3. A Mixed Blessing: Portland at the Turn of the Twentieth-Century
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3 A Mixed Blessing Portland at the Turn of the Twentieth Century The citizens of Portland, Maine, in 1900 lived in a city optimistic about its future. Portland’s population stood at 50,145, a marked increase of nearly 39 percent over the last decade alone. As late as 1860 Portland had been the twenty-third largest city in the country, but even though it continued to grow throughout the Gilded Age, it was comparatively shrinking in size and importance relative to other faster-growing American cities. The Irish numbered 7,644, representing 41 percent of the entire immigrant ethnic population. This was nearly double that of their closest potential ethnic and occupational rivals, the English-speaking Canadians, who numbered 3,976. Portland’s nineteenth-century growth by decade was steady, if not dramatic. Irish labor in 1900 was dominant along Portland’s waterfront and clearly a force to be reckoned with in other areas, especially within the field of manual labor. Although Portland was now clearly outdistanced by Boston in the competition for northern New England’s maritime trade, since 1853 the Grand Trunk link to Montreal had provided Portland with some insulation from its larger, richer, and more powerful southern neighbor. John A. Poor’s grand dream of an international railway with Portland as its central hub had only been partially realized. The narrow-gauge line was a technique designed to end Maine’s transportation dependence on Boston. This rail– maritime nexus envisioned by Poor now enhanced the commercial growth of Portland, a city that had been described as late as the early nineteenth century as a “deserted village.”1 Portland jealously guarded this trade for the remainder of the nineteenth century and looked to its further expansion in the future. In these same years, especially following the devastating Great Fire of 1866, “Portland Seated by the Sea 66 bound up its wounds and settled down to serious business, and shipping and industry were soon vying with each other in the renewed commercial expansion.”2 Elsewhere in Maine, outside of Portland, the Irish provided not only stereotypical brute force for this phenomenal growth but also, surprisingly perhaps in some cases, entrepreneurial skills and capital. In the late eighteenth through the early part of the nineteenth century, the Kavanagh and Cottrill families of Damariscotta Mills, Lincoln County, had created a maritime link with ocean schooners plying the Atlantic waters between Maine and the southeastern region of Ireland near their ancestral homeland in Inistioge, County Kilkenny, near the tidal limits of the River Nore.3 Maine lumber was much in demand in Ireland, the original forests of which had by this time been largely denuded. In the later nineteenth century, another Irishman, Edward O’Brien of Warren and Thomaston, became one of Maine’s preeminent shipbuilders and importers of wood. O’Brien, the son of an Irish immigrant, had gone to sea before starting a career as an apprentice to a local shipwright. He built and owned ships for more than sixty years. O’Brien lived to be eighty-eight, and by the year of his death in 1882 he had become America’s fourteenth millionaire.4 Back in Portland, millennial optimism was demonstrated in a year- and century-end New Year’s opinion in a prominent newspaper. It stated that the previous year would be remembered with “pleasant memories” and Table 2. Total Population of Portland (1800–1900) Year Population 1800 3,704 1810 7,169 1820 8,581 1830 12,601 1840 15,218 1850 20,815 1860 26,342 1870 31,418 1880 33,812 1890 36,425 1900 50,145 Sources: Clayton, History of Cumberland County Maine, 167. Statistics for 1880–1900 taken from Barnes, Greater Portland Celebration 350, 111, 113, and 119. 67 Portland at the Turn of the Twentieth Century went on to predict improving business and trade opportunities over the next year. It tempered its predictions by noting that “Portland is not a ‘boom town,’ its business is not of the spectacular and inflated order, but based on solid values and conducted along sound and legitimate lines.”5 The renewed prosperity in Portland paralleled that of Maine as a whole. This same daily newspaper in 1900 reported, “Up to today the record of corporations organized during the year is the largest in the history of the State. There have been 695 organized under the laws of Maine.”6 Labor was in “good demand” throughout the state, and investment in factories, mills, and workshops...


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