Visit Monhegan Island, Maine, a small tourist community about a dozen miles off the central Maine coast, and you are likely to find a plethora of stunning and intriguing attractions but very few people waiting in line.
A line graph of the permanent population of the small island would resemble the track of a roller coaster. The 1830 census recorded 67 residents, which grew to its peak of 145 in 1870. The population hovered, with minor peaks and valleys, between 90 and 133 until 1940, then steadily declined the next several decades to its low of 44 in 1970. After another climb and dip, the population today rests at 69. Seasonal residents bump the population up to about 250 between June and September each year.
Tourism is the lifeblood of the small island’s economy. Ferry services that run from one to three times daily deliver thousands of visitors, including a healthy contingent of artists from around the globe, onto the island during the summer months.
The available attractions are quite diverse:
• The century-old artist colony on Monhegan Island is still going strong, with several artists operating studios and galleries open to the public.
• The Monhegan Museum of Art and History, now housed in the former lighthouse keeper’s quarters, is open daily during the tourist season, and visitors can tour the lighthouse on limited days.
• The island’s historic nautical economy is highlighted by fish houses, lobster traps and gear and restaurants serving fresh seafood from the island’s coves.
• Passengers on a round-the-island tour boat can view harbor seals frolicking in the water or reposing on rocky outcroppings.
• A lesser known commercial enterprise was harvesting ice at the Ice Pond. The last harvest was taken in February 1974 and the old equipment is now on display in a shed beside the museum.
Small as it is — less than 2 miles long and only half a mile or so in width — the island boasts 17 miles of hiking trails through meadows, natural bogs, spruce and fir woods and scenic headlands. Tracking birds migrating along the Atlantic flyway and watching shore birds and waterfowl are also popular recreational activities.
Overnight visitors can stay at a variety of hotels, bed and breakfasts and rented private homes. Tourists can browse quaint shops downtown and dine at various restaurants, breweries and pubs. Many of the accommodations require reservations well in advance. The largest facility for guests is the Island Inn, built in the early 19th century, and renovated several years ago to accommodate 32 guest rooms.
Monhegan, named from the Algonquin word for “out-to-sea island,” was first visited by European explorers in 1603. Captain John Smith landed on the island in 1614 and the first settlement was a British fishing camp prior to the establishment of Plymouth Colony by the Pilgrims in 1620.
The French captured the island in 1689 and Monhegan was abandoned for several periods of time through 1763, when the French and Indian War ended and peace reigned in the area. On Sept. 4, 1839, Monhegan, then under English Colonial control, was incorporated as an island plantation.
In 1850 a granite lighthouse replaced the conical stone structure erected in 1824. A fog station with a 2,500-pound bell, erected on neighboring Manana Island a few hundred yards away, completed the warning system for sailors. The lighthouse was staffed until 1959 when the lighthouse keeper’s job was obviated by computer technology.
Other buildings in town harken to the past. The first municipal library was built in 1845 and the post office was established in 1858. The village chapel was erected in 1880 and a public wharf was constructed in 1908.
Island life is guaranteed to be slow paced. No automobiles are allowed on the island, and Monhegan has no airport, police department, bank or doctor’s office. The rooms at the Island Inn have no phones. Visitors on a typical day of wandering will encounter artists and photographers plying their talents al fresco on sidewalks and beaches.
The village’s equivalent of the town crier is the rope shed, upon which announcements of upcoming events and business hours are tacked on an outer wall.
In the 1950s Thomas Edison’s youngest son, Theodore, formed Monhegan Associates, a nonprofit organization that spearheaded the successful effort to protect nearly 70% of the island’s acreage as a natural reserve. That area is crosshatched with 9 miles of trails, along which smoking, drone flying, camping and biking are prohibited.
Notable people who have lived on or regularly visited the island include:
• Comedic actor Zero Mostel and his son Josh, who played Herod in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and had parts in “Harry and Tonto,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Wall Street” and “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”
• Three generations of the Wyeth family, all renowned painters: N.C. Wyeth, his son Andrew and his grandson Jamie.
For more information, visit www.monheganwelcome.com