Peaks Island, the most populous of the Casco Bay islands, is home to some 1,000 year round residents and an additional 4,000 or so summer residents. It lies about 3 miles east of and a 15 minute ferry ride from Portland, Maine. The harborside of this 720 acre island is where most of the year round homes, shops, restaurants, churches, school, health center, post office, library, police and fire departments are located. The Trefethen-Evergreen section is largely a summer colony. The interior and backshore are heavily forested with many newer homes scattered along the shore. A large portion of the forested area is protected by conservation easements. In 1834 Peaks officially became a neighborhood in the City of Portland.
Peaks was favored by the Abnaki Indians who summered there for generations. A few European explorers maintained seasonal fishing shacks as early as the mid 1600’s. Attempts to permanently settle the island were unsuccessful until the end of Native American hostilities around 1700. Between that date and about 1880 two separate and distinct villages (Forest City and Trefethen) were established at opposite ends of the island by a handful of families (the Bracketts, Trotts, Sterlings, Trefethens, Skillings, Parsons and Woodburys). At the turn of the twentieth century most of the land on the island still belonged to these families, who, by that time, were very much interrelated by blood or marriage.
By the 1890’s Peaks began to benefit by the enormous changes occurring in American society. The growing urban population (both native and immigrant) had more time and money to spend on recreation. Peaks residents met their needs by providing all types of accommodations, entertainments, and other facilities. 16 hotels and inns, and hundreds of cottages were built; 3 summer theatres and an amusement park were established; dozens of shops and restaurants lined the streets of Forest City; and a dancehall was established at Trefethen. Twelve steamboat lines brought thousands of visitors to Peaks daily during the short summer season. The press labeled Peaks the “Coney Island of Maine”.
World War II brought more changes to the island. The Peaks Island Military Reservation was built as the principal defense of Portland Harbor. 800-900 soldiers were stationed there. A large number of people who came to build liberty ships in the South Portland shipyards also found housing on Peaks. Many brought their families, causing overcrowding in the island’s four room school. After the war ended most left only to be replaced by a new generation of young families.
Today many people commute daily to jobs on the mainland as do middle and senior high school students. The island also has its fair share of retirees, artists, and new people from numerous states and countries. And Peaks remains “home” to a large number of seasonal residents, many whose families have returned generation after generation. It is a diverse and welcoming community to all.