Portland, Maine

Portland was Maine’s original capital when it became a state in 1820. Seven years later they decided to move the capital to Augusta. Today, Portland is a vibrant port city and it is the largest city by population in the state. Forty percent of all the residents of Maine live in the greater Portland area.

Portland gets its name from an Old English word that means the “land surrounding the harbor.” David and I set out to see some sites in the city of Portland and around its harbor. We started our visit in the Old Port section of the city. During the 1970s this old seaport was unattractive and run down. Many of the building were torn down to make way for a new highway. During the next decade, however, this area with its 19th century historic brick buildings and fishing piers was revitalized and it is now the place to go for food and entertainment. There are countless restaurants, hotels, boutiques, pubs, and souvenir shops.

The Portland Museum of Art

The Portland Museum of Art, the oldest public art institution in Maine, is just blocks away from the Old Port district. In 1908, Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat donated her three-story mansion, called the McLellan House, to the art museum. This provided the museum with a permanent home and she also gave a large amount of money to create a gallery space in honor of her husband Lorenzo De Medici Sweat. Once they had outgrown that space, Charles Shipman Payson gave $8 million to build additional gallery space and he also donated 17 of Winslow Homer’s paintings in his private collection to the museum. Today the museum boasts more than 22,000 works of art including the artwork of famous American artists like Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Robert Henri, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, John Singer Sargent, and many others. The museum also has the largest collection of European Art in Maine with works by Renoir, Monet, Matisse, and more.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Claude Monet

Thomas Moran

John Singer Sargent

As part of your visit, you can also walk through the restored McLellan House. Among the displays there were two of Picasso’s etched vases.

The David E. Shaw and Family Sculpture Park is adjacent to the museum and it is free and open to the public from May-December.

The Portland Museum of Art is definitely worthwhile if you are in the Old Port section of Portland.

After spending several hours in the museum, we set out to find some of Maine’s famed lighthouses. There are 65 lighthouses dotted along the 228 mile coastline. Interestingly, if you include all of the inlets and bays Maine’s coastline totals 3,500 miles and is longer than California’s coastline.

Portland Breakwater Lighthouse

Since we were near Portland’s harbor, we went to two lights that were important to sailors entering the port. The first was the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse that protects Portland’s inner harbor. It is often referred to as “Bug Light.” The original structure built in 1855 at the end of the breakwater was made of wood. Twenty years later, when they extended the breakwater to 1990 feet in length, they had to build a new lighthouse. They contracted Thomas U. Walter, who had designed the U. S. Capital’s east and west wings and its dome, to design the new lighthouse. Inspired by the Greek Acropolis, the round lighthouse was made of cast iron and Mr. Walter placed Corinthian columns on the sides to hide the seams where they welded the structure’s sections together.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, this lighthouse is not only unique in its design but the lighthouse and the surrounding park, Bug Light Park, offers great views of Portland across the bay. It’s a good place to spend some time by the water.

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse

The Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse sits on another point nearby. After numerous steam ships ran aground here, the government decided to erect a lighthouse to warn mariners to stay away from this treacherous area when entering the harbor. In 1897, they erected another cast iron and brick structure. Congress set aside $20,000 for its construction. It featured a fog bell and a fifth order Fresnel lens. In 1951, they created a 900 foot breakwater using 45,000 tons of granite that extended from the lighthouse to the shore.

If you chose to walk out to see the lighthouse up close, you have to walk carefully over the granite slabs that are uneven and do not abut one another. It was a fun challenge to walk out there but we would not recommend it to everyone. As of 1988, this lighthouse is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fort Preble and Fort Gorges

Beside the lighthouse is Fort Preble which was a military fort south of Portland. Built in 1808, it was enlarged over the years and was used during all the wars from the War of 1812 to World War II. You can walk near some of the casemates that are still visible today.

Out in the harbor is Fort Gorges, another military installation, on Hog Island Ledge. Construction on this fort began during the Civil War but by the time they finished building it, it had become obsolete. In 1960, the City of Portland purchased it. Now it is a public park but you can only access it by boat. Currently, they are raising funds to do some restoration to the fort and to build some other amenities like a restaurant and other accommodations.

Portland gave us a warm welcome. The weather was sunny, the art in the museum was amazing, and the lighthouses overlooking the blue waters of the bay made us glad that we came to this old port city.

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