Camden is a port where timeless Maine has been displaced by cell-phone Maine. Like a scaled-down version of Martha’s Vineyard, it’s where the known and want-to-be-known frolic amid a backdrop that was once oriented only to the seas and hardcore commerce. With its architectural and natural beauty still intact, Camden now dotes on visitors and almost anything a boater wants or needs is at your fingertips.
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As one approaches Camden from the south, the tall, white spire of the Chestnut Street Baptist Church still gives mariners a distinctive downtown landmark, one that’s been in place for more than 150 years. To port, the blocky, tombstone-like ledges known as The Graves still can catch a boater’s eye and imagination, as they have for generations.
Inshore, an outbound, gaff-rigged schooner may pass north of Curtis Island, much as it might have when freights of plastering lathes and machined goods were aboard, not tourists. Entering the inner harbor, the shore to port is at first dotted with mostly traditional old clapboard houses, with long lawns and fine landscaping.
Closer to town, faux-New England condos appear, jammed along the steep waterfront and seemingly disdaining the red brick downtown behind them. The turn-of-the-century commercial “block” buildings on Main Street look quite industrial, particularly with the tall, white chimney of the long-defunct Knox Woolen Mill in the far background.
At the head of the basin sits a park—a big stretch of greenery that continues around to the opposite side of the harbor until Wayfarer Marine’s operation takes over the shoreline where once 300-foot ships were built and launched into the diminutive cove.
The roar of the overflowing Megunticook River’s waterfalls rushing through the middle of town and emptying into the head of the harbor drowns out the road noise.
Transient boaters intent on spending the night in Camden will want to sail past Curtis Island and head straight for the inner harbor. The outer harbor is rolly and difficult for those of us who insist on rowing a small skiff to and from shore. Wayfarer Marine, the town’s clean-up batter in the marina business, provides launch service to its many moorings in the outer harbor.
From the time Captain John Smith first sighted the Camden Hills in 1616, mariners have been drawn inexorably to this popular spot on Penobscot Bay. As with many other early ports in Maine, Camden at first grew principally because of the ships launched from its well-protected, easily accessed shores. Throughout the 1800s, the town thrived on shipbuilding, punctuating its reputation by launching the world’s largest 5-masted schooner and the first 6-masted schooner at the Holly Bean Shipyard in 1900. Even as the days of sail waned, plucky Down Easters like Captain Frank Swift of nearby Orland refused to give up on his heritage of ships. Thus, in 1936, he chartered the little coasting schooner Mabel to take paying passengers out of Camden. The idea was so successful that eventually he purchased as many as eight more schooners for similar service, marking the beginning of Camden’s fame as a place where tourists by the scores could congregate and “go to sea”—or at least have a respite on salt water.
The roar of the overflowing Megunticook River’s waterfalls rushing through the middle of town and emptying into the head of the harbor drowns out the road noise from U.S. Route 1, also passing through the middle of town.
Camden’s “windjammer” fleet still includes two of Captain Swift’s original schooners, Grace Bailey and Mercantile. This fleet brings thousands of visitors to Camden every year for weeklong cruises on one of a half-dozen schooners ranging in size from 65 to 95 feet. Smaller, daysailing schooners and yachts add to the mix and have made schooner watching a major Camden pastime since the attraction took over the town in the 1960s.
A short stroll from the waterfront will bring you to the Camden Public Library, which is actually a social-cultural center for the town’s full-time residents. Built in 1928, it was enthusiastically expanded in 1996, creating among other things a huge children’s reading room with over 14,000 books and other materials in its collection. The expansion was built underground to keep the surrounding park grounds open. Amazingly, though, the expansion feels neither closed nor subterranean, with lots of east-facing windows offsetting any sense of being warren-bound. It also has computerized internet terminals for wayward sailors