History & Heritage
In the early 1600s, Europeans explored the Kennebunk River, and by the 1620s, permanent settlements were in place. Early settlers harvested the abundant timber and built sawmills along the rivers. Twenty years later, coastal and inland land grants were being parceled out. These were difficult times punctuated by Indian unrest, until a truce in 1760. The hardiest settlers continued to live near the Mousam and Kennebunk Rivers in what was referred to as the "Kennebunk Grants."
As the lumber industry grew, vessels came to load sawn timber for houses and ships. The local shipbuilding industry began first on the Mousam River in the 17th century and then on the more navigable Kennebunk River. Shipbuilding continued into the early 20th century, making wealthy men of the area's shipbuilders, merchants and sea captains. Their prosperity is evident in the beautiful mansions along Summer Street. America's trade grew, necessitating larger ships, and the Kennebunk River was simply too shallow to accommodate larger vessels. The last sailing ship to be launched on the Kennebunk River was in 1918.
As shipbuilding was waning, new industries were taking its place. By the early 1800s, power generated industries were already flourishing along the Mousam River, giving rise to Kennebunk factories that made cotton, thread, twine, shoes and even trunks. By 1872, the Boston & Maine Railroad was carrying a new cargo on the three-hour trip to and from Boston – tourists. Just as today, tourists came to this "watering place" to swim in the ocean, canoe on the rivers and enjoy the simple elegance of the towns. That same year, a group of men from Boston and Kennebunk formed the Kennebunkport Seashore Company and bought more than 700 acres along five miles of coastline from local farmers. The idea was to create the ideal vacation spot. They built hotels and created the necessary infrastructure for a delightful getaway.
The group of "cottages" that started going up at Cape Arundel in 1874 represents one of the finest examples of a turn-of-the-century colony in Maine. By then, Goose Rocks Beach and Cape Porpoise were established resort destinations as well. The number of large hotels dwindled with the increasing popularity of the automobile and the opening of the Maine Turnpike. Vacationers could come and go on their own schedules, and soon, extended stays became weekend visits or daytrips. With that change came the charming inns, B&Bs and tourist cabins for which the Kennebunks are famous.
In the 1970s and 80s, easy access to the Kennebunks' attractions made them appealing year-round destinations. The Main Street village area has been carefully revitalized with keen attention to its history and architectural integrity. Kennebunkport too has maintained its "old Maine" charm with a vibrant commercial district and scores of historical buildings on lovely elm-lined streets. Few destinations offer today's visitors the opportunity to experience hundreds of years of America's past. The Kennebunks are alive with history, coupled with modern luxury and convenience.