My grandfather (1875-1975) was a Rockland native son and proud of his hometown’s maritime heritage. He loved to boast that in the latter half of the 19th century, Rockland was for several years among the top three leading ports of entry in the United States in tonnage and volume of registered ships docking. He would conveniently omit the fact that most of the impressive volume of boats were hastily slapped-together small barges hauling wood to slake the insatiable thirst of the many kilns burning lime in the area. The important point to him was that Rockland had a thriving, bustling harbor.

Rockland’s maritime-related prosperity continued well into the 20th century. Commercial fishing began to compete with the shipbuilding and lime industries, eventually supplanting both. In the 1920s and 1930s, Rockland went from being labeled the Lime City (the last lime kiln was shut down in 1958) to being hailed as the Lobster Capital of the World.” Ground fishing flourished, too. The processing and packaging of sardines and other fish products became a major business in Rockland and a dominant employer.

As the number of wood-hauling barges began to decline in the late 19th century, the city’s harbor began to fill with moorings for boats devoted to the burgeoning fishing industry. Unfortunately, the growth of the fishing industry and other marine resource-related industries (today’s FMC began in the late 1930s as the Algin Corporation, specializing in developing and manufacturing of products from kelp and seaweed) produced some negative side effects, too, with water and air pollution. Water quality deteriorated as the effects of dumping industrial sewage into the harbor began to accumulate. Scum was regularly visible at high tide along the seawall at the Public Landing. And debris was everywhere, floating in the water and washed up on the shoreline from the south to the north end of the city’s coastline. Another unfortunate by-product of Rockland’s maritime industrial growth were noxious odors produced by the sewage and other elements of the fishing industry. The distinction of being the Lobster Capital of the World gave way to the slogan, “Camden by the sea, Rockland by the smell.”

Rockland peaked as a commercial fishing center in the early 1960s. A steady decline began, hardly noticeable at first but increasingly apparent as the number of fish plants and fishing boats on the waterfront diminished. By 1990, the fish processing era of Rockland’s history was virtually over and, with it, the worst of the air pollution.

When the City Council authorized the hiring of Rockland’s first full-time harbor master in 1992, there were only 80 moorings in the harbor, the result of a decline in the fishing industry and Rockland’s negative reputation as a yachting destination. That reputation had prevailed for decades. A part-time harbormaster meant sporadic service. Also, in the heyday of polluted water yachtsmen reported that the amount of grease in the water made entering Rockland’s harbor an unpleasant undertaking. According to a friend who took Samoset Hotel guests sailing in the summer of 1957, there were three recreational sailboats moored in Rockland Harbor, two small sloops owned by the Samoset and the venerable windjammer, Victory Chimes.

The decision to upgrade the harbormaster position stemmed from a long standing recommendation of the harbor committee, which saw the harbor as a major underutilized community resource.

And Ken Rich, the man who assumed the post in March 1992, agreed. A New Hampshire native, Ken first arrived in Midcoast Maine in the early 1970s. Before becoming harbormaster, Ken held a variety of marine-related jobs along the Maine coast, including 20 years directly involved, on a daily basis, with the building and maintenance of docks, moorings and boats.

Ken’s enthusiasm for his new job stemmed from several factors, starting with his affection for Rockland and the strong support of the city’s leaders. In addition, the closing of the fish plants had eliminated much of the noxious odor. Enactment of the landmark federal legislation, the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act two years later helped to produce a dramatic improvement of the harbor’s water quality over the next 20 years.

“The stage was set for success,” Ken said in a recent interview. “I knew from being in and out of Rockland by water for many years how much potential the harbor had. The size alone makes it a formidable asset. This harbor can potentially accommodate 1,500 moorings.”

That first year, Ken determined to let the fishermen, other local boaters and the overall yachting world know that the harbor master’s office was eager to meet their needs. With the aid of a part-time assistant, he began to reorganize and grow the mooring accommodations. The 80 moorings Ken inherited in 1992 mushroomed to more than 400 by the time he departed in 1997. Ken observed about his first year goals: “At the top of the list, I wanted every marine operator to know that we would do everything we could to serve them. If we could accomplish that task in a collaborative spirit, the harbor would prosper and the harbor master’s office would not be a burden to the taxpayers, but a self-sustaining operation.”

At the end of Ken Rich’s first year, Stephen Betts wrote the following in the Courier-Gazette: “Rockland’s harbor experienced a boom during 1992 and much of the credit is going to the city’s first full-time harbormaster…. ‘We have a gem in Ken Rich. He’s done a superb job,’ Harbor Committee chairman Michael McNeil said at a city council meeting…. Mayor Tom Molloy agreed, saying that every week he hears something good about Ken Rich…. Councilor Richard Warner echoed the comments.‘ The harbormaster has also won the respect of the fishermen.”

In the succeeding five years, Ken served as harbormaster, he aggressively built upon the success of that important first year and solidly established Rockland’s reputation in the boating community as a welcoming and service-oriented place. As the mooring population expanded exponentially, private marinas began to develop and the windjammer cruise boat fleet expanded.

This excerpt from an article in a Down East publication on the transformation of Rockland Harbor and the man entrusted by the city council to oversee the operation: “Tracked down in his office in the chamber of commerce building at the city landing between excursions out into the harbor to move moorings, [Ken] Rich is constantly interrupted by phone calls and visits from yachtsmen, fishermen, and city officials, all of whom he deals with in an amiable, businesslike manner ,which reflects his devotion to the harbor and its development. ‘I respect the character of this place, its diversity. It’s a wonderful little pond to sail in,’ says Rich. ‘We’re going to preserve the diversity. There will always be a fishing community here; we’re going to take care of that one way or another’…. In between [his latest major projects] he is continually charging off in a dozen other different directions, all focused on making Rockland harbor a better place to work – and play.’ “

When Ken left in 1997, the following tribute was paid to him in Down East Magazine: “Ken Rich has stepped down as Rockland’s harbor master after six years that have witnessed the transformation of the harbor there from a grimy fishing port to a mixed-use marine center attracting an exploding fleet of yachts from near and far. Rich modestly denies responsibility for the dramatic change, but local merchants and officials give high credit to this affable, hard-working mariner for helping to change the perception of their port from ‘a harbor to avoid’ to ‘a harbor to see’. As one put it, ‘Ken Rich is known among yachtsmen the world around as a gracious host.’…. During the Rich regime, the number of moorings rose from 80 to 420. Last summer alone, some 3,000 boats were served at the public landing where Ken Rich presided.”

Ken’s successors have sustained the growth of marine activity in Rockland Harbor and the overall success of the harbormaster’s office. Ed Glazer, who is in his sixth year in the position, notes that there are currently 650 moorings, three marinas (a fourth is under construction), eight commercial windjammers, three day sailors and three day-tripping power boats operating out of Rockland. The community continues to grow as a destination for small and large cruise boats. The harbor master’s office remains self-sustaining financially, anticipating $200,000 in income in 2010.

When asked about Ken Rich, Ed quickly replied, “the best harbormaster Rockland has ever had.”

I wish my grandfather could have witnessed Rockland harbor’s comeback. When he died in 1975, the harbor was in decline. I am confident he would be pleased and join me in saluting as local heroes Ken Rich and the city leaders who shared Ken’s vision for Rockland’s reemergence as once again a thriving, bustling harbor.

 

John Bird is a retired independent school educator and leader and nationally recognized consultant to nonprofit organizations who grew up in Rockland and now lives in Spruce Head.  He currently serves as board chairman of the Island Institute and as a board member of several other organizations, including the Farnsworth Art Museum and the Lincoln Street Center for Arts and Education.