History of Sears Island and Pioneer Life
At the head of Penobscot Bay one island, accessible to the public, reveals the richness of natural resources shared by the off-shore islands that have given our bay its world acclaimed reputation for unusual beauty.
There are sandy and cobbled beaches, dunes, rugged cliffs and ledges, diverse forests and wetlands, streams and gullies, abundant plants and animals, and beyond all that, a rich cultural heritage dating back thousands of years . . . This is Sears Island !
Sears Island provided camping, hunting and fishing grounds for the First People of what is now Maine. Some artifacts suggest that fishermen from distant shores may have discovered the bounty of this coast in the 15th and 16th centuries, preceding the known European explorers who arrived in the 17th century and who were soon vying for land grants and recruiting settlers to the rich land. Fishing, farming and periodic timbering sustained the landowners, then shipbuilding and shipping increased their wealth through the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Although Sears Island was not known to be directly involved in the Revolutionary War, one of the ships from the failed Penobscot Expedition, the brig Defence, was followed by the British and scuttled in the harbor between the island and Cape Jellison.
At the turn of the 20th century residents and investors began to realize the recreational potential of Sears Island. The owners of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad began purchasing land on shore for a rail terminal, then created the Bangor Investment Company, which purchased Sears Island in 1905. The plan for a resort on the island never came to fruition but the on-shore Penobscot Park was a popular destination point until World War I. During prohibition years Sears Island was used to drop off and hide liquor being smuggled into the country and during World War II arms were shipped out from its docks to the European Allies.
In the ’20s and ’30s farming waned as people found more fertile fields inland, but some timbering continued. The farm buildings fell into disrepair and were razed in the ’30s.
Proposed Industrial developments threatened Sears Island every decade of the last half of the 20th century – nuclear power plant, aluminum smelter, coal fired generator, and cargo/container ports. In the 1980s, in preparation for a proposed port, the causeway was built, replacing the sandy bar that had provided access at low tide. Archeological digs prior to the construction indicated that there were too few undisturbed artifacts remaining to merit conservation measures. Later, in the ’90s, the State of Maine purchased Sears Island from the Bangor Investment Company, with potential future development in mind. However, all of the previous proposals were defeated by environmental concerns.
Then in 2003 a Liquid Natural Gas terminal was being considered; this resulted in a strong coalition of organizations and individuals who opposed it (in the Town of Searsport alone the opposition prevailed 10 to1).
Finally, after three years of negotiations during then Governor Baldacci’s Planning and Joint Use Initiatives, the Conservation Easement was signed into law, preserving almost 2/3 of the island in perpetuity.
The most common recreational uses – picnicking, swimming, hiking, fishing, clamming and hunting endure. With responsible use and stewardship these activities and the wealth of natural resources will continue to be available for future generations.
The First People called it Wassumkeag, for the bright sands that could be seen from a distance as they paddled on the bay, and that connected the island to the mainland at low tide. In the 18th century Wassumkeag was renamed Brigadier’s Island in honor of Brigadier General Samuel Waldo, a major landowner in the area. After four generations of ownership by the David Sears family the official name became Sears Island, some years after the town was named Searsport.
Based on information from A HISTORY OF SEARS ISLAND, Searsport, Maine, by Joel Eastman, Searsport Historical Society, 1976 , and from personal interviews.