Paul Turnbull: Monhegan: Island at the Edge of Time

I first visited Monhegan Island, Maine, in 1963. Arriving at mainland Port Clyde a few minutes prior to departure of the Laura B., the mail boat that also served as passenger ferry and cargo hauler for island supplies, I asked a crewmember, “Hey, what’s out there on the island?”.

He replied with something like, “Well, it’s a fishing village. Some pretty big cliffs. A couple shipwrecks. Some trails through the woods and some artists. Couple of guesthouses. Not much else. You can go over with us and look around, we’ll be bringing back the mail after a couple hours.”

After purchasing our tickets and an hour & fifteen minutes on the open sea, we cruised into the foggy island harbor. The wharf was lined with people waiting for the arrival of mail and I could see a few houses scattered up the steep hillside, above the landing. The harbor formed by the shelter of Monhegan and tiny adjacent Manana was congested with all manner of fish and lobster boats. Before I even stepped off the mail boat, I experienced that seldom known emotional state that I can best describe only as, “I’m home”.

And so, my forty plus year photographic odyssey began. The Trailing Yew no longer provides lodging and three meals per day for twelve dollars. But it still, at a quite modest cost, feeds and houses painters, writers, nature lovers, bird watchers and others seeking the remote, rugged natural beauty of the island. Houses built by artist Rockwell Kent still provide shelter and draw the attention of painters and photographers; the harbor still welcomes seafarers as it did Captain John Smith, in the early 17th century. And, today’s day-hiker can still walk through the tall sweet grass, above the wreck of the D.T. Sheridan at Lobster Cove, that mainland Native Americans canoed over eleven miles of open water to, to gather for basket making three hundred or more years ago.

In 1963 the year round population had dwindled to about 24. The school had been closed and the few children boarded ‘ashore’. The only phone was a battery powered emergency ship-to-shore rig in the Harbormasters shack. Refrigeration was dependent upon ice cut during winter months from the small pond and lighting was from kerosene lamps. Monhegan was not the location for the vacationer looking for luxurious amenities. And, it still isn’t.

The 70’s brought a microwave tower for phone service and new fresh water storage tanks were built on Lighthouse Hill, to be filled by pumping precious and scarce water from “The Meadow”. By the late 80’s, many buildings had installed electric service from the new municipal diesel generator. Eventually, the rotating fresnel lens lighthouse was refitted with a flashing strobe beacon to guide offshore shipping. The resident population slowly began to grow again and long closed guesthouses reopened. Summer resident numbers increased and ‘day trippers’ multiplied.
Cell phones, fax machines and connection with the internet during the 1990’s created new possibilities for people “from away” to spend greater lengths of stay in their island homes and rented cottages which, in turn, generated need for additional goods and supplies from shopkeeper’s. Technology, along with stringent new regulations and market demands, altered many traditional fishing practices.

But, though there have been changes, the ‘magic’ is still there for those that are open to it. The lobster fishermen (& women) and shopkeepers still go about their daily chores and the painters still climb the craggy cliffs with easels & paints; the innkeepers work to maintain their buildings against the harsh climate and keep their guests fed and comfortable. And, I can still set up my tripod and train my lens in any direction without concern that I’ll be threatened with a lawsuit or protests from suspicious property owners, or face limited hours and locations determined by
Rangers in a park office.