On the edge

Schooners and sardines give way to tourists and sea slugs as economic mainstays where dawn first lights the United States

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / May 20, 2007

The sun was due to rise at 4:41 on the summer solstice, and six tourists were standing in front of the granite slab next to the West Quoddy Head Light that proclaims the spot as the easternmost point in the United States at 44º 48' 9" N and 66º 57' 1" W. In theory, the dawn of the solstice would happen here first.

But there's a reason the lighthouse stands on this bluff: Lubec has an average of 59 foggy days a year . At 4:37 a.m., the wind shifted to blow in from the water, and a misty cloud enveloped the point. The sun wouldn't burn through for another hour. West Quoddy's light kept blinking and its mournful horn bleated across the strait.

Wiser travelers wait until mid morning to go to the iconic 1858 red-and-white-striped lighthouse and check out the visitors center exhibits, located in the keeper's house. Trails in adjacent Quoddy Head State Park trace the bluffs for views of the sea crashing against the broken cliff faces as eagles soar overhead and the occasional whale surfaces in the waters between Quoddy Head and Canada's Grand Manan Island .

But Lubeckers humor romantics who drive to the far edge of Maine -- more than 240 miles east-northeast from Portland by road -- to see the sun come up . The locals themselves are hardly lie-abeds. Many townsfolk confess to leaving the bedroom shades up to wake at first light, and the burble of lobster boats and the open-throttle roar of draggers echoes off the rocky shores as fishermen head out before dawn.

For the first two centuries after its settlement in 1785 , Lubec wrested a living from the sea, building schooners and processing fish. According to the town history, Daniel Ramsdell launched the smoked herring industry in Lubec in 1797 , and the first sardine cannery set up shop in 1880 . At one point, the town boasted 20 sardine canneries . It was messy, smelly work -- but it was work. As overfishing decimated the herring stocks and huge foreign factory ships obviated the need for small canneries, the herring business here ground to a halt. The last historic smokehouse closed in the early 1990s , the last cannery a decade later . Empty structures lined the waterfront.

As in many coastal villages, the main street is called Water Street , and it traces the lip of the harbor. While many buildings remain closed, others are getting coats of paint, and some are even being reclaimed for new uses as Lubec tries to bootstrap itself back into prosperity. The selectmen laid new sidewalks and, in the first evidence of attempted gentrification, installed replica gaslights.

Halfway down the street, a showcase garden marks the McCurdy's Smokehouse complex, where the buildings on pilings above the water are covered in fresh cedar shakes. As the last fish smokehouse complex remaining in the United States, it's been listed as an endangered site on the National Register of Historic Places since 1995 , when Lubec Landmarks Inc. slowly began restoring the buildings to create a community center and museum.

Just a few hundred yards south on Water Street, the siding is peeling off the R.J. Peacock Canning building and the roof is sagging, but a host of small companies use the century-old former sardine cannery to reap a living from the sea. A commercial fish buyer handles the lobster and scallop catch of Lubec's small fishing fleet, and a sea urchin nursery aims to restore that lucrative fishery.

With the herring and ground fish depleted, Lubec fishermen have turned to dragging for sea cucumbers, also known as sea slugs, for the first six months of the year. Portland-based ISF Trading occupies the building's old canning room, where its largely Central American workforce pickles the creatures for the Asian market. The Peacock family itself got out of sardines to join other investors in Trufresh , a firm that blast-freezes fish. Trufresh has offices in the old cannery, but all processing is done at other locations.

Lubec-born Clayton A. Lank owns Quoddy Mist , which extracts all-natural sea salt from Cobscook Bay . "We're the only company in North America that matches with France for trace minerals," he says proudly. The long tides (more than 20 feet) and frigid waters (courtesy of the Labrador Current ) give the salt a distinctive flavor.

Lank fished the Grand Banks for 15 years -- until they were shut down. Then he worked on a line to process locally farmed salmon -- until it shut down. His patent-pending salt production is a different way to make the sea pay. "Around here, you've got to be creative," he says. "The more creative you get, the better it will be for us."

Monica Elliott couldn't agree more. When she found herself in Lubec and in need of a job, Elliott, a native of Peru, learned confectionery through books the local library procured by interlibrary loan. For the last five years she's been making gourmet chocolates in Lubec, including bonbons filled with a confection crafted from her father's Peruvian recipe. In late 2005, she opened Monica's Chocolates in a tidy little house at the foot of the bridge to Campobello Island , New Brunswick , where tourists cross into Canada to see President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's summer home.

"I make chocolate here in Lubec but I don't make chocolate for Lubec," Elliott says. "I make jobs for Lubec. People don't need chocolate -- they need jobs." Travelers are surprised to find fancy chocolates in this former sardine-packing town. "People come and say, 'Why are you in Lubec?' " she says. "I say, 'Why not?' "

A lot of people have been asking that question, says Greg Walston , associate broker at Due East Real Estate . Lubec spreads across a mainland point and two peninsulas, giving the community of about 1,650 some 93 miles of shorefront. Water-view houses can sell for less than $100,000 . The rush has slowed, though, Walston says. Many newcomers are baby boomers buying second homes, retirees, and, some of the participants in the SummerKeys music program who become enamored of the area.

Launched in 1992 , SummerKeys is a summer music school for adults, with week long instruction and practice programs in piano, clarinet, flute, violin, cello, guitar, and voice running from late June through August.

"I came to Lubec on a fishing trip and fell in love with the beauty and remoteness of the place," says director Bruce Potterton . He took advantage of low real estate prices to acquire the former Masonic Hall that serves as the school's headquarters.

The program brings a certain sophistication to Lubec. Students often lodge at the town's bed-and-breakfasts, so it's not surprising, for example, to encounter a cellist and a violinist practicing in the gardens of the Peacock House Bed & Breakfast , which also has a piano in the drawing room. On Wednesday nights, faculty members give free recitals at the 1820 Federal-style Congregational Christian Church .

Practically in the downhill shadow of the church, a granite exemplar of what poet Robert Lowell dubbed "the abstract Union Soldier" keeps watch from his plinth that records the Civil War battles where Maine regiments fought. Directly across Main Street, patriotic bunting drapes a diminutive bandstand.

Main Street continues downhill to meet Water Street and the harborfront. Visitors wise enough to sleep in and catch sunset instead of sunrise can head down to the pier near the town breakwater, where seals sometimes haul out on the granite blocks. From this vantage, the sun goes down directly over Johnson Bay with a splendor that could make a postcard photographer weep.

"I've lived here all my life," says Brenda Case , sometime bartender and fish packer. "I think it gets more beautiful every year. I've never met anybody who has ever come here and never come back."

As the sky turns brilliant orange in summer's long gloaming, bald eagles circle over their nesting grounds on Pope's Folly Island and lobster boats bob at anchor, ready to go out again at dawn.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers based in Cambridge, can be reached at

If You Go

How to get there

Lubec is 313 miles or about 7 1/2 hours from Boston. Take Interstate 95 north into New Hampshire and then Maine; take exit 44 on the Maine Turnpike. Take 1-295 north through Portland before rejoining I-95. Take exit 109 to Route 202 east (toward Belfast) for 12 miles to Route 3. Take Route 3 east before it merges with Route 1 in Belfast. In Ellsworth, veer left to stay on Route 1 and continue downeast for 80 miles to junction with Route 189. Turn right on 189 and Lubec is less than 8 miles.

What to do

West Quoddy Head Light Visitor’s Center
South Lubec Road, off Route 189
Daily 10:10 a.m.-4 p.m. late May to mid-October. Free.

Quoddy Head State Park
South Lubec Road off Route
189 207-733-0911
Daily 9 a.m.-sunset May 15- Oct. 15. $2.

Monica's Chocolates
56 Pleasant St.
Daily 8-8.

6 Bayview St.
973-316-6220 (before June 15) 207-733-2316 (from June 15)
Free concerts late June-August Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. Congregational Christian Church, 46 Main St.

Tours of Lubec and Cobscook
24 Water St.
207-733-2997 888-347-9302 (in United States only outside Lubec)
Local history and ecotours on posted schedule July-August, or by appointment, $15-$30.

Where to stay and eat

Peacock House Bed & Breakfast
27 Summer St.
207-733-2403 or 888-305-0036
An 1860 home with seven guest rooms and extensive public spaces and garden. Doubles $90-$128.

The Home Port Inn and Restaurant
45 Main St.
207-733-2077 or 800-457-2077
This 1880 home has seven rooms, some with bay views. Doubles $90-$105. Fine-dining restaurant serves dinner. Entrees $15-$24.

Where to eat

Atlantic House Coffee &Deli Shop
52 Water St.
Daily 7-7. Deli sandwiches, pizza, and lobster rolls $5.25-$12. Also 26 flavors of ice cream. Outside deck tables overlook the harbor.

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