Wiscasset: That Town Across the Sheepscot River

Lea Wait, here, thinking it’s time for me to write about Wiscasset. Sarah Graves lives in Eastport and writes about it. Several authors on this list set their books in Portland. Most people I meet assume I live in Wiscasset. Why? Because the historical novels I’ve written for young people (Stopping to Home, Seaward Born, Wintering Well, and Finest Kind ) are set there, and because the fictional Waymouth, Maine, setting for two books in my Shadows mystery series (Shadows on the Coast of Maine and Shadows of a Down East Summer) has a lot in common with Wiscasset, too.  

Fort Edgecomb, Built Before the War of 1812, to Defend Wiscasset

(Where DO I live?  In Edgecomb, a small town in the mid-coast where there is no “center of town”; just one school that goes from K-6 and a post office. People drive through it on their way to somewhere else. Like — Wiscasset, which is across the river.)

Why set my books in Wiscasset? I wanted to write a group of stand-alone books connected not by characters, but by setting. My stories would take place in one town and would show how that place changed (sociologically, technologically) through the years. I chose Wiscasset because it was a typical  northern New England village.

Old Jail, built in 1809, and attached jailer's house

Settled in 1663, by the 18th century Wiscasset had an active waterfront, with shipbuilding, fishing and whaling industries. By 1800 Wiscasset’s port was the largest east of Boston. From Wiscasset coasters sailed up and down the East coast; its vessels made regular journeys to Europe and the West Indies. Later in the century schooners from Wiscasset rounded the Horn and sailed to California, China, and India.  

Wiscasset was also surrounded by farmland. Lumbering took place upriver, and lumber mills were just outside of town. Wiscasset was on the Boston Stage route; the second major communication line (after the sea) in early years. It was a county seat, complete with courthouse and jail. During the Revolutionary War the British attacked Wiscasset, and, in preparation for the War of 1812, the town built a fort across the river and later fortified it for the Civil War. In the 19th century the railroad came to Wiscasset.Two major fires burned most of the waterfront and commercial district. Several mills offered employment to townspeople. 

Nickels-Sortwell House (1807) on Main Street

My published books cover the years 1806 through 1838; my agent is shopping books covering the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the Civil War. My fictional protagonists are surrounded by minor characters who really lived in Wiscasset, and are involved in events that actually took place there. 

Today Wiscasset is still the center of Lincoln County. It’s known as “the prettiest village in Maine,” at least accordingly to the sign posted at the entrance to town. Historical buildings, like the Old Jail, built in 1811, where many scenes in my Finest Kind are set, are open to the public, as are Tucker Castle and the Nickels-Sortwell House, both built in 1807. In 1807,

Pilings in Wiscasset Harbor where Wharves Used to Stand

when Jefferson’s Embargo kept all ships in port (they filled Wiscasset’s Harbor; history says you could cross the Sheepscot River by walking from deck to deck) captains and ships’ owners in Wiscasset put their mariners to work building houses. Many of the large homes in Wiscasset were built in 1807 or 1808.

The Wiscasset Public Library, where I do most of the research for my books, is on High Street, where many of those large houses can still be found. In the early 19th century the building it is in was the Lincoln and Kennebec Bank.

Lining Up for Lobster Rolls at Red's Eats

And those few empty spaces you’ll see between buildings, especially down on Water Street? And the grayed pilings still standing in the river? They’re the remnants of the old, early nineteenth century, Wiscasset, when there were twelve long wharves on the waterfront, and two shipyards near where the town pier is now. Fires in 1866 and 1870 took them all down. Only a couple of the piers have been rebuilt, and those are much smaller than the originals. Many buildings that were burned were replaced by the brick buildings you see today on Main and Water Streets.

 Tracks were laid where wharves had been, and the first train arrived in Wiscasset in 1871.  

Main Street, Wiscasset, Today

Antique shops and art galleries now fill many of the captain’s homes on Main Street. Water Street offers dining as diverse as Le Garage (with tablecloths,) Sarah’s (a year-round favorite) or Red’s (get in line for what some say are the best lobster rolls in the state.) If you’re looking for wine, or local breads and cheeses, or a gourmet sandwich for a picnic, Treats is the place to go. You can’t miss any of those places. Main Street is only a block long, although if you’re antiquing, you’ll want to walk up Main another couple of blocks to check out all the shops in the houses leading up to the Village Green.

"Castle Tucker," so-called because of its architecture (1807)

On my website, (http://www.leawait.com) under “Books/Novels for Young People” you can see a simplified map of old Wiscasset, highlighting where the buildings mentioned in my books are located.

But whether or not you’ve read my books, Wiscasset is a beautiful little town, and worth a drive or a walk on a summer’s day. It, and the people who’ve lived there, have been inspiring me for years. Who knows? They may inspire you, too.

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6 Responses to Wiscasset: That Town Across the Sheepscot River

  1. John Clark says:

    I miss the two wrecks that lay just south of the bridge. They were the thing that first came to mind every time we drove south on Rt.. 1 when I was a kid. They were great for fantasies of playing pirate or sailing to the South Seas.

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  2. Barb Ross says:

    John–I was going to say the exact same thing–I miss them, too and feel privileged to have seen that bit of history.

    Wiscasset is a wonderful, walkable town and I completely recommend touring all the places Lea pictured above.

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  3. Lea Wait says:

    John, You’re right — many Mainers remember the Hesper and the Luther Little, two schooners built in the early twentieth century and never sailed — just left to rot in Wiscasset Harbo, They became landmarks for anyone driving north on Route One. Unfortunately they also became magnets for young (and not so young) people who would try to board and explore them — and they were disintegrating. Serious accidents waiting to happen. So about fifteen years ago the town reluctantly decided that tje ships must go. Pieces of the famed ships, which were photographed and painted thousands of times, were sold to people making pens, picture frames — and, of course, reproductions of schooners.

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  4. lil Gluckstern says:

    Love this post; I must check out your books. I love a sense of place.

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  5. Mike Orenduff says:

    Thanks, Lea. Your post reminded me of why, when I was required to drive from Farmington to Bangor at least once a month, I often went via a coastal loop through Brunswick, Bath, Wiscasset, Waldoboro, Rockland, Camden, Belfast and then up to Bangor via Winterport. It was a lot longer than I-95, but I hadn’t moved to Maine to travel on freeways.

    Mike

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  6. Lea Wait says:

    Hi, Mike! That coastal route is still here, and still a joy to travel — although still a bit crowded in late July and August! Give a yell if you make it north — love to see you!

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