Welcome to Portland! I’m Dugan Murphy, your guide along a local history walking tour that I call Portland by the Foot. I know you’re interested in the people and events typically left out of history books, so you’re in luck — that happens to be our speciality!
But first, a bit about who I am and what this is all about.
Driving, boating and walking, I’ve guided more than 24,000 guests through Portland, my hometown. Earlier this year I gave my boss a pink slip and went independent so I could get into the stuff that isn’t often talked about on commercial tours, like the Black families who founded and built Maine’s oldest communities; the survival and skillful diplomacy of the indigenous Wabanki people through generations of genocidal warfare; the way women have propped up our city’s economy and culture for centuries, with little recognition and fewer civil rights; the Chinese immigrants who created a vibrant ethnic enclave downtown; the role of slavery in Maine’s colonization and the enslaved Black maid who ended it here… There’s so much that gets left out!
I’m also executive director of the Association of Maine Archives and Museums, where I work with volunteers to provide much-needed services to the folks who run our state’s museums, libraries, archives and historical societies. Oh, and I edit Wikipedia, too. For fun.
I’ve been fascinated by history since I was a child, but have spent most of my adulthood working to shape the future. In addition to degrees in Urban Planning and Community Planning, I’ve earned certificates in Historic Preservation and Geographic Information Science. I managed growth in downtown Skowhegan, supporting that small town’s entrepreneurs and organizing public events, including an awesome fireworks show every summer. But eventually I returned to my love of history, and have been spending my summers as a tour guide ever since.
From the time Mainers are too short to ride the Astrosphere at Funtown we’re given the false impression that white guys are responsible for all the significant events in local history (collective eye roll, anyone?). Indigenous people are discussed in an ancient, before-times frame, as if they are not in Maine right now, continually cultivating their culture and maintaining their sovereignty. Hell, they never ceded this territory, so I am, in fact, leading tours as a guest on Wabanaki land, the beneficiary of thousands of years of ecological stewardship and knowledge they have shared with us newcomers.
It’s likewise easy to look at Maine’s mostly white population today and assume there’s no Black history here, or nothing worth mentioning. But Black presence in Maine predates the earliest efforts by the English to colonize this place, and those colonial outposts wouldn’t have been built without the labor of enslaved Black people. There are Black Portlanders today whose family history here goes back more than two centuries.
And all the while, women of all sorts of backgrounds and identities have been running the factories, running for office, and preserving Portland’s most cherished cultural resources, yet credit for their work is too often withheld. You might be surprised to learn, for instance, how many of Maine’s museums were founded by women but named for men.
Take a tour in Portland and you’re likely to learn more about lobsters, bygone architectural styles or the latest celebrity chef than any of the above. Those tours are fun, but I wondered: Can’t a tour be entertaining and enlightening? Can a tour help us know ourselves and our neighbors better? Can it broaden our narrow conceptions of who or what a Mainer is?
I spent last winter looking beyond the whitewashed version of our history, reading a hell of a lot of books, academic journals and the like, as well as visiting the Maine Historical Society’s Brown Research Library and the Portland Public Library’s Portland Room. (Those librarians are so helpful and I can’t thank them enough!)
The result: Portland by the Foot. I lead three group tours focused on different topics. The Black History Tour goes through the Old Port and into the East End, then climbs Munjoy Hill. The Women’s History Tour follows Congress Street into the Arts District, peaking at the Parkside and West End neighborhoods. The Hidden Histories Tour spends a lot of time on the waterfront, examining how Portland’s demographics, economy and landscape have changed over hundreds of years.
Ready? Let’s take that walk.
Portland Black History Tour
When leading a group tour I endeavor to foster a group atmosphere, a space where folks feel safe sharing their own experiences as they relate to history. That’s when the magic happens and we realize the past — even events from centuries ago — is very relevant to our present circumstances.
Many of the people we meet on the Portland Black History Tour had mixed ancestry, an amalgam of Black African, white European and/or Indigenous American. Their ancestry impacted the way they saw themselves, how others perceived them, and the opportunities they could access. A discussion of their lives can quickly become a group discussion about how “race” in the U.S. is both totally fake and very real.
At the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, on Congress Street, we meet Bishop James Augustine Healy. Bishop Healy was born in Georgia in 1830, the son of a Black mother who was enslaved by his father, a white Irishman. Healy passed as white and was ordained as a Catholic priest — a remarkable achievement for someone who was, at least on paper, still enslaved to his own dad. But his African ancestry remained an open secret. When he needed medical attention here, the Sisters of Mercy refused to treat him. We’re talking about the Pope-appointed leader of everyone and everything Catholic throughout both Maine and New Hampshire, and the Church’s nurses wouldn’t touch his body.
Earlier this season, that anecdote prompted a tour guest from India to share her experience with her home country’s caste system. Marrying someone outside her caste had made life there very hard for her and her husband. The group talked about ways in which “race” creates a caste system in this country.
Another guest was very curious to hear about Portland’s deep connections to the African country of Liberia, where her mother was born. A Black man named John Brown Russwurm lived in Portland as a teenager and graduated from Hebron Academy and Bowdoin College in Maine. He was an educator, writer and publisher who co-founded the first newspaper in the U.S. owned and operated by African Americans, Freedom’s Journal.
Russwurm led an early Pan-Africanist effort to create a home in Liberia for Black Americans fleeing slavery and oppression here. He and other Americo-Liberians brought many aspects of their culture to West Africa, including the English language, Christianity, and American forms of dress and architecture. Russwurm became the first Black governor of an African colony and served in that role for 15 years. The Liberia of today still embodies the legacy of settlers like Russwurm.
But the name that comes up on this tour more often than any other is that of Reuben Ruby, 19th-century Portland’s most important Black political figure, civil rights activist and Underground Railroad conductor. This is the man who, more than a few times, managed to swing municipal and federal elections by organizing the Black men of Portland into a voting bloc and exacting concessions from candidates in exchange for their support. That’s how William Pitt Fessenden unseated an incumbent and won his first Congressional election. Fessenden went on to serve in the U.S. Senate and as President Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury. There are no streets in Portland named after Reuben Ruby, but Fessenden has three: Fessenden Street, Pitt Street and William Street.
These stories can be alternately infuriating and inspiring. If you take this tour, prepare for your assumptions to be challenged by accounts of a people who’ve been a demographic minority in this little city, but have had major impacts on the world at large.
Portland Women’s History Tour
As we stroll through the Arts District, Parkside and the West End, you’ll notice a few themes on the Portland Women’s History Tour. The first one’s obvious: women’s rights.
We begin on the spot where, in 1870, Mainers gathered in public for the first time to strategize and organize for women’s suffrage. The guy — yes, it was, in fact, a man — who called that meeting died 44 years before the first woman in Maine cast a ballot. John Neal, the only dude who gets any attention on this tour, was our nation’s first women’s rights lecturer, as well as a noted writer and critic, and we drop by his old house on State Street to acknowledge the exuberant push he made to further women’s economic and political rights for more than half of the 19th century.
We also pass the law office of Gail Laughlin, the first female lawyer from Maine and the first woman to serve in the Maine Legislature. She spent much of the first two decades of the 20th century out West, campaigning for women’s suffrage. That’s where she met her life partner, Dr. Marguerite Sperry. They were together 16 years, and though Sperry died in California 33 years before Laughlin died in Maine, the two are buried side by side in Portland’s Brooklawn Cemetery.
We end the tour at Augusta Merrill Hunt’s home on State Street, the headquarters for one of Maine’s last female suffrage campaigns, launched in 1917. Hunt fought so long for the cause that she was offered a special honor in 1920: at age 78, she was the first woman in Maine to cast a ballot. She lived long enough to vote in two more presidential elections, and 65 years after she passed, her great-great-granddaughter, Helen Hunt, won the Academy Award for Best Actress in As Good As It Gets.
Another theme you’ll notice is how some men were adept at amassing great wealth (indulge in another collective eye roll here), but their female associates were much better at managing that wealth for the benefit of the community that generated it.
Take Betty Noyce. Folks who were around here in the ’80s and ’90s remember her as the most down-to-earth multimillionaire in Maine. Formerly married to 1950s tech bro Robert Noyce, she took her half of their fortune to Maine and spent the rest of her life spreading it around. Put another way, she left the philanderer and got into philanthropy.
In the mid-’90s, the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland needed some costly improvements and county officials announced a plan to sell the naming rights to the building to pay for the work. Noyce thought that was unfair. The people of Cumberland County paid to build the civic center with their tax dollars, and she felt its name should reflect the fact that it belongs to them. So she donated $1.3 million to the renovation effort on the condition that the name remain the same. Noyce died in 1996, her naming-rights agreement with Cumberland County expired in 2005, and now we gather inside a public building named after a private insurance company to watch hockey games and concerts.
Farther west on Spring Street we find the former site of the YWCA, now a staff parking lot and a sparse grove of thin trees owned by the Portland Museum of Art (PMA). The museum’s administrators bought the Y in 2007 and were allowed to raze it on condition that the PMA contribute money to a state housing fund — money that a private developer could then use to build housing elsewhere in Portland. The deal required the developer to construct 33 units; at the time, the Y had been providing shelter to twice as many women in need. [See “YWCA strikes deal to sell Spring Street property,” The Bollard, June 5, 2007.]
The YWCA had been providing crucial services in Portland for over a century. The charitable organization was particularly busy in the early 20th century, when women were getting jobs and living on their own for the first time. The Y had what they called a Traveler’s Aid House down at Union Station on St. John Street. As young women flooded into the city for work, they found affordable housing and meals waiting for them just steps from the train platform. Many soon earned their economic independence with jobs at waterfront canneries or Congress Street department stores. During that period the Y also ran a women-only athletics facility called the Burnham Gymnasium at 34 Oak Street, around the corner from where the Spring Street YWCA was built in 1961.
Portland Hidden Histories Tour
On the Hidden Histories Tour I pull back the curtain of our city’s built environment to reveal the imperialistic economic forces that have reshaped our community over and over again. I regularly hear from locals that after taking one of these tours they have a totally different relationship with the buildings and streets of Portland.
We’re a city that’s been repeatedly destroyed and reborn by fire (hence all the references you see around town to the mythical phoenix). The biggest one was the last one; it happened 156 years ago and was a complete accident. The first three infernos were caused by warfare: the Revolutionary War in 1775, King William’s War in 1690, and King Philip’s War in 1676. The indigenous Wabanaki and the English and French colonizers fought each other in six different wars between 1675 and 1759. For 37 of those 84 years, Maine’s landscape was a war zone.
King Philip’s War is typically remembered for its impact on Southern New England. Down there, the nations of the Wampanoag Confederacy lost to the English. But in the war’s northern theater, the Wabanaki destroyed Portland, won the war, and wrested concessions from Maine’s English settlers during peace talks. English disregard for the terms of the peace led to King William’s War, which destroyed Portland again only 14 years later and left a pile of corpses at the corner of Fore and India streets.
Even in peacetime, England’s colonial government incentivized private paramilitary forces to murder Wabanaki people for pay. That started in the 1670s and continued into the mid-18th century. And yet the indigenous peoples of New England survived the attempted genocide, skillfully maintaining diplomatic relations and exerting self-determination to this day. It’s a long and astounding story of resilience for which I can only begin to do justice on a walking tour of Portland.
When we get to Monument Square we learn that a century ago this was the center of Portland’s Chinatown. Chinese immigration to Portland began as a trickle in the mid-19th century and the population peaked around 1920. We had a Chinese Masonic lodge, a Chinese social club called the Chee King Tong, and Chinese-owned businesses throughout the city, but concentrated downtown.
Other immigrant groups, such as the Irish, Polish, Italian and Quebecois, ran the canneries down on the waterfront. Many of the workers were women and children, powering an industry that, by the late 19th century, had eclipsed the sugar refineries that dominated the waterfront during the decades before the Civil War.
Those refineries made sugar out of molasses imported from the Caribbean aboard ships that would next load up here with processed goods and head to West Africa. After unloading there, those same ships would load up with human beings and transport them across the Atlantic to sell them into slavery in the Caribbean, so the vessels could then be loaded up again with molasses and head back here. In Portland, the top beneficiary of this so-called triangle trade was John Bundy Brown, whose family has since built a lucrative real-estate empire in Maine. One hundred seventy years ago, J.B. Brown & Sons made their money off the labor of enslaved Africans. Now they lease the property that was their sugar refinery to the Courtyard Marriott.
At the end of any Portland by the Foot tour, my hope is that you leave feeling kind of stunned — in a good way! You’re floored by the history all PortlandByTheFoot.com us and you’re more curious than ever not just about Portland, but about everything.
I’ve been on lots of walking tours as a guest, and on a particularly good one in Charleston the guide said, “If something has meaning, it’s my job to point at it and give that meaning to you.” The meaning I hope to relate is that hiding in plain sight are historic contributions by people of a multitude of backgrounds and identities. These contributions provide opportunities for conversations worth having, and may even transform our ideas about who we were, who we are, and what makes this place special.
You can take a guided walking tour with me just about any day this summer or fall. Check out PortlandByTheFoot.com or call (207) 200-5885 to book one.