Perched defiantly on Deer Isle’s southern bluff, Stonington looks to the sea for its sustenance. Its 1,100 close-knit residents, who live 40 miles from malls and major services, are as rock-hard as the granite they once excavated from their surroundings.
Stonington is the “real coastal Maine,” native Tony Bray says. He and his wife, Lauren, own Fisherman’s Friend, the 200-seat dockside restaurant his parents founded in 1979. The very independent local fishermen are determined to prevent their village from being “Camdenized” — that is, fancied up for tourists like Camden up the coast.
Stonington is an easy, scenic 24-mile cruise east from Penobscot Bay through Deer Isle Thorofare. In 1939, a bridge over Eggemoggin Reach connected Deer Isle with the mainland. From Rockland it’s an 85-mile drive.
Harbormaster Steve Johnson says boats can anchor between the mooring field and the Thorofare, as the cruise schooners do. Downtown moorings, wharves and fuel docks are reserved for commercial fishermen. There’s a two-hour limit at the town float for yachts. Knowledgeable cruisers reserve slips at Billings Diesel and Marine (www.billingsdiesel.com), a local institution since 1928, then walk or dinghy the mile to downtown. Old Quarry Adventures, about 2 miles to the northeast, also may have slips.
Stonington’s spectacular setting — overlooking the bustling harbor and the 67 spruce-clad islands of Merchant Row — draws growing numbers of artists, tourists and summer residents who arrive by car, windjammer and private yacht. You’ll find tony new restaurants, galleries and shops, plus the Fisherman’s Friend (serving lobster 18 ways), the Harbor Cafe, the Harbor View Store and other old favorites. Bray proudly says patrons come by boat to see affordable, year-round entertainment at the 1910 Opera House, restored to its Edwardian elegance.
It was once an active steamboat port, and a single ferry now runs to Isle au Haut, part of Acadia National Park and the home of swordfishing captain/author Linda Greenlaw. Stonington remains one of the state’s busiest lobstering ports. Fishermen’s trucks rumble along Main Street at all hours. More than 325 lobster boats leave their moorings by 5 a.m. Five of Deer Isle’s eight lobster buyers operate in the harbor. Although lobster is king now, the village name honors the immense wealth produced by quarrying, cutting and shipping granite in the late 1800s. In 1897, the 100-year-old fishing village of Green’s Landing was renamed Stonington.
The Deer Isle Granite Museum on Main Street (open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day) transports you back to the frontier-like quarrying boom days before concrete and steel replaced granite in construction. Scale vehicles in the 8-by-15-foot model of Crotch Island Quarry demonstrate operations. Photographs and artifacts personalize the process.
In those years, huge barracks in Stonington and at the quarries housed hundreds of Europeans who drilled and set the dynamite, operated the coal-fired steam-powered derricks, cut and polished the stone, and guided the horse-drawn galamanders loaded with blocks down to the docks for shipment to Eastern cities. After World War II, the quarries declined, and the quarrymen and stonecutters departed, leaving behind vegetation-covered mounds of tailings (scrap) and holes, where locals swim.
Watch for a puff of smoke after a muffled boom from Crotch Island, where Georgia Stone Industries has revived quarrying. In 2010, New England’s only active island granite quarry provided 100 45,000-pound blocks of Crotch Island granite for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ new American art wing. Quarry workers — die-hard Red Sox fans all — produced 8 million pounds of granite for the new Yankee Stadium’s Babe Ruth Plaza.
Stonington’s side streets are as fascinating as its waterfront. (You can obtain visitor information from The Captain’s Quarters Inn.) Classic white-painted houses stair-step up the steep slopes. Lobster boats sit on wooden ways, lobstering gear in side yards. Freshly painted mansions of quarry owners and ship captains now serve bed-and-breakfast guests. Granite is everywhere — bedrock “lawns” and cut stone seawalls, wharves, foundations, steps, even birdbaths.
The village is changing, but, restaurateur Bray says, “I don’t think Stonington will ever become [just a tourist town]. The roots of people here go back generations. They want it to remain a real working fishing town.”
See for yourself. www.deerisle.com
See related articles:
July 2013 issue