Maine’s first capital city was only a town

Hello! Every seven days for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

The province of Maine finally kicked its mother state, Massachusetts, to the curb in 1820. On March 15 of that year, it became its own, independent state. Maine’s first capital city was Portland — only, Portland wasn’t actually a city at all. That didn’t happen until a dozen years later, and by that time Augusta held the seat of power.

Portland adopted a charter 185 years ago this week on April 30, 1832. The new city had seven wards, represented by seven aldermen. It also had a 21-person city council and an elected mayor.

A postcard shows the Maine State House in Augusta with its original, smaller dome. This picture is item no. 11876 at the Maine Memory Network.

A postcard shows the Maine State House in Augusta with its original, smaller dome. This picture is item no. 11876 at the Maine Memory Network.

The state Legislature first convened, 12 years earlier, in a building at the corner of Congress and Myrtle streets. That was May 31, 1820. At the time, Portland was only a town. It was about 3 miles long and not quite a mile wide. In fact, geographically speaking, it was the smallest town in the state.

Yet, there was a lot going on in the tiny town. There were seven public schools, 40 private schools, six fire engines, 10 churches, a brick courthouse and a jail — not to mention several banks, a post office, a customs house, an iron works, seven slaughterhouses and a load of workshops and stores. The population numbered a bit over 8,000.

In 1828, after hosting state government for eight years, some residents thought it was high time the town became a city. But a referendum that year failed by a wide margin. Also, the year before, Augusta became the official capital. But it took them five years to build the State House. In the meantime, Portland continued to play host to the Legislature. Government didn’t actually get going in Augusta until 1832 — the very year Portland became a city.

This political cartoon, "Portland's Dream and Augusta's Nightmare," was published in the Lewiston Journal in 1907 and refers to a proposal at the time to move the state capitol to Portland. This picture is item no. 15544 at the Maine Memory Network.

This political cartoon, “Portland’s Dream and Augusta’s Nightmare,” was published in the Lewiston Journal in 1907 and refers to a proposal at the time to move the state capitol to Portland. This picture is item no. 15544 at the Maine Memory Network.

In the years since then, Portland made more than one overture to get the capital back. All were unsuccessful.

That’s all kind of complicated, I know. To review:

  • 1820 – Maine became a state with Portland as its capital
  • 1827 – Augusta named the new capital
  • 1832 – The capital was finally moved and Portland became a city

Got it? I hope so. There may be a quiz next week.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.