Eastport, an ever-evolving city of brick, light and shadow

A friend of mine visiting Downeast for the first time mentioned shortly after arriving that he noticed a drastic change in the air and in the light. Paraphrasing, he commented, “The air is tinged with the scent of salt, and the light is brighter. Everything here seems so different, even the shadows appear out of sorts.”

Driving up the coast that day, my friend was also dumbstruck by the homes he saw along the way. Seeing the large homes of wealthy captains from the bygone era of fishing to the small, barebones coastal houses of working-class Downeasters, we mused at the visual dichotomy between the two. We tried to imagine the lives being lived in each of them back when they were first built. Many of these homes are now owned and cared for by either people from away or steadfast Mainers true to themselves, staying even truer to a place.

As we pulled into Eastport the dichotomy was again evident. We were now in the easternmost city in the U.S. My friend was as impressed with the buildings as my family was back in 1999, when we first visited, especially the very large red brick buildings on Water Street. They were relics then and remain so today, as are many of the other homes throughout the city.

Eastport was first settled by James Cochraine of Massachusetts in 1772 and incorporated in 1798, the town was noted — at that time — as the easternmost port in the United States. In 1893 Eastport was incorporated as a city and considered the easternmost city in the U.S. Lubec, a sister town similar to Eastport minus the brick, is considered the easternmost town and is in the midst of its own transformation having hosted the Bay of Fundy International Marathon since 2013.

If you stand across the street facing those tall buildings, you will see them catch and hold the light. Behind them, blue water swirls, gulls glide by, and the salt air dances in a light mist over everything. Shadows slowly crawl across the face of the buildings, making it all a living canvas. It’s like staring at a Polaroid waiting for the colors to rise and embrace, make a photo and tell its story. Eastport is a city of brick, light and shadow.

Up close, these buildings are like sentinel soldiers standing guard, all while protecting a past that seeps brine and gives a wonderful glimpse into yesterday.  Many of the buildings today serve dual purpose: living space on the upper floors and retail, gallery and working studio businesses conducted at street level.

Writing this, I remember the very first Independence Day my family celebrated in Eastport. To this day, that celebration of our nation’s birth remains the most memorable. It was 2012, and the city celebrates not just a portion of the day, but the entire day. An Eastport Fourth is a celebration steeped in pride, passion and history. It is a day of community, old days and old ways, marching bands, police, firemen, fireworks, crazy games, bagpipes, food and, of course, red, white and blue.

All of this within a city that welcomes the sun first and never takes it for granted, welcoming Mainers from across the state to join in the celebration. Standing on the curb as a thousand smiles floated by was magical. We were all little children that day, and I remembered the lyrics of a Randy Newman song coming to me as we celebrated:

“They’re comin’ down the street, They’re comin’ right down the middle/ Look how they keep the beat!Why, they’re as blue as the ocean!/ How the sun shines down!How their feet hardly touch the ground!/ Jolly coppers on parade.”

This place is different each and every time one visits — from store closed, to store for rent, to open for business, to stop in and sit a spell. Take away the signs, it’s a city as pliable as clay, a breathing work of art in constant motion and transition. And yet, the people are always the same, friendly, caring and tough. In this place that sits far away from the world’s “noise,” the people who call this place home rely on each other and, in the process, make this place there very own. The people of Eastport remain true to this place.

The city has transformed itself after the decline of the fishing industry into a creative place for artisans, writers, musicians, photographers, sailors and landlubbers to live and work. Here, there is always a breeze riding the back of huge tides that sweep the shoreline, literally, and if you wander out onto the pier, don’t be surprised on an invitation to fish for mackerel, whether you fish or not. It has happened to me. And if you’re feeling bold, you can stand on the shore, pick up a stone and try skipping it across the water to another country.

Eastport is a place that is diverse, friendly and fun. From statues of a bigger-than-life fisherman and an unusual mermaid to Downeast and Passamaquoddy cultures, music, food, arts via the Tides Institute, sights and sounds of a working pier, dastardly coffee with Moose Island doughnuts, stone-ground mustard, whales, nature portraits and photographs, a diner named WACO, fishing boats, scallop draggers and divers, sardine and maple leaf drop on New Year’s Eve, pirates in September, people opening their homes during storms—some serving cookies—boats of all sizes, Coast Guard, record-setting whirlpool, lighthouses, most easterly published newspaper and the most easterly creative place with people dedicated to preserving its past, its present and making a future for people like me to come, visit and possibly stay awhile. All of this and more happens every day, while Canada looks over its shoulder wondering, “What’s next?”

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.