2015-03-27 / Community

A Window on the Past

Cape Elizabeth Origins, part 1
By Craig H. Skelton
South Portland Historical Society


This lithograph print was made to depict Portland in 1832. It also shows the northern shore of Cape Elizabeth (now South Portland) in the area of Ferry Village and Cushing’s Point, giving a feel for the sparse settlement in those early years. (Courtesy photo) This lithograph print was made to depict Portland in 1832. It also shows the northern shore of Cape Elizabeth (now South Portland) in the area of Ferry Village and Cushing’s Point, giving a feel for the sparse settlement in those early years. (Courtesy photo) Our window takes a long look back this week. As you all know, the historical society focus is on South Portland. However, we are in essence Cape Elizabeth after all, based on our origins. So in coming weeks you will have to remember that both communities were once one and that division will need to be blurred as our past dictates that the “old name” of Cape Elizabeth describe our fair city as you read on. A good read about our local history covering the mid-20th century back to the days of Spanish explorers can be found in “A History of Cape Elizabeth, Maine” by William B. Jordan Jr. The book was originally published in 1965 and original copies are scarce, however the historical society has republished the book. Call 767-7299 to order your copy – I highly recommend it.

History buffs will know that Cape Elizabeth was born Nov. 1, 1765, when the Second Parish of Falmouth officially became the District of Cape Elizabeth. It may be timely that I remind you all of this fact given that 2015 marks our community’s 250th anniversary.

Until we gained the distinction of being a “district” on our own, this area was simply a part of the town of Falmouth. The origins of Falmouth are traced back to 1658 when the articles of submission established it to be the geographic region between the Spurwink River and Clapboard Island in Casco Bay to 8 miles inland. The area described included what is now known as Portland, Falmouth, Westbrook, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.

General growth on our side of the river would be the short answer to why such changes in governance were taking place. One should remember, though, that governance was closely associated with the local house of worship. The town of Falmouth was simply becoming difficult to govern efficiently because of the large land area it encompassed. Furthermore, it was difficult for the inhabitants of what was then known as Spurwink and Purpooduck to cross the Fore River to worship at First Parish, located on the Portland peninsula. The General Court of Massachusetts ordered that a house for the public worship of God be built and thus the Second Parish was established in 1733. A church was built the following year, in 1734, in the corner of what is now known as Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Meeting House Hill.

It is often all about the fine print, and establishment of the “district” in 1765 allowed residents to perform all the functions of a town, except they could not send a representative to the General Court. It wasn’t until 1776 when, by an Act of the Court, Cape Elizabeth was established as a separate town and our first representative was James Leach. Funny that I don’t recall the name Leach on any street sign or park name. I do find it interesting, however, that the first three selectmen – James Maxwell, Jonathan Loveitt and Captain Samuel Skillings would all be names many residents are sure to recognize today.

As with most establishments in the “new world” the early years were mostly filled with lumbering on the land and export of those trees from the waterfront. In years that followed, clearing of the land made way for agricultural activity and post revolution needs of the fledgling country stimulated a great need for ships in order to satisfy domestic needs and to compete with Britain who dominated the goods trade.

Craig Skelton is a guest columnist and member of South Portland Historical Society.

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