The Kennebunks of Maine – History Along the Southern Coast

The Kennebunks of Maine courtesy Visit the Kennebunks

The Kennebunks of Maine courtesy Visit the Kennebunks.

The Kennebunks are located on the southern coast of Maine and are rich in tradition and history. Comprised of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, and Arundel, this area has long been known as a popular attraction for tourists and summer residents.

Early settlers and Native Americans

Early settlers and Native Americans

To the Abenaki Indians, Kennebunk meant “the long cut bank,” believed to be about Great Hill that drops sharply to edges at the mouth of the Mousam River. Other Native Americans also lived in this area, including the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq, Kennebec, Pequawket, and Maliseet tribes. These people followed a seasonal migration pattern, living near the coast during the warmer months of the year and moved inland during the colder months.

The first European explorer to travel in the area was Bartholomew Gosnold, who sailed from Falmouth, England, and reached Kennebunkport in the spring of 1602. In 1604, French explorer Samuel de Champlain visited the islands defining Cape Porpoise harbor, naming it “Le Port aux Isles,” meaning Island Harbor.

In 1614, famed Captain John Smith, the English adventurer of Jamestown, Virginia, explored the Maine coast. He named Cape Porpoise for a school of porpoises he saw there. When he published Descriptions of New England in 1616, his writing attracted numerous fishing parties to the region.

Picnic Rocks on the Kennebunk River, Maine, Detroit Publishing, 1900

Picnic Rocks on the Kennebunk River, Maine, Detroit Publishing, 1900

Kennebunk was first settled in 1621 as a trading center, but in its early years was a part of the town of Wells.

England formally claimed the area in 1622, and soon several settlers were living along the coast and the Kennebunk and Mousam Rivers. The first settlement was in the Cape Porpoise area, and dozens of fishing vessels worked the waters along the Maine coast. Other early settlers were harvesting the abundant timber, building sawmills along the rivers, and farming.

By the 1640s, coastal and inland land grants were being parceled out, commonly referred to as “the Kennebunk Grants.” In the 1650s, the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony asserted territorial claims over southern Maine and promptly ordered the new Maine townspeople to build roads, schools, organize a militia, and pay taxes.

In July 1653, Kennebunkport was incorporated as Cape Porpoise under the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

King Phillip's War

King Phillip’s War

After years of coexistence with the Native Americans, dissension arose in 1675 with King Philip’s War, and several conflicts would occur over the next several decades. In 1675 the Wabanaki Confederacy began to raid English settlements along the New England/Acadia border in Maine to stop the tide of English expansion.

A massive attack was made on Fort Loyal in nearby Portland in 1690 by Abenaki Indians and their French allies, resulting in everyone being killed or kidnapped. The attacks continued in the area as the French and Indians killed and captured colonists and burned many farms. At this time, the people of Cape Porpoise retreated to a harbor fort on Stage Island, where they were rescued by vessels from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The several hundred inhabitants of Kennebunk fled to the Storer Garrison in Wells, some five miles to the southwest. While the residents were safe inside the garrison, 500 Indians and their French allies attacked the area, destroying miles of houses, mills, and livestock.

Afterward, many of the settlers fled, and Cape Porpoise was entirely abandoned. In 1718, descendants and new settlers petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to re-establish a small fishing community in the area, and the town of Arundel (at Kennebunkport) was incorporated in 1719. In 1821 the town was renamed again, this time to Kennebunkport.

Perkins Tide Mill, located on Mill Lane in Kennebunk, Maine, by Jack Boucher, 1965

Perkins Tide Mill, located on Mill Lane in Kennebunk, Maine, by Jack Boucher, 1965

However, sporadic Indian attacks continued, and the last raid on the Kennebunks occurred in 1726, when the Baxter and Durrell families were invaded while the men were away. After looting the homes for possessions, they burned the houses and took Mrs. Durrell and her four children captive. However, when the Indians were fleeing, and the family slowed them down, they killed their captives.

During the Indian Wars, settlement slowed considerably, but it never stopped. The mills along the waterways were rebuilt. In 1724, Captain Thomas Perkins, Jr. built his house in Kennebunk and built a gristmill along the river in 1751. The mill operated for nearly 200 years until 1939 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1873. Unfortunately, the historic mill was destroyed by an arsonist in 1994.

In the meantime, the harvesting of the abundant local timber gave rise to the shipbuilding industry. Shipyards were first established on the Mousam River as early as 1730. Still, due to the difficulty of navigating the circuitous, barred mouth of the Mousam River, the trade was relocated to the Kennebunk River by 1755, with the vessels being built at Kennebunk Landing. From 1790-1867, hundreds of ships were built at the half-dozen major shipbuilding yards. Shipbuilding continued in Kennebunk until 1918. Today, many of the landmarks throughout the Kennebunks remain as a tribute to the prosperity of the maritime industry.

Kennebunk River, Maine

Kennebunk River, Maine

During the American Revolution, the Kennebunk people sent delegates and ammunition to Boston to support the colonies. The Battle of Cape Porpoise was fought on August 8, 1782. When a British ship of 18 guns attacked a small force of inhabitants gathered on Goat Island, they were driven away by severe musket fire, losing 17 men. Lieutenant James Burnham of Arundel was killed.

In 1820 when Maine declared its independence from Massachusetts, the Kennebunk District of Wells, at last, became the town of Kennebunk, and Arundel became Kennebunkport.

In 1825 the Kennebunk Manufacturing Company erected two dams on the Mousam River to build a cotton mill. Unfortunately, that company was not successful, and in 1832, the Mousam Manufacturing Company succeeded in building a cotton factory. Soon other factories were established that made all goods such as thread and twine, shoes, doors, trunks, and more.

Goat Island Lighthouse, Kennebunkport, Maine courtesy Kennebunkport Lodging

Goat Island Lighthouse, Kennebunkport, Maine courtesy Kennebunkport Lodging

In 1835, the Goat Island Lighthouse was built off Cape Porpoise near Kennebunkport for $6,000 to help guide mariners into the sheltered harbor. In 1859, the original station was rebuilt, and the keeper’s quarters were added in 1860. The light station remains active today. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and includes the lighthouse, home, boathouse, and oil house. The island is currently closed to the public except by special arrangements.

In 1842 the Portsmouth, Saco, and Portland Railroad came to West Kennebunk, providing opportunities for farmers to ship their produce.

Following the Civil War, the area began to see a rise in tourism as people looked for a seasonal escape from the cities. Affluent visitors often spent the entire summer in the area. The development of the Boston and Maine Railroad system ran a branch line into Kennebunk Village in 1872 facilitated the influx of vacationers to the Kennebunks. Before long, there were over 40 hotels and inns in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. Several visitors also began to build cottages along the coastline that they used as weekend and seasonal homes.

Summer "cottages" on Cape Arundel in Kennebunkport, Maine, courtesy Wikipedia

Summer “cottages” on Cape Arundel in Kennebunkport, Maine, courtesy Wikipedia.

The Nonantum Resort, located on the Kennebunk River, opened in 1884. It is one of only two of the Kennebunks Grand Hotels that survive today.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the affluent visitors and residents of the area really began to build in Kennebunkport, especially at Cape Arundel. Just east of the mouth of the Kennebunk River, a resort area was established. Today, this area is called the Cape Arundel Summer Colony and encompasses large summer estates. Many of these properties line Ocean Avenue, extending along the Kennebunk River’s southernmost stretch and around the cape to just east of Walkers Point, which juts south into the sea. Today, Cape Arundel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, added in 1984.

St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Kennebunkport, Maine by Smith Bros Publishing, 1911

St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Kennebunkport, Maine by Smith Bros Publishing, 1911

The stone chapel of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, located at 167 Ocean Avenue, in the Cape Arundel district, was consecrated in 1892 and has been serving a congregation ever since. The grounds also include an outdoor Seaside Chapel was set up on a site once used for a fort to protect the harbor. The church rectory was built in 1891 as a private home for the Nesmith family of Lowell, Massachusetts. It was later owned by Arthur Atwater Kent, the noted inventor who, among other things, invented the automobile ignition system and the first affordable radio. Kent named the home “At Water’s Edge.”

The Cape Arundel Golf Club was established by the residents of the Cape Arundel Summer Colony in 1896. The clubhouse was built in 1900. One of the oldest golf clubs in the state, the club has long been a social scene for the Kennebunkport area’s summer elite. Located at 19 River Road, the club was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

Kennebunk River Club, Kennebunkport, Maine, about 1895

Kennebunk River Club, Kennebunkport, Maine, about 1895

In 1889, the Kennebunk River Club was founded along Ocean Avenue by 13 summer residents as a private, seasonal club. In 1890, they built the Clubhouse, now known as the Boathouse. Over the years, the Club evolved to include numerous members who enjoy boating, tennis, and social activities. Today, it remains a private club, and its two-story frame boathouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

In 1902, David Davis Walker, great-grandfather to President George H. W. Bush, and his son, George H. Walker, both built mansions at Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport. Later, David Walker’s house was torn down. For more than a century, the current home has been in the Bush family, and President George H. W. Bush spent much of his childhood at the Kennebunkport estate. As an adult, Bush, his wife Barbara, and their children George W., Jeb, Marvin, Neil, Dorothy, and Robin spent most summers there. The house is sometimes referred to as the “Summer White House.” The Bush family continues to utilize the home today.

In 1900, the Atlantic Shore Line electric trolley line was established that provided passenger and freight service to many York County towns. Its 87 miles of track carried nearly five million passengers in 1907 and was instrumental in developing much of the area’s social and economic structure in the early 20th century. The trolley operated until 1927. Today, its history, as well as trolley cars from various areas, are remembered at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport. The museum is located at 195 Log Cabin Road. A group of Maine Trolley Cars was added to the National Register listing in 1980.

Autmobile in on Main Street in Kennebunk, Maine, 1917, courtesy Kennebunk Historical Society

Automobile in on Main Street in Kennebunk, Maine, 1917, courtesy Kennebunk Historical Society

Tourism really picked up with the arrival of the automobile when “touring” became a favorite pastime. This led to the disappearance of the many large wooden hotels that lined Kennebunk’s beaches. The automobile eventually led to the decline in railroad passenger service.

In 1914, a hotel called The Breakwater Court was built in Kennebunkport. Its name was later be changed to the Colony Hotel and today is the second Grand Historic Hotel that remains in the area.

On April 1, 1915, a new town was created from Kennebunkport, first known as North Kennebunkport. Many years later, in 1957, the name was changed again to Arundel. Thus, the “new” Arundel occupied a small portion of the first town named in 1719.

Agriculture and fishing remained a strong element for most of the first half of the 20th century. Following World War II, the Maine Turnpike opened in 1947, and the population began to spread out from the village centers, and manufacturing declined.

Wedding Cake House, formally known as the Bourne Mansion, Kennebunk, Maine by Carol Highsmith

Wedding Cake House, formally known as the Bourne Mansion, Kennebunk, Maine by Carol Highsmith

Today, the shipbuilders are gone, but the era left behind several magnificent Colonial and Federal homes that dot the Kennebunks. Manufacturing is also gone, but one surviving factory building has become the Lafayette Center in downtown Kennebunk, which now houses a bank, offices, and retail stores.

Kennebunks’ agrarian history is remembered at the Lower Alewive Historic District in northwestern Kennebunk. Here are four historic farm properties originally laid out in the 1750s along Emmons Road. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Another tribute to the area’s farming history can be found at the Clock Farmstead at the corner of Maine State Route 9 and Goose Rocks Road in Kennebunkport. This landmark dates back to the 1770s but is best known for the early 20th-century clock tower, which adorns the barn. This property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

The Kennebunk Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The district runs from Main Street to Kennebunk Landing’s village, encompassing many historic houses from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when Kennebunk was at its height as a shipbuilding and maritime shipping center. Two of the most noted homes are the Wedding Cake House, formally known as the Bourne Mansion, Captain Nathaniel Lord Mansion, and Wallingford Hall. Today, the town’s population is about 11,200.

Clock Farm at Kennebunkport, Maine, courtesy Wikipedia

Clock Farm at Kennebunkport, Maine, courtesy Wikipedia.

The Kennebunkport Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It encompasses most of the village center, in and around Dock Square. Here can be found souvenir shops, art galleries, seafood restaurants, and bed and breakfasts. The old agricultural, shipbuilding, and fishing settlement has been a popular summer colony and seaside tourist destination for years. People enjoy the Sea Captain’s mansions on Summer Street to the beautiful flowing Mousam and Kennebunk Rivers. It continues to be a summer haven for the upper class and is one of the wealthiest communities in the state of Maine. The affluent Cape Arundel District is north of Dock Square along Ocean Avenue. Cape Porpoise is a small coastal village in Kennebunkport that retains its identity as a fishing harbor. More than a dozen islands protect the deep natural harbor. Here are several restaurants, a church, grocery store, coffee shop, a small library, and an art gallery. It is northeast of Dock Square and southwest of Goose Rocks Beach on State Highway 9. Today the population of Kennebunkport is about 3600.

Arundel, once a part of Kennebunkport, was long made up mostly of farms. It was separated from Kennebunkport in 1915, and its name changed to Arundel in 1957. Today, it has a population of about 4200.

Kennebunks, Maine Map by by Steve Hrehovik, courtesy Kennebunks Chamber of Commerce

Kennebunks, Maine Map by Steve Hrehovik, courtesy Kennebunks Chamber of Commerce

Visitors to the Kennebunks today not only enjoy more than 400 hundred years of history but also find numerous recreation activities along its many biking and hiking trails; boating, fishing, and water sports along the beaches and rivers, horseback riding, golf, and numerous parks to rest and play.

The Kennebunks are located on the southern coast of Maine, just 90 miles north of Boston and 25 miles south of Portland.

© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated April 2021.

Also See:

Colonial Era Indian Wars

King Philip’s War

Maine Photo Gallery

Harbor in Cape Porpoise, Kennebunkport, Maine by Carol Highsmith

Harbor in Cape Porpoise, Kennebunkport, Maine by Carol Highsmith

Settling of America – New England Settlements

Sources:

Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel
Nonantum Resort
Town of Kennebunk
Wikipedia