The Kennebec River at Swan Island ca 1900
1890 topographic map of Swan Island
Maine is unique in that we have more unorganized territories than most of the other states in the union, with the exception of Alaska. Most of these unorganized territories are uninhabited, and lie to the northern and western regions of the state. One territory in particular lies in the more heavily inhabited portions of Maine, that being what is known as Perkins Township, located on Swan’s Island in the Kennebec River.
Perkins was initially settled in the mid 1700’s and became an incorporated township in 1847 when Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a summer resident paid for the costs of incorporating as a community in the state of Maine. During the 1800’s, Perkins was a small but thriving community with a brisk trade in shipbuilding and ice harvesting. As the 19th century came to a close, industry and interest drew people away from the town and by 1918, Perkins had become an un-incorporated township. After the ravages of the depression and WWII, not to mention the increasing levels of pollution in the Kennebec, Perkins was left with few residents and the last family left by the mid 1940’s.
At the turn of the century (1900), the US census listed just 61 full time residents, and by 1920, the population had dwindled to just 20 full timers.
The1890 topographic map here shows that there was quite a bit of activity, so what happened to all of the residents? One may surmise that people tend to go where the money is, and with the world changing as rapidly as it was during the last few years of the 19th century, there just was not any money to be made on Swans Island.
Dresden and Gardiner, during the ice harvesting heyday contained some of the largest ice companies in the northeast. Much of the ice was harvested on both sides of the island, with houses lining the banks in both Dresden and Richmond. Very few were built on the island itself, but many of the residents were occupied in the labor end of the ice trade.
Shipbuilding was a larger part of the island commerce, and could be conducted year round to some extent. One of the main components missing from the community was a bridge linking the island to the mainland. A bridge is a connection to the rest of society, and a community can feel left out of the rest of society if that link does not exist.
When the area was first visited by the Europeans, mainly the English, the island was occupied by the Canibis Indians, of whom the great Chief Kennebis (Sebenoa?), who was said to have resided on the island opposite of where the town of Richmond now lies . There were an estimated 1500 braves living on the island at the time .
Perkins in Sagadahoc County, lies in the Kennebec River between Richmond on the west bank and Dresden in Lincoln County, on the east. Its length is about 3 miles and 4 miles in width. It bore the name of Swan Island almost from the time when it was first known until its separation from Dresden and incorporation under its present name in 1847. It lies 14 miles north of Bath, on the line of the Kennebec, Portland and Boston steamers. The nearest railroad station is at East Bowdoinham for the southern part and Richmond village for the northern. The town is mostly level, and is well wooded and fertile. When first discovered by Europeans, the island was the residence of Sebenoa, the sachem of the lower Kennebec. Col. Church and his men in 1692 had a conflict wjth a large body of savages at this place, in which the Indians were routed, some escaping to the mainland, and some to their fort at Teconnet, near Waterville.
The post-office for the town is Richmond. Perkins has one public schoolhouse, valued at $600. The valuation of estates in 1870 was $36,792. In 1880 it was $37,594. The population in 1870 was 71. In 1880 it was 78.
Having been obviously settled to a great extent by the whites prior to the 1800s, the island was at the time a sort of river-way trading settlement, with agriculture being the main industry. There must have been a great deal of traffic in fact, as we find a historical reference as to a Dr. McKechnie having treated a patient for small pox in 1764, blood letting other patients and supplying large quantities of drugs to the residents of the island .
The presence of a regular physician indicates a community at least large enough to provide an income for the doctor in residence.
It is unfortunate that such a treasure trove of history has been left to return to the wilds without extracting and retaining as much of our heritage as we can. The 1922 State Assessors Report claims that Swan’s and the smaller Alexander Island (Little Swan) that had made up the township of Perkins consisted of 1344 acres of Wildlands valued at a combined total for estates and Wildlands at 16,119,608. Much of the estate land consisted of cottages and farms, with the American Ice Company and the Crosby Navigation companies being the largest commercial owners of land on the island.
The Demaresq house, Swan Island ca 1900
The Barker House, at the foot of Swan Island ca 1900
- Varney, George Jones, Gazetteer of the State of Maine, page 295, pub 1881
- Ibid, page 440
- Kelly, Howard A., Burrage, Walter L., American Medical Biographies, Page 745, pub 1920
- Images ca 1900 from the New England Magazine, Ancient Pownalboro and Her Daughters, Charles E. Allen, pub 1901