Shadows of the past linger in lime kilns
Rockport — Only a faint shadow of the once-thriving lime industry remains, glimpsed through underbrush and trees on the back roads of Camden and Rockport in the form of long-abandoned quarries and dismantled railroad beds.
More visible are the deteriorating remains of kilns near Rockport Harbor formerly used to "cook" the limestone before it was shipped by sea or rail throughout the Northeast. The kilns are rare municipally-owned pieces of history that have sat crumbling through decades of fundraising efforts and studies that have yielded little in the way of further preservation.
“To have this on public property is not something that exists anywhere in this concentration,” said Rockport Town Planner Tom Ford. “It would be tragic to let them totally deteriorate.”
The most recent study, authored in 2010 by Gartley and Dorsky of Camden, carefully details the remaining kilns and outlines what should be done not only to preserve their current state but also to make safety-oriented repairs. Since completion of the study — which was funded by a $10,000 grant — the kilns again have sat dormant with work only performed when an immediate danger presents.
Prior to the 2010 study, several efforts were made to stabilize and preserve the kilns. According to Maine Historic Preservation Commission archives, the kilns were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 and it wasn't until 10 years later a grant was submitted to stabilize the remaining kilns. Another grant application in 1983 resulted in photo documentation of stabilization work completed in 1984.
"Since the stabilization project in 1984, no significant kiln stabilization or restoration work have been undertaken that we know of, although several improvements have been made to the Rockport Marine Park where the kilns are situated," the 2010 study states.
According to the study, there originally were seven kilns still standing in Rockport in 1983, though only six remain as of today.
Ford has become fascinated with the lime kilns during his tenure with the town.
"Rockport was, to the best of my knowledge, the center of the lime industry in Maine," Ford said. "This was a very important industry. Rockport, because of the harbor, was dotted with lime kilns."
Lime was carried by railroad from local quarries in Lincolnville, Camden and Rockport to the kilns near the harbor. A Vulcan Narrow Gauge locomotive, the type used when the lime kilns were in use more than 100 years ago is on display in Marine Park. The locomotive was donated by Mary Meeker Cramer.
After arriving by rail, the limestone then was loaded into the kilns through the top. Inside the kilns, fires burned 24/7, Ford said, requiring another industry to support the endeavor.
"The wood required was a tremendous amount," he said, adding farmers and other entrepreneurs often supplied wood for the kilns as a side business.
Wood also was needed to construct the casks and barrels in which the lime was shipped, Ford said. Processed lime packed in barrels and casks was loaded on schooners for shipping to New York and Boston, he said, because rail lines at the time were limited.
“Rockport was really an industrial harbor. Ice went out by coastal schooners as well,” Ford said, adding there were no rail lines in Rockland until the 1880s. “The only other way would have been by wagon.”
In the early 1900s, the lime industry began to founder. In 1907, "a very serious fire" in addition to the soon-after introduction of Portland Cement "devastated the lime industry," he said.
"All of that helped speed the demise," Ford said.
Rockport's 2004 Comprehensive Plan supports his theory: “By 1920, the economic boom was over. As wooden ships were replaced by less vulnerable metal vessels, shipbuilding came to an end, except for brief periods during the world wars. The demand for ice ceased as refrigeration became available. Greater reliance on regional farming caused many farmers to abandon basic food crops and leave their farms. Finns, who had lost their jobs as stonecutters in the St. George area, acquired many of the farms, turning them into successful blueberry- raising operations. Competition and other economic factors snuffed out the fires of the lime kilns, and the railroad tracks of the Rockland & Rockport Lime Company between the harbor and Simonton’s Corner were disassembled.”
Now, at Simonton Corner, the only visible remains are faint raised areas where the railroad bed used to be and Simonton Corner Quarry Preserve, which is maintained by Coastal Mountains Land Trust. Other former lime quarries have been filled in and put to other uses, such as Midcoast Solid Waste Corp. located on Union Street in Rockport. Ford said the quarry that now serves as the regional transfer station used to be 200 feet deep.
Recent renewed interest in the lime kilns' fate was spurred by the select board listening tours in each village of Rockport, Ford said. Several Maine museums have been contacted — though nothing has been decided, he said, noting a large financial commitment will likely be required.
“There are a number of positive developments in the harbor in recent years. Exactly where we go from here, and getting the money, remain open questions,” Ford said. “I think it's up there with public awareness, the select board is talking about it. It will take financial resources to do it and to what level still need to be figured out.”
He said several ideas to preserve memories of the lime kilns are being considered, including asking high school film class students to create a documentary about the lime kilns.
“I think within the next six months there should be some direction from the select board,” Ford said. “I think it is important that we understand the region's history.”
Associate Editor Stephanie Grinnell can be reached at 236-8511 or email@example.com.