Explore Political Portland
The Forest City is an ideal place to hit the pavement for a political history lesson.
Professor of political science Robert Klotz of the University of Southern Maine (www.usm.maine.edu/pos/) put together this Portland outing, so lace up your sneakers and get ready to flex some well-researched history muscle.
Start at the intersection of Park Street and State Street. At the northeast corner, there stands a Spanish-American War memorial. You might remember (undoubtedly you were instructed to do so) that the explosion of a vessel sharing the same name as the Pine Tree State largely contributed to the beginning of the war. From there, go south to 166 State Street, where you’ll find the former home of William Pitt Fessenden. On a national scale, Fessenden, who was one of Maine’s U.S. senators, was an avid abolitionist. He is also legendary for his staunch opposition to pork barrel spending, even voting against funding for his own Portland Harbor. (But we forgive him.)
Continuing on, turn right onto Spring Street and stop at Number 375, where you’ll find the former home of Israel Washburn, once a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the founding members of the Republican Party. At the end of Spring Street, take a right onto Vaughan Street, and then a left onto Bowdoin Street. Another right onto Western Promenade and you’ll find a statue of Thomas Brackett Reed off to the left just beyond the intersection of Western Promenade and Pine Street. Reed [Down East, November 2005] was born and raised in Portland and went on to become Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1889, widely known for both his strong party leadership and wit.
Continue down Western Promenade and turn right onto West Street. Next take a left on Vaughan Street, then a right onto Bramhall, and make a final right before reaching your destination onto Congress Street. In front of the fire station is a marker that memorializes the first-ever federal execution, which took place here in 1790. Thomas Bird was accused of murdering the captain of his ship while at sea off the coast of Africa, and he was arrested while in port at Cape Elizabeth. The hanging occurred at this spot in Portland to accommodate a large crowd of spectators (an estimated three thousand people attended the event) after George Washington denied Bird’s pardon. Continue down Congress and stop at Number 714, where you’ll find the home of Neal Dow. Once a mayor of Portland, Dow played a significant role in the Prohibition movement, assisting Maine in becoming the first state to pass a statute banning either sale or production of alcohol and thus setting the stage for other states to follow suit.
Next, turn right onto State Street, take a left onto Spring, and another left onto High Street. 116 High Street, the second house on your left, is the former residence of Nathan Clifford, the only Mainer ever to be named a Supreme Court justice (although we hear John Roberts has chosen the Pine Tree State for a vacation home). Appointed to the position by President James Buchanan, Clifford believed in a narrow interpretation of the federal government’s powers. Just across from his house is the Portland Art Museum. Inside is a marble statue of General Ulysses S. Grant that commemorates Grant’s successes in the Civil War, done by Franklin Simmons. Simmons was originally from Portland, and you can find some of his other works in the museum as well, such as plaques of Grant and Abraham Lincoln.
Next, make a right onto Congress and continue down the street until you see Monument Square off to your right. Here there is a statue commemorating those who died in the Civil War. 421 Union soldiers hailing from Portland were killed in the Civil War, as well as many more from around Maine. From here, take a right onto Exchange. This one’s a little tricky: near Middle Street is the former location of 59 Exchange Street, where the law offices of Samuel Fessenden were located. If you can’t see it, that’s probably better, because the building burned in the Great Fire of 1866, but Hannibal Hamlin once held an internship in Fessenden’s office. Hamlin served as Lincoln’s vice president from 1861-1865, the only Mainer to ever hold that position.
From there, take a left onto Middle Street, where just south of the Middle-Market intersection is another ghost of a building that fell victim to that infamous fire. Here James Blaine once had an office while editing the Portland Advertiser. Blaine lost the race for the presidency in 1884 by less than twenty-five thousand votes (out of ten million) to Grover Cleveland, but he remains the only Mainer to win the nomination of a major party. His former residence in Augusta is now the official residence of Maine’s governor.
Continuing on the trail, take your first left onto Market Street. The United States District Courthouse is off to your right, built in 1911. The exterior of the building is good old Maine granite, and the interior hears cases that involve federal questions. Next, take a left onto Congress, and on your right at 389 is Portland City Hall. This is the home of Portland government, as well as numerous community events. In 2001, George W. Bush spoke here. Continue west on Congress Street, and on your right again at 425 are the grounds on which Maine’s Constitution was drafted. A church once stood here, and within its walls Maine’s Constitution was written in 1819, before the state’s entrance into the Union in 1820 when it split from Massachusetts. Portland was initially the state capital until 1832, when the honor was transferred to Augusta.
To reach the last stop on the tour, continue west on Congress Street, and off to your right is the Longfellow Home, at 487 Congress. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, certainly the most famous Maine poet, praises his hometown of Portland in the poem “My Lost Youth.” The house itself was the first home in town built of brick at the time, in 1785. The scenery surrounding it was stunning, with both Casco Bay and the White Mountains visible (today, unfortunately, Longfellow would have had to look past Starbucks to see the water).