechp

Maine Community Heritage Project at Maine Historical Society
This entry was posted in Grants, Maine Memory Network and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Little Chebeague: Uncovering a Small Island’s Big History

  1. George Geyerhahn says:

    Several years ago, I took the Casco Bay Island cruise. One of the lecturer’s notes about Little Chebeague I distinctly recall was that a German Baron, who was a captain of a recon submarine stationed near the entrance of Casco Bay found Casco Bay absolutely beautiful. He made a vow that if he survived the war, he would buy an island and deed it back to the state upon his death.

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