Peaks Island is the most populous island in Casco Bay, Maine. It is part of the city of Portland and is approximately 3 miles (4.8 km) from downtown. The island became a popular summer destination in the late 19th century, when it was known as the Coney Island of Maine, home to hotels, cottages, theaters, and amusement parks.
Photo courtesy of Dan / Flickr
The island had an average population of 927 from the years of 2011 to 2015. While small, the island hosts a variety of businesses including an ice cream parlor, restaurant, grocery store, kayak rentals, golf cart rentals, art galleries, the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum and the Umbrella Cover Museum, among others.
Notable visitors and places
Hollywood film director John Ford was known as “The Mayor of Peaks Island” because of his great affinity for the island. He vacationed there from boyhood through the early 1960s, worked as an usher at the Gem Theater and was a deckhand on the Casco Bay Lines ferries in his youth. Ford’s relatives still live on the island.
Besides the Gem, which featured famous performers including the Barrymore family, two other summer theaters were located on the island. One, the Pavilion, opened in 1887, is said to be the first summer theater in the country. The Greenwood Garden Amusement Park sported the Greenwood Garden Playhouse.
George M. Cohan tried his productions out at the island’s theaters before taking them to Broadway. Circa 1908, D.W. Griffith was torn between continuing to appear in plays produced at the island’s playhouses as he frequently did or heading to Hollywood. Jean Stapleton‘s first professional appearance in the summer of 1941 was in a production at Greenwood Garden. Martin Landau also made his professional stage debut in a 1951 production of “Detective Story” at Greenwood Garden where for several seasons he was a resident cast member.
Most of the hotels were lost to fires over the years. The Gem Theater was destroyed by fire on September 7, 1934. 17 buildings burned to the ground on June 2, 1936, including the new Union House Hotel. The only original hotel structure remaining on the island is the Avenue House, which has been converted into condominiums.
During World War II, the island was home to a large military defense installation, including the largest structure, Battery Steele, which housed two 16 inch (406 mm) guns. When Battery Steele’s guns were first tested, windows on the opposite side of the island shattered.
According to the 2000 census, Peaks Island is home to 843 year-round residents, with a summer population that swells to an estimated 2,000–5,000, with many day-trippers. The island is served by Casco Bay Lines and is home to its own elementary school, library, and police station.
There have been at least six significant movements for Peaks to secede from the city of Portland: in 1883, 1922, 1948, 1955, 1992, and another effort in the period 2004 to 2011. The most recent effort grew out of a revaluation of all properties in the municipality, when average property taxes on Peaks Island increased by over 200 percent. Shortly thereafter, a group of island residents organized a committee to investigate seceding from Portland and forming a separate town. A successful petition drive put the issue to an island-wide vote on June 13, 2006. Of a total of 683 votes, over 57 percent were in favor of secession.
The Portland City Council unanimously opposed secession. The council and the secession group, after arguing over whether to hold talks in public or private, failed to negotiate terms. In February 2007 the secession group obtained sponsorship for legislation in the Maine State Legislature to incorporate the Town of Peaks Island, subject to a successful referendum. After vigorous debate, the bill was narrowly tabled, “dead” in committee as of May 14, 2007.
As a result of the secession fight and the urging of state legislators, the Portland City Council agreed to create a seven-member Peaks Island Council for direct liaison. But in 2010 most members of the Peaks Island Council resigned, expressing frustration about Portland’s unwillingness to work with them. With only write-in candidates taking the vacant seats the Council ceased to fulfill its function. Ongoing discussions between the Council’s former Chair and city officials about establishing some degree of autonomy, such as creating a village corporation within the city, proved unproductive.
As a result of a change in the Maine legislature from Democratic to Republican control the secession effort regained momentum, with a new bill introduced in 2011 providing for a January 2012 island-wide vote on secession. However, hearings showed an apparent lack of consensus among the islanders. The State and Local Government Committee rejected the bill, on the ground that the secession leaders had not followed the legal process: they would need to start over with signature gathering and another referendum.
Places to eat
There are three main full-service restaurants on the island: The Inn on Peaks, The Cockeyed Gull and The Island House Restaurant. In addition to these restaurants, the Peaks Cafe or Milly’s Skillet food truck serve light or on-the-go meals. There is also a hot dog cart near the ferry landing. In addition, Hannigan’s Island Market sells sandwiches, pizza and ready-to-go food. All of these establishments are located within walking distance of the ferry landing.
Golf cart taxi incident
Beginning in the summer of 2009, a 19-year-old summer resident offered free rides (tips only) to residents and tourists in his family’s electric golf cart to help pay for his college tuition. The Peaks Island Transportation System found itself losing business to an unregulated competitor with less overhead and took its complaints to the Portland City Council. On August 16, 2010, the Council voted 5-3 in favor of amending the city’s taxi definition to include tip-only services, effectively regulating the golf cart taxi out of business. The situation was covered in national media.
- Morgenson, Max (July 25, 2010), “Peak your interest: Island beauty and fun 15 minutes from Portland … if the Umbrella Cover Museum isn’t enough”, The Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine
- Fifth Maine Regiment Museum
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- Tom Bell (August 6, 2010). “Free rides, but at what cost?”. The Portland Press Herald. Retrieved April 2, 2015.
- Tom Bell (August 20, 2010). “Council: Peaks golf cart ‘taxi’ must be licensed and insured”. Portland Press Herald. Retrieved 2014-01-23.
- Associated Press (August 17, 2010). “Portland regulates 19-year-old’s golf cart ‘taxi’ business venture”. Bangor Daily News. Retrieved 2014-01-23.
- Notable Items section: Clough, Leon S., editor; Peaks Island 1776–1976 Bicentennial Directory
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