Island of the Sea: Monhegan Island, Maine


Visitors to Monhegan Island talk about this tiny, intimate place the way they talk about a first love. Their faces light up and they murmur conspiratorially about how special it is, about how much respect they have for the lobstermen and artists and residents, about how calming the intense quiet and beautiful hiking and historic houses and back-to-basics lifestyle can be. Abridged by the ocean, fortified with brooding cliffs, softened by meadows and spruce forests, this windy island off the Mid-Coast of Maine fires the imagination and elicits a feeling of loyalty and protectiveness that pulls you back again and again.

A whale-shaped outpost between the open Atlantic and mainland Maine, Monhegan has drawn visitors for centuries. Mysterious inscriptions (Viking? Phoenician? No one knows for sure, but they're at least a thousand years old) decorate a rock on Manana Island, a submerged mountain which protects the harbor. A hermit once lived on its green, treeless little expanse, and his tiny shack still stands tentatively near the top of its hump. Indians frequented Monhegan and gave it its name, which means"Island of the Sea," and European explorers and fishers used it as a rest stop. Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) tried to establish a settlement, but it failed. The first permanent European settlement didn't take root until 1619. Around this time, the English began logging on Monhegan—the birth of a Maine industry.

By virtue of its position between the coast and the ocean, the island became an important lighthouse location. President James Monroe authorized the construction of the first structure in 1824. The current lighthouse, 48 feet tall and made of granite, was built in 1850. Solar-powered and automated (the last keeper finished his duty in 1959), perching solidly atop a bluff overlooking the village and harbor, it still functions as a primary seacoast light.

Unsurprisingly, fishing and lobstering were, and still are, the mainstay of the island economy. Today's lobstermen, reknowned for laconic toughness and a careful guardianship of their waters, work only for six months, from December 1 until June 25. Trap Day, the first official day of the lobster season, draws all the islanders to the harbor in the early morning to send off their lobstermen in fitting fashion. Although the weather can be quite intimidating at this time of year, lobster prices are at their highest, and the break from June to December allows the lobsters to molt and breed undisturbed. Monhegan's lobstermen, unusually, have exclusive rights over the waters in a two-mile radius immediately surrounding Monhegan (the Monhegan Lobster Conservation Area), and the limited six-month season was established in order to keep the population strong.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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