Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Longfellow's garbage

The corner of Fore and Hancock Streets in Portland. Birthplace of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Portland's eastern waterfront area seems like a pretty unremarkable neighborhood: a lot of big parking lots, some nondescript industrial buildings from the mid-twentieth century, and one massive new parking garage under construction. Compared to the city's other neighborhoods, full of historic buildings and activity, this one is pretty easy to overlook.

But in fact, this neighborhood contains one of the most historic sites in Portland - the birthplace of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for whom Portland has named a square (with a statue of the poet) and whose adult residence on Congress Street now houses the Maine Historical Society. Longfellow was born in this Federal-style house on the corner of Hancock and Fore Streets:

You won't recognize this building in the neighborhood today, though, because it's not there. For all of the reverence this city bestows on the famous poet, Portland allowed the demolition of this home sometime in the early twentieth century to make way for an adjacent industrial business expansion. That industrial building, in turn, was demolished in 2006 (photos of the warehouse demolition are at Margery Niblock's blog) to make way for a new hotel.

Right now, the Longfellow birthplace site is an empty, dirt lot (the one pictured at the top of this post) with a few holes and steel pilings dug into it. The holes that construction workers have dug reveal, in places, old fieldstone foundations from previous buildings on the site:

And so, this construction project has unearthed, temporarily, a Portland archaeological site. Among the fieldstone foundations are remnants of ancient garbage: an old chicken bone, shards of broken china, hand-smithed nails encrusted in rust. Even a few wooden remnants of the old house itself.

Did any of this ancient garbage belong to the young Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Did a harsh scolding over this particular broken teacup lead the poet, years later, to brood about "the moldering Past" and pen "The Rainy Day"? Did the poet's failure to mention a shoe in his reminisces of "My Lost Youth" indicate that he had actually forgotten about this shoe, which was in fact lost in the cellar, only to be found decades later?

Unfortunately I am only an amateur archaeologist, and so I can only speculate. More authoritative answers to these questions will have to wait another half century or so until this yet-to-be-built hotel, too, comes down. Any day now, workers will encase all of this evidence under a layer of new concrete. History buffs should get their move on down to the construction site before they miss their last chance to see Longfellow's basement.

Note: these photos were sent in by an anonymous tipster. I would never ever trespass on a construction site.

1 comment:

Corey Templeton said...

Good article.

I wish I was as brave as the anonymous tipster who trespassed the new parking garage for a few shots.