Portland: History

The first settlement on the site of Portland was built by Christopher Levett in 1623. The next year Levett returned to England, apparently to attempt to arouse interest in forming a city on the site, to be called York. He never returned, and nothing is known of the fate of the 10 men he left behind. In the ensuing years, the city was known by a succession of names and was the object of a confused flurry of land claims and counter-claims, until Massachusetts assumed control in 1652. By 1675 Falmouth, as it was then called, had achieved some prosperity, with a population of more than 400 settlers. That same year Indian wars broke out, and in 1676 the entire town was destroyed.

No permanent settlement was attempted after this until Samuel Moody was granted permission by the Massachusetts government to build a fort at Falmouth. Over the next fifty years the area grew as an important export and shipbuilding center, and by 1770 Falmouth was one of the most prosperous of the Colonial cities. At this time tensions against the British were rising and Falmouth was the scene of anti-British protests. In 1775 a British naval captain was seized by a party of Colonials and accused of spying; the captain was released on parole on condition that he return when requested. He did return a few months later, uninvited and in command of four warships. When the citizens of Falmouth refused his orders to evacuate the city or surrender their arms, the British opened fire and destroyed more than four hundred buildings. The town was not abandoned, however; during the Revolutionary War it served as an assembly ground for the military. By July 4, 1786, when the city took the name of Portland, the economy was thriving; forts and bridges were being constructed, the state's first bank and newspaper were established, and trade with the English and French was restored. Prosperity was checked by a depression from 1807 to 1809; the War of 1812 brought recovery, and Portland's industries and shipyards flourished once again. From 1820 to 1831 Portland served as the capital of Maine. Expansion continued with the development of steamboats and railroads.

City Survives War and Destruction by Fire

Portland was actively involved in the Civil War of 1861 to 1865, contributing about a fifth of its total population to the effort. Following the war the city quickly resumed its usual activity but was jolted by what was perhaps the worst in its series of disasters when, on July 4, 1866, fire destroyed most of the city. Rebuilding began immediately and many improvements were made.

Portland continued to thrive through the twentieth century's two world wars as a center of commerce, shipping, and industry. During World War II, Portland was the base for the North Atlantic Fleet of the U.S. Navy. After World War II, the city emerged as a major oil port. Following a period of decline, with the introduction of Japanese technology, the city became known once again as a major shipbuilding center.

Portland has benefitted from the spread of the Massachusetts high-technology boom and has become a national leader in technical infrastructure. During the 1980s and 1990s, Portland enjoyed increasing tourism and developed a national reputation as a highly livable city. In 2003, Portland was ranked One of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The city has been named One of the 10 Great Adventure Towns, by National Geographic Adventure Magazine August 2004, and the #1 Top Market for Small Business Vitality by American City Business Journals, January 2005.

Historical Information: Center for Maine History, 485 Congress St., Portland, ME 04101; telephone (207)774-1822