145 Carpenters


“We can imagine Ellen and Elizabeth, perhaps in company with their older brother John, or even their father, visiting Portland Pier along Fore Street. Portland was noted for its trade with the West Indies, just as Salem, Massachusetts, specialized in the East India trade, and New Bedford in whaling. Along the Fore Street wharves were crowded a forest of masts: brigs, barks, majestic clippers, schooners, and even a few whalers. The “Spanish sailors with bearded lips” and with elaborate tattoos were there too. As Ellen and Elizabeth walked along, wide-eyed, under the pointed bowsprits of the graceful square-riggers, they could see the busy counting offices; the ship chandler’s stores with their ropes, pulleys, anchors, chronometers, and other navigational instruments; and, here and there, the two-story sail lofts with their signs flapping from the upper windows.

The stevedores, many of them black, were hoisting the heavy barrels of Jamaica rum and molasses from the holds of the ships, and along with the sweating and swearing came the rhythmic songs of the islands.

The life of the sailors was hard and hazardous, and the Portland papers frequently carried stories about ships lost at sea or grounded and thrashed to shreds on the rocky coasts of New England. Many a home built in the city of Portland had its “widow’s walk,” a little porch-like area with a neatly painted white balustrade around it at the very top of a house. It is said that from these vantage points those who waited the return of a husband, father, or son could look out over Casco Bay to watch for the return of the ship that had been out upon the seas for months or perhaps even a year or more.  

The chief export from Portland was lumber. Portland’s streets were often lined with teams of oxen hauling timber out of the virgin wilderness of Maine. While Portland sent its lumber out to different parts of the world, it received from the West Indies sugar, molasses, coffee, tobacco, spices, and of course, rum. The big share of the latter, considering the large sailor population in the town, kept things lively. Portland was early a center of temperance activity.

The city directory of 1834 lists the professions of the men of the city and shows that it had 256 laborers, 220 mariners, 209 dealers in West Indian goods, 145 carpenters, and 131 ship captains. All of these jobs were related to the sea, for Portland was not only a seaport but also a shipbuilding center of considerable importance.

The weather in Portland was colder than it is today. The average yearly temperature between 1820 and 1833 was a mere 43 F. February was the coldest month, with the temperature hovering around 20 F. most of the time. In July the temperature reached the upper 60s. Snow was heavy, a little under five feet annually, but in 1833 nearly eight feet fell. The homes were heated by wood-burning stoves, and for light, whale-oil lamps were used. Common use of kerosene was yet two or three decades away. The Harmon home was brightened outside by the flowers that Eunice Harmon loved. The inside of the house was equipped for hat-making.

We can imagine Robert Harmon taking his twin girls along to the wood market that occupied an entire block in the heart of the city, bounded by Brown, Congress, Center, and Free streets. Here farmers would unload cord wood and bargain with the townspeople. It might well have been here that Robert Harmon bought beaver and rabbit pelts of animals that the farmers had trapped. He would have to hire someone to take his wood and pelts home, for only a wealthy family kept its own horse and carriage or wagon.”

1BIO 23-24