“The Doolittle Memorial.” It was the title of a Camden Herald editorial from August 20, 1981, but it meant nothing to me. All I could think of was a certain doctor who could speak to animals, but that didn’t seem to fit. It was all just far enough in the past for me to have no firsthand memory of it, but it slowly began to make sense.

I came across the strongly worded piece as I was researching the history of The Harbor Square condominiums — the ones on Bayview Street known to many locals as the old Lok Marina. It begins like this:

“The future of Camden is, in one way or another, tied to the future of the Lok Marina. Our children are destined to inherit our successes and our failures… The right title for an editorial is sometimes hard to find – not with the Lok Marina. By its size, location and bravura, the present plans for the Lok Marina – essentially co-opting the remaining half of Camden harbor – seal the fate of Camden.”

An 1875 map showing the stream that runs under Frye Street and the approximate location of the Lok Marina and Harbor Square condominiums.

 

The marina was the brainchild of the late Dr. Raymond Tibbetts, a local physician and inventor who founded Tibbetts Industries. It was essentially a wet storage system for boats, with a lock and canal system. Vessels were essentially able to be stored wet at street level even when the tide was low. In later years when the marina was empty during the winter, it was converted into a favorite local ice-skating spot.

An aerial photograph of Camden harbor and Tibbetts Lok Marina circa 1954. Courtesy of Camden Public Library.

 

The Lok Marina was a fleeting but memorable landmark in Camden’s history, born — according to the inventor — not as a plan to make money but as an experiment to see if it would work. And much like so many other things that Raymond Tibbetts and his family worked on or invented, it did work. It also fit right into Camden Harbor. Here’s a description of how it was built from “Where the Mountains Meet the Sea” by Philip Conkling:

“At the head of the harbor, he designed and constructed a steel lock structure, as big as a house, with steel plates welded onto beams like the hull of a large boat, 56 feet long by 18 feet wide and with a depth of 23 feet. Tibbetts also purchased Hobbs’s Wharf, at the foot of Frye Street, and excavated a cavity to hold the lock.”

The Lok Marina. Courtesy of Camden Public Library. Barbara F. Dyer

 

In 1971, when Raymond Tibbetts died, the old Lok Marina was purchased by Down East Magazine founder, Duane Doolittle, who operated it for a few years before filling it in to create a parking lot in 1975. The Old Lok structure still exists under the condos.

Skaters on the Lok Marina, circa 1962-1966. Courtesy of Camden Public Library.

 

The property of course also has a much longer history predating both the condos and the Lok Marina. Much of Bayview Street — not constructed until 1866 — sits within the former intertidal zone, and some of the properties actually rely on submerged land leases from the state, due to the fact that they are known to be built on fill which sits below the low water mark.

This almost stopped the condos from being built, but a case was successfully made that the entire footprint of the building lay above the low water mark. The condos then are sitting atop one of Camden’s former beaches, and not in deep water — although choosing a point in time to mark as above or below the mean low water mark is perhaps to shoot at the ultimate moving target.

One complicating factor that has been both an asset and a liability for the property is the presence of an unnamed stream which descends from the Quarry Hill transfer station and Limerock Street vicinity. For years, townspeople have battled its torrents and tried to bury the stream wherever possible, but it keeps bubbling back up. It goes underground just before and under Frye Street before exiting into the old Lok Marina.

Howard Thomas, at a February 1981 meeting to discuss the condo project recalled the area when it used to be an alder swamp and suggested the most direct route for drainage would be a concrete sluiceway right through the parking lot.

The property was also well known as part of the Camden Lumber Company, among other things.

At the time of the condo proposal, the permit was initially denied by Code Enforcement Officer John Fullerton, but the denial was overturned by the Zoning Board of Appeals in a 4-2 decision centering around whether the project was consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and would blend in with the existing character of the neighborhood. One of those casting a vote in favor of allowing the project to proceed was Burnham Young, who noted that he felt this would “open up a whole can of worms for the town.”

Not surprisingly, sea level rise was not a major consideration when objections were raised to the Doolittle condominium plan in 1981, but the reports of flooded vehicles needing to be dragged out of the parking lot began almost immediately.

The December storm sent water surging into the parking lot, as it often does, and the Fire Department was dispatched to evaluate the status of a floating propane tank dislodged by the wave action, and locals were quick to share their own stories.

A tide chart is permanently posted in the parking garage and users of the lot have developed their own guideposts for when to move their vehicles. Given that parking requirements were part of the original approval for the project, I think it is highly debatable whether a lot so frequently rendered useless by high tides is actually satisfying the off-street parking requirements, never mind the environmental implications.

Today, the condos continue to fetch high prices when they change hands, but owners are quickly confronted with the issue of maintenance against an ocean that is increasingly eager to reclaim its intertidal zone. Ironically, the magazine that the Doolittles founded ran a major story just a few weeks ago about the impact of sea level rise on Maine coastal towns, and the photographer hired to document the coastline from a plane said the most noteworthy part of the experience for him was realizing how built up our shoreline is with hardened structures.

As Camden confronts both our past and future development patterns, more condo proposals and shoreline development are almost certain to be on the table. It is useful to go back to some of the older Camden Herald articles and read what people wrote before the sense of inevitability had set in and people seemed to give in to general malaise and fatigue. As Camden updates ordinances to promote more affordable housing, floodplain management, and adaptation to sea level rise, we must ask ourselves who benefits.

The editors of the Camden Herald at the time of the condo approval are to be commended for their bold and likely uncomfortable stance. Here is an excerpt from the August 20, 1981, editorial, but it is worth reading in its entirety:

“Since Mr. Doolittle’s name is synonymous with Down East Magazine, it is impossible not to reflect for a moment on the cornerstone of this highly successful publication – founded by Mr. Doolittle himself in 1954. The readership of Down East Magazine is composed largely of out-of-state and seasonal residents. What Down East brings to them in glossy color pictures is the skillfully packaged flavor of Maine: the old-world and small-town values, the nostalgic reminiscences, images of the unspoiled purity which Maine represents to many readers who dream about the place, rather than live here. It is a clever strategy and it is to the Doolittles’ credit that it has worked so well. And yet ironically, if their current development plans succeed, Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle will be segregating a large portion of Camden’s har¬bor frontage from the community that lives here…

“There is no reason to question the sincerity of the Doolittles’ ap¬parent conviction that they are improving the community. What is ques¬tionable today and will remain questionable in one or two or three decades from now, is whether a harbor partly encircled by luxury con¬dominiums is, in fact, a far-sighted improvement to Camden. We believe that in this respect the Doolittles are deeply mistaken.”

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and member of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board.  

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