January 13, 2017
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 8 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 enjoy respite on salt water.
Today, Camden is a port where timeless Maine meets modern Maine. A popular port-of-call for yacht-owning rich and famous, it’s where the known (and want-to-be-known) frolic amid a backdrop that was once oriented only to the sea 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 their fingertips.
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 existed 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 (and keel), 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. 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 disdainful of 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.
After flowing through the middle of town and over a set of falls, the Megunticook River empties into the head of the harbor, drowning out the road noise from U.S. Route 1, (which also passes through the middle of town).
Adjacent to the falls is a well-manicured park—a lovely stretch of greenery designed by the Olmsted Brothers—where summer concerts and plays are performed. The park continues around to the opposite side of the harbor until the Wayfarer Marine facilities take over the shoreline.
Camden naturally attracts its share of transient boaters in season, so it’s wise to reserve a mooring or slip well ahead of your intended arrival. Wayfarer Marine, the town’s clean-up batter in the marina business, provides launch service to and from its many moorings in the outer harbor, and also offers dock space for transients. In a pinch, the harbormaster may also be able to find you a space on one of the empty private moorings. Note that the outer harbor can be rolly at times, and makes for a long row or paddle into town, so try to secure a space in the inner harbor if possible.
Canden’s historic appeal is heightened by its large fleet of “windjammers”, which still includes 2 of Captain Swift’s original schooners, Grace Bailey and Mercantile. These graceful ships, ranging in size from 65 to 95 feet, bring thousands of visitors to Camden every year for weeklong cruises. 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.
Ashore, you’ll find a plethora of shops, bars, boutiques, galleries and eateries to choose from, among them the Waterfront Restaurant, Cappy’s Chowder House and the Camden Deli. Indeed, shopping and eating are major pastimes for many Camden visitors. There’s also a well-stocked grocery store in town where you can stock up on galley provisions.
Those seeking respite from the tourists and shoppers can find it at the Camden Public Library, which also serves as 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. The library also has computer terminals and WiFi for wayward sailors who want to keep in touch and up to speed with the rest of the world.
If you’re looking to stretch your legs, consider the short hike (or bike ride) up Mount Battie, just outside town. Once you reach the summit, you’ll be treated to stunning views of Camden Harbor and the rest of Penobscot Bay.