How to save a Maine ghost town?

By The Old House Web

This is one of the buildings on Swan Island that preservationists want tosave. Photo by BOB BRIGGS

By BOB BRIGGS, Correspondent
Copyright (c) 1999 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

DRESDEN, Maine - Once it was home for American Indians; later to early Europeansettlers. But soon Swan Island in Maine's picturesque Kennebec River -- about 45 miles northeast of Portland -- may be without any houses. (See map for a location.)

Years of neglect brought about by limited state funding has caught up with many of thehistoric dwellings on the island, some of them dating back to the 1750s.

During its 19th century heyday, the island was known as the town of Perkins - aself-sufficient community of almost 100 inhabitants. The community was prosperous, asindustries such as shipbuilding, farming and ice harvesting thrived. Its charm attractedwealthy vacationers who built summer residences. The island had a schoolhouse, a cemeteryand its own town government.

But the Great Depression and polluting of the Kennebec River led to the decline anddeath of those once-profitable industries.

And the island's deathknell was sounded when the state of Maine built a bridge severalhundred yards north of the island to connect Richmond on the west shore of the KennebecRiver with Dresden on the east shore. Previously, ferries had shuttled passengers across-- stopping on Swan Island in the middle.

With no jobs and no transportation, the island's residents moved on. By the mid 1940s,the island was a ward of the state, and renamed the Swan Island Game Management Area.

"Rusty" Dyke, a warden and biologist with the Maine Department of InlandFisheries and Wildlife, oversees the island.

"We inherited more than just a game preserve," Dyke says. "We inheritedan historic landscape that is important culturally and historically."

He calls the island's buildings an integral part of what Swan Island represents:"An East Coast version of an Old West ghost town."

"It's a complete, extinct community that is unique to the eastern seaboard,"Dyke said.

In 1996, Dyke spearheaded a drive that placed the island on the National Register ofHistoric Places, a move that protects it from development but offers no assistance inpreserving its assets.

Although many early buildings have been lost to decay, Dyke is undertaking astabilization project to strengthen what remains of existing structures. "The projectis buying time until a determination can be made as to what to do with the buildings;restore them or let nature take its course," Dyke said.

Dyke said he has acquired funding from the Maine Bureau of General Services to quellwhat he calls "a crisis situation as far as the buildings go." So far, he hasused emergency allotments to fix roofs, repair foundations, and wrap chimneys to keep outthe elements.

The stabilization work is being done by Dresden native Harold Shorette, who confirmedthe expediency of the project. "Some of these buildings are about five years from thepoint of no return," he said. "The other buildings are in various stages ofdecay and also need help.

"There has been very little done to the buildings in the last 50 years," saidShorette, who noted that the structures have been damaged by wildlife on the island aswell as climatic changes.

Although Dyke has been able to tap into the state emergency fund to help with theproject, he is skeptical about receiving restoration money needed to finish the job.Instead, he is looking to the private sector for help and also to form alliances like theone he has made with Richmond High School.

Dyke has been working with Dresden School Principal Doug Read for the past three yearsin a joint venture called the Swan Island Project, which has sent student workers to theisland to help preserve and maintain the historic buildings. Already, student and facultylabor has helped in the preservation of the Lilly-Wade House.

"We are hoping to facilitate a program in which maybe some group or organizationcould adopt one of the buildings and be responsible for the care of it," Dyke said.

"The island belongs to the people of Maine, but other than those in the area, veryfew people know about us. It's a tough sell to get people interested."

Reprinted with permission from the Kennebec (Maine) Journal.
Editor's Note: Rusty Dyke can be contacted on Swan Island at (207) 737-4307. And if you're interested in visiting the island, primitive camping facilities are available.

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