Although fewer than 5,000 residents make their home here year-round, Camden, a town in Knox County, Maine, is known as a popular summer and winter resort destination visited by majestic tall ships in the summer and amateur and professional tobogganers in the cold New England winter.
As of the 2010 U.S. Census, the town’s population was 4,850 — but that number more than triples during the summer months with an influx of tourists and summer residents. Camden is a famous summer colony in the Mid-Coast region of Maine. Similar to Bar Harbor, Nantucket and North Haven, Camden is well known for its summer community of wealthy Northeasterners, mostly from Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
A Revolutionary History
The Penobscot Abenaki Indians called the area Megunticook, which means “great swells of the sea.” To the Indians, this was a reference to the silhouette of the Camden Hills as seen at night. Part of the Waldo Patent, the area remained wilderness until after the French and Indian War.
Camden was first settled about 1771–1772 by James Richards, who built a home at the mouth of the Megunticook River. Others soon followed, some making modest attempts to farm the difficult and often mountainous terrain. The first home in the area, the Conway House, a Cape Cod style home built in 1770, was purchased and renovated into a history museum in 1962.
When the town of Castine, Maine was occupied and held by the British in 1779, Camden became a rendezvous point and encampment for the Americans, who were commanded by Major George Ulmer. During a raid, the British burned a sawmill. On February 17, 1791, the Massachusetts General Court incorporated Megunticook Plantation as Camden, named for Charles Pratt, 1st Earl of Camden, a member of the British Parliament and proponent of civil liberties. During the War of 1812, a battery was built atop Mount Battie near the village. It had both a 12- and 18-pounder gun, but no gunner qualified to operate them. Nevertheless, the fort’s appearance of readiness managed to keep the British at bay.
If You Build It …
Camden grew rapidly in peacetime, as the Megunticook River provided an excellent source of water to power sites for established mills. In addition to sawmills and gristmills, by 1858 the town also was home to several carriage factories, sash and blind factories and blacksmith shops. There were six shipyards, launching ten to twelve vessels annually. By 1886, the town also made foundry products, railroad cars, woolens and paper mill feltings, anchors, wedges, plugs and treenails, planking, powder kegs, excelsior, mattresses, powder, tinware, oakum, boots and shoes, leather, flour and meal, corn brooms and barrels. Camden was second only to nearby Rockland in the lucrative manufacture of lime. This mineral was excavated at quarries, and processed in kilns before being shipped off to various ports around the United States until 1891, when Rockport was set off as a separate town.
As the 19th century came to an end, Camden was heavily into shipbuilding with the H.M. Bean Yard launching the largest four-masted schooner and the first six-master ever built—the George W. Wells.
In the 1880s, sportsmen and “rusticators” began to discover the town’s natural beauty, especially during the summer and fall, becoming seasonal residents. Sarah Orne Jewett’s stories of nostalgia for the sea, Camden’s unique scenery, fine old homes of sea captains, and the paintings of Fitz Hugh Lane, Frederick Church, and Childe Hassam evoked a romantic vision of Maine and induced many to come to stay at the Bayview House Hotel, Ocean House, and Mrs. Hosmer’s Boarding House. Around that time, Edwin Dillingham built the first of many summer cottages in Camden on Dillingham Point. Thereafter, the summer colony at Camden quickly grew to include some of the wealthiest, most prominent families in the country. These new summer residents from Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. and even Chicago built large, rambling Shingle Style “cottages” along High Street, Bay View Street and on Beauchamp Point to rival those in Bar Harbor. When the summering crowd arrived by boat or rail, locals had to make do. Whereas they had formerly gone to sea to earn a living, they now were forced to find jobs as caretakers, gardeners, and carpenters catering to their rich and powerful neighbors.
The Great Fire in November 1892 burned the business district completely to the ground but united the local businessmen to rebuild, and they constructed 12 large brick buildings, including the Camden Opera House and the Masonic Temple, which is now the Lord Camden Inn. Affluent summer residents continued coming in droves, necessitating the building of a road in 1897 that ascended to the top of Mount Battie. In 1898, a group of wealthy Philadelphians established the Megunticook Golf Club on Beauchamp Point, followed three years later by the famous Whitehall Inn, which opened on High Street in an old mansion built by a sea captain. Many wealthy aristocrats also built mansions in Camden and became public benefactors to the community at large.
Jewel of the Sea
Known around the state as the “Jewel of the Maine Coast,” Camden today is a perfect reflection of what everyone thinks of when they picture a small New England seaside village. Historic buildings, picturesque streets, churches and quaint shops and restaurants give you a feeling of stepping back in time.
Its allegiance to the sea is perhaps best shown through the classic yachts docked in the harbor and the Maine Windjammer Cruises, which have been a fixture taking visitors on the Penobscot Bay and beyond since 1936. These turn-of-the-century tall ships are the oldest fleet of historic vessels offering sailing vacations throughout the U.S. Trips on one of these 10 windjammer schooners range from two hours’ duration to a week-long vacation. The town also celebrates its own Windjammer Festival in early September.
Recreation, Festivals and Winter Fun
Camden Hills State Park offers a variety of hiking and walking trails, along with an 800-foot summit that provides spectacular views of Camden Harbor and Penobscot Bay. Viewing Camden from the summit of Mount Battie is like staring at a picture postcard. You can kayak in the bay, take a hike or bike ride to look at the leaves, or ski, snowboard or toboggan down the slopes at the Camden Snow Bowl.
Other renowned attractions include The Camden Conference and Pop!Tech. The Camden Conference has been held annually for nearly a quarter of a century to foster informed discourse on world issues. Convened in the historic Camden Opera House, the event draws some of the best minds on foreign policy to share their insights and expertise on a range of global issues. The Pop!Tech conference, which takes place each fall, gathers a global community of cutting-edge leaders, thinkers, and doers from many different disciplines to explore the social impact of new technologies, the forces of change shaping our future, and new approaches to solving the world’s most significant challenges.
During the second weekend of February, the annual U.S. National Toboggan Championships take place at the Snow Bowl. This nationally-known race started as a lark for something to do during the long Maine winters, and 18 years later is one of New England’s premier cold-weather events. The iced chute is 400 feet long, and the four-man teams attain speeds of up to 35 miles an hour. Most racers arrive in costume, and 100% percent of the race revenue is used to offset the recreation area’s operating expenses.
Hollywood made Camden the setting of the films Carousel in 1956 and Peyton Place a year later. The controversial murder flick, In the Bedroom, was filmed there in 2001. You can make it your own Down East setting for a great vacation or a special place to call home.
Debra A. Estock is executive editor of New England Condominium.