Wiscasset is one of the most attractive towns along the scenic Mid-Coast of Maine. A white columned meeting house and a brick courthouse overlook a common; narrow streets lined with cottages and Federal period mansions amble down to the shores of the wide and ice-free Sheepscot River. History is palpable here, where two centuries ago a thriving maritime economy built and sent wooden ships around the globe, briefly making Wiscasset one of the wealthiest towns in America.
Like so many once prosperous Yankee seaports, Wiscasset's architectural patrimony survived because its economy languished. Jefferson's 1807 trade embargo hurt the New England states so much that they seriously considered secession. By the time the War of 1812 was over, Wiscasset had been mortally wounded. Huge schooners continued to be built on the Sheepscot, but they carried unglamorous cargoes such as lumber to Boston and New York; the mansions built by the West Indies trade remained, but the glory days were gone.
The Pine Tree State did share in the19th Century's industrial prosperity, as mills lined Maine's many rivers, yet few survived the end of the Second World War. So Wiscasset and Maine's salvation was tied to automobile-borne tourism ("Vacationland" was the first motto to appear on a license plate). The photographer Samuel Chamberlain assured the town's future as a destination when he singled it out in a 1948 book, Six New England Villages. Henceforth, Wiscasset became known as "The Prettiest Village in Maine."
For decades two Wiscasset schooners abandoned in the river characterized the town's scenic appeal. Initially retaining masts and spars and ropes, these hugely romantic vessels were only a few yards from Route 1 and thus seen by every motorist on the way to Boothbay or Bar Harbor. Eventually they rotted into nothingness, their decline a poignant symbol of the village's struggle to survive on selling lobster rolls, souvenirs, and nostalgia.
Nevertheless, the town managed to remain viable. As recently as the 1970s Wiscasset could boast a druggist and a shoe store, a couple of groceries, and even a movie theater. Ironically, the town's lifeline became the instrument of its undoing. Route 1goes right through town and is also the principal artery up and down the coast (northern New Englanders often commute long ways to jobs, which in southern Maine means U.S. 1).
In the 1960s, neighboring towns like Brunswick, Newcastle, and Damariscotta built bypasses around their historic cores to fend off ever-increasing traffic. Wiscasset, however, rejected the idea, fearing that local businesses would lose customers. Eventually realizing that the opposite was true, a bypass was mapped in 1972 but not funded. So today, an endless stream of tractor-trailers (often overloaded to avoid the weigh stations on the Interstates) rumbles through Wiscasset at all hours, bisecting the historic main street and offering up noise, dange, and pollution.
The state is considering a bypass again--a decade-long project to cost an estimated $60 million. By then Wiscasset may not be worth preserving. Like the Dutch elm disease that eradicated the leafy cover that Chamberlain found so appealing, the town is faced with another blight. And, recalling promises made when Maine Yankee built the now-closed nuclear-power plant, the new savior is another false god: Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart, which has stores in Rockland and Brunswick, is eyeing another Mid-coast location, although Damariscotta has rebuffed the chain. Concerned Wiscasset residents offered up an ordinance that would have limited new retail development to 40,000 square feet of floor space. It was defeated 498 to 426, with The Wiscasset Newspaper headline declaring: Welcome, Wal-Mart! (The port of Waldboro voted down a similar ordinance by an even larger margin, despite environmental concern over a Wal-Mart's negative impact on clam flats.)
Box stores--particularly Wal-Mart--are bad for northern New England. They replace forest and farmland, they decentralize towns and destroy communities, and they create a ripple effect by spreading copycat strip-malls. One only has to look to Brunswick, where a Wal-Mart Supercenter has sucked the life out of the heart of a pretty college town. (Bowdoin College is there.)
Despite the state's slogan "The Way Life Should Be" and the outdoorsy prepster image perpetuated by L.L. Bean, Maine is a poor state. Go inland from Wiscasset or Brunswick and the mansions and summer cottages give way to house trailers and far more modest dwellings. Maine desperately needs new jobs, but erecting another Wal-Mart is a naïve approach to employment. Abundant goods, lots of parking, and a few dead-end jobs are a poor investment. How many tourists will drive all the way to Maine to shop at a Big Box just like the one they have at home?
It may not be possible to save all the traditional towns—how do we keep Wiscasset from becoming the ugliest village in Maine? But we need to remember and to build upon what made places like Wiscasset wonderful. A sense of community depends upon a lot of factors—employment, security, good infrastructure. But community also includes history and what a place looks like (Chamberlain called the village a "flawless souvenir of the past"). Wiscasset may need jobs and a bypass, but it does not need a Wal-Mart.
William Morgan, a frequent contributor to The Providence Journal, is a Providence-based architectural historian.
© 2006 The Providence Journal Co.