Swan Island lies only a few hundred feet across the Kennebec River from the Richmond waterfront, but it seems farther away than that. If you throw a stone across the brown waters, it will land in the nineteenth century. It sounds like a cliché, but Swan Island really is a land time forgot.
These days, it's also a place desperately in search of a new identity. The state of Maine doesn't entirely know what to do with Swan Island, and that concerns the man charged with overseeing it. "My goal is just to make sure Swan Island stays open and available to the public," says Charles "Rusty" Dyke.As a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (IF&W), Dyke has worked on Swan Island for twenty-two years and lived there year-round from 1985 until 1995 (when he left, the island became officially uninhabited). Now he commutes from Monmouth to oversee the island and the two collegiate conservation aides who help monitor and maintain the island during the summer, ferrying visitors back and forth in an old steel barge, giving tours from the back of a stake-bed truck, keeping the fields mowed, the road passable, and the campers happy.
Not to be confused with Swans Island off the coast off Mount Desert Island, this Swan Island is of the freshwater variety. It contains between 1,500 and 1,775 acres, depending on how much of the mudflats exposed by the five- to seven-foot brackish tides one counts. It is a residual agrarian landscape four miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide marooned in the middle of the Kennebec between Richmond and Bowdoinham on the west bank and Dresden on the east. The lone dirt road running down its north-south spine passes four hundred acres of open fields, nearly a thousand acres of deer-browsed woodlands, thirty-seven acres of inland wetlands, several man-made ponds, two cemeteries, ten log lean-to campsites, and six houses ranging in vintage from 1763 to 1930.
The state of Maine designates the island the Steve Powell Wildlife Management Area, but there is very little active wildlife management going on at the moment. "The role of Swan Island has really flip-flopped from a wildlife management to a public-use facility," says Dyke as he pulls over his pickup at the island campground, overlooking Little Swan Island.
Since the Kennebec was cleaned up in the 1970s and 1980s, the island has become increasingly popular as a camping and recreation site, attracting some 4,000 campers, hikers, birdwatchers, kayakers, canoeists, naturalists, and school children between May and October. But the roughly $10,000 a year the island generates in user fees comes nowhere near covering the annual operating budget of close to $80,000. And that monetary shortfall is one reason for the state's ambivalence about its future.
Legally, Swan Island is known as Perkins Township, an unorganized territory just sixteen miles south of the state capitol in Augusta. The island is used by the Junior Maine Guides program as a test site for one week each year, the Maine Warden Service conducts training exercises on the island, and the Senior College and Maine Maritime Museum in Bath send groups to Swan Island, as do many school systems. And, oh yes, the island is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
So what is Swan Island? Game preserve? Wildlife management area? Public park? Campground? Historic site?
In fact, it is all of these things — with the potential for becoming much more. But Swan Island manager Dyke warns that the resurgence of Swan Island "will not happen if it's solely an IF&W or state of Maine project." In this era of budget shortfalls, Dyke thinks the state sees Swan Island as a luxury rather than a necessity. "It's a great place to have if you can afford it," he says, "and it's the first place to go if you can't."
As the abandoned town of Perkins Township, Swan Island is a significant cultural landscape that was once home to a hundred citizens, a boatyard, and three icehouses. Named for Colonel Thomas H. Perkins, Jr., a wealthy Boston china merchant and patron of the Perkins School for the Blind, the island was part of Dresden until 1847 when it seceded in a dispute over — what else? — taxes.
Following the construction of the Richmond-Dresden Bridge in 1936, the ferry that once stopped at the island as it shuttled back and forth across the Kennebec ceased operation, and the island's few remaining residents moved off. Many of the old farmsteads were destroyed. Small stands of white pine now sprout from old cellar holes all over the island, but six houses remain, including the circa 1763 Gardiner-Dumaresq House, which is one of the few authentic saltbox houses left in Maine, and the handsome circa 1800 Federal style Tubbs-Reed House.
The cultural importance of these buildings — and the archeological importance of the island as a trading site for early Native American tribes, explorers, and Colonial settlers — prompted the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and IF&W to successfully petition the National Park Service to have the island added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1995 it became the Swan Island Historic District. And the state has been weighing what to do with the island ever since.
A Master Plan for Swan Island, prepared in the winter of 2000 by Mohr & Seredin Landscape Architects of Portland, recommends that the state "develop and encourage public use of Swan Island as an education center," specifically wildlife and conservation education as well as historical and cultural education. Dyke believes it will take private initiative and support to fully realize Swan Island's educational potential. And there are beginning to be signs all over the island that people are willing to invest themselves in preserving and developing Swan Island.
New bathrooms to replace the old portable outhouses at the island campground are under construction with funds from the late Elizabeth B. Noyce's Libra Foundation. The fire tower from Frye Mountain in distant Waldo County has been airlifted to the island, where it is being restored as a wildlife observation platform dedicated to the memory of the late wildlife photographer Bill Silliker, Jr. And preserving the Civil War-era Lily-Wade House has become the pet program of the Swan Island Project, a collaboration between IF&W and the local Richmond school district that has developed an entire curriculum around the natural and historic resources of the island.
The best hope for the reincarnation of Swan Island as a vital and viable center for learning, however, may be the Friends of Swan Island, a support group that formed five years ago after Rusty Dyke gave a talk at the Dresden Historical Society.
"The entire reason for our organization's existence," says Bruce Trembly, a semi-retired neurosurgeon active with the Friends of Swan Island, "is to stabilize and preserve the structures on the island for people today and for the future."
The Friends of Swan Island have taken it upon themselves to advocate for the island before the state legislature, to maintain the Tubbs-Reed House, and to stabilize the circa 1850 Maxwell-Tarr House just to keep it from falling down and becoming yet another historic cellar hole. In 2002 the Friends secured a five-year reprieve on the demolition of the house in order to demonstrate that they could stabilize it and secured modest grants from Maine Preservation and National Trust for Historic Preservation to replace a section of roof. But much more expensive restoration work needs to be done.
"I'm not sure the public use would be here now if not for the existence of those partnerships," Dyke says of the Friends of Swan Island and the Swan Island Project. "It's a daunting task with an astronomical price tag."
So the questions facing Swan Island are many. Will it continue to limp along as the recreational stepchild of a state wildlife agency, or will it blossom as a social and natural history education center? And who will ransom its future?
The answer to this last question will probably be people fortunate enough to visit Swan Island on a beautiful day as eagles soar above a meadow where deer graze and turkey forage. For Swan Island is the kind of place that makes you wonder whether we have really made any meaningful progress as a society over the past two hundred years.
"We all feel released from the twenty-first century when we visit it," says Bruce Trembly. "It's quiet, isolated, no unexpected intrusions, and it's so easy to get to."
Standing out there in its own nineteenth century, you get intimations of a slow, peaceful way of life, of the value of the human-scaled and the handmade, of self-sufficiency and living in harmony with nature. Swan Island is an idyllic retreat from the rat race within sight and sound of a more modern Maine. The island's sights are all soulful and the sounds soft and mellow — bird song, wind song, river song, swan's song.