From gutting sardines to shipping pregnant cows, this Maine port wants your business

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Downtown Eastport, Maine: Estimated population 1,352. This area was once jam-packed with sardine factories. Downtown Eastport, Maine: estimated population 1,352. This area was jam-packed with sardine factories 100 years ago.

Eastport, Maine, has an estimated population of 1,352. This downtown area was jam-packed with sardine factories 100 years ago. 

Jason Margolis/PRI

Eastport, Maine, earned its name because it's the easternmost port, and city, in the United States. It’s just a three-minute boat ride from Canada. The city has survived more than 200 years living off the sea, a constant tale of reinvention.

From a peak population of just more than 5,000 in the year 1900, the city has dwindled to an estimated 1,352 residents. Today, a handful of restaurants dot its tiny downtown. During winter, they’re mostly closed.

Eastport sits in Washington County, one of the poorest parts of the United States, with high unemployment and opioid abuse. 

“We’ve had a lot of deaths from overdoses. Five people that I knew last year died or their kids that I know died,” said local ship pilot, Captain Bob Peacock. “It’s horrible.”

A century ago, it was a different story in Eastport. It was the sardine capital of America. Regular ferries ran from here to Boston.

The Tides Institute & Museum of Art has photos from that time on display at their downtown location, including a striking photo by photographer Lewis Hine of three boys, ages 7 to 9, standing in front of a pile of sardines. Saltwater aggravates cuts on the boys' fingers.  

“They would be pulled out of school. There would be a whistle blown, and there would be whistles for different factories. So, they’d hear their whistle and then they would run down the hills, downtown with the knives with them and then work until the fish were gone,” said Kristin McKinlay, who co-founded the Tides Institute with her husband.  

Downtown Eastport.

Downtown Eastport is pictured here. 


Jason Margolis

By the 1980s, Eastport’s sardine industry was diminished but still flourishing.

“They were also making cosmetic glitter from the colorful slime off the back of the scales, it’s called pearl essence. There were three pearl essence factories here,” said Chris Bartlett, a commercial fishing specialist with the University of Maine who moved to the area in the late 1980s.

Bartlett said, eventually, sardines, and other fishing businesses dried up. And the town did, too. “Our elementary school was built to house 250 students from K-12. We now have 86 students.”

The area still does have salmon farming and lobster fishing. And, the city has its port.

A few years back, the Eastport Port Authority got an unusual phone call. A Texas company was looking for a place from which to ship cows to Turkey. Pregnant cows.

"I said, 'They want to ship pregnant cows out of Eastport? ... How are they going to do it?'" said Chris Gardner, the port’s director.

The answer: Cows would be shipped in boxes that can hold 14 at a time.

“At this point in time, I honestly thought it was half a joke. But I realized it wasn’t," Gardner said.

So, the port said yes — and then they had to figure out how to do it. Fortunately, no one else knew how to do it, either.

And so, for three years, the city was kind of booming again. Then in 2014, the cow exports collapsed when southern Turkey became too unstable.

“It’s funny, in an international situation when you’re a port like this, what happens anywhere in the world affects you,” said Peacock. “And you figure that out pretty quick when your income comes from piloting ships, and all of a sudden there are no ships because of a war in Syria.”

Ship pilot Bob Peacock guides vessels into the port of Eastport. His business was hurt when the shipment of cows to Turkey stopped in 2014.

Ship pilot Bob Peacock guides vessels into the port of Eastport. His business was hurt when the shipment of cows to Turkey stopped in 2014.


Jason Margolis

So, what do you do? You build off the cows.

“What was most important from the cows is that it illustrated that new things can happen,” said Gardner. “Here we have, literally, the deepest natural seaport, not in our county, not in our state, but in the nation — in the continental US there isn’t a port any deeper. And with all the changes that are taking place in global shipping, for a rural county who is just looking for a way out, well why couldn’t this be that way out?”  

Eastport is also the closest American port to Europe. Eastport is already shipping a lot of wood pulp from Maine to Europe and Asia, about 40 ships a year, and many locals are looking for more activity at the docks.

But the city is also isolated, tucked away in the extreme northeast corner of the country. And some residents aren’t convinced by the sales pitch.

“I’m not sure that it’s realistic, I’m not sure about it I guess,” said retired teacher and bed-and-breakfast owner Gregory Noyes. He runs the charming Kilby House Inn, one of three B&Bs in Eastport.  

“There’s no way, as far as I can tell, to get goods out of Eastport, there’s not a major highway, there’s not a rail service. There needs to be a way to get goods and services in and out easily. And I don’t see the practicality of that, I really don’t,” said Noyes.

Many here share that concern, including people working around the port. Then came Donald Trump and his talk of rebuilding America’s infrastructure. Peacock liked that.

“I believe, when he [Trump] talked about infrastructure, I think most people in this area understood exactly what he was talking about,” said Peacock.

That’s because one of Eastport’s piers collapsed three years ago. “It created a tsunami in the harbor that went up and got the windows in the bottoms of these buildings,” said Peacock, pointing at buildings surrounding the harbor. 

It happened in the middle of the night — only one person was injured. But it’s costing more than $15 million to fix. The federal government is picking up roughly half that tab, and locals hope Washington will keep investing in their community.

“We’re going to be pushing on that. Because quite honestly, with the deepest natural seaport in the United States of America, how do you not connect that to a railroad? Especially when it’s in one of the poorest counties this nation has,” said Gardner.

“It’s a conversation that needs to be had and will be had. This asset exists, there is the political will and climate to see this port grow, and all we need is that infrastructure,” Gardner said.

Question is: Are Washington politicians, and President Trump, willing to invest potentially tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into a city of 1,352, to back that up?

Eastport gets some vacation traffic, but not much partially due to its remoteness — it’s the last city along the northern Maine coast.

Eastport gets some vacation traffic, but not much partially due to its remoteness — it’s the last city along the northern Maine coast.


Jason Margolis

This piece is part of the series 50 States: America's place in a shrinking world. Become a part of the project and share your story with us.

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