From Main Street in Castine, looking down at the outer reaches of the Penobscot River and waterfront, where people are enjoying fresh seafood at the Captain’s Catch on the town dock, it may be hard to picture what town looked like 200 or even 100 years ago.
One of the oldest communities in North America, Castine also is the site of the second greatest naval disaster in U.S. history. The many historic storefronts and well kept ancestral homes are a testament to to the coastal town’s storied past and townspeople who treasure their rich history.
For those interested, the Castine Historical Society’s walking tour give visitors a chance to stretch their legs and learn simultaneously about the town. They will stop by the nation’s second oldest, continuously serving U.S. Post Office dating back to 1833. They will hear about Castine’s role in the American Revolution and the War of 1812.
In September, the society planned to introduce a virtual tour that would enhance the existing walking tours.
“You’ll be standing in front of the church [the Trinitarian Congregational Parish of Castine built in 1829], and we have pictures of this church from the late 1800s, so these early pictures would really enhance the history because you can scroll through and look at historic pictures,” said Castine Historical Society Executive Director Lisa Simpson Lutts.
One sunny summer morning, volunteer tour guide Richard Stern brought his seasonal home’s history to life.
“The geographic position of Castine does a lot to determine history,” Stern explained. “In the early years from about 1613 to 1713, the nominal control of this peninsula changed hands eight times.”
Castine’s location in Penobscot Bay was a sought-after strategic location for many reasons. It has the largest natural deep-water harbor between Boston and Halifax. It has served as a major route inland for timber, which was important for shipbuilding and trading with the Native Americans. The Penobscot River also offered an important passage to Quebec and a strategic location for patrolling the sea lanes.
The town, chartered in 1796, was named after French nobleman and military officer Baron Jean Vincent d’Abbie de St. Castin. He first came to the area to rid Quebec of a group of Dutchmen, and stayed. He fostered strong relationships with Tarratine Indians and eventually married Mathilde, the daughter of Chief Madockawando.
In Castine, houses aren’t known by their street address, but rather by their name. Ask a local where they live, and they may respond, “I live in the Stevens house.”
“When my wife and I bought a house here in 2004 I ran into one of my neighbors for the first time. I introduced myself, and I was explaining where I live, and she said, ‘Oh, you bought the Jones house.’” Stern related. “It’s confusing to newcomers, this naming of houses,” added Lutts.
The tour briefly walked further down Main street, looking at the architecture of places such as the Pentagoet Inn, a Queen Anne style building with decorative shingles, turrets and a wrap around porch, before filing back up the road.
Although the historical society is excited about introducing the virtual tour, Lutts says the traditional walking tours will not be discontinued.
“Each guide gives a slightly different tour, and some people just enjoy that interaction because you’re not going to be able to ask the virtual tour a question,” the historian related.
The Castine Historical Society is located at 13 and 17 School St. in Castine. For more info, call 326-4118 and visit www.castinehistoricalsociety.org.