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25 Things You Should Know About Portland, Maine

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Maine’s biggest city has been practically leveled on several separate occasions. Yet in true New England fashion, it’s always bounced right back. Today, the city is beloved by tourists, foodies, and boaters of every stripe. Read on for 25 facts about the Forest City.

1. Hear the name “Portland,” and you probably think about a certain city out in Oregon. That place was founded by a pair of New Englanders—Boston’s Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove from Portland, Maine. Each man wanted to name the spot after his hometown. So, they settled this matter the right way—via coin toss. Pettygrove won two out of three flips and that was that.

2. Roughly 40 percent of all Maine residents live in the greater Portland metropolitan area.

3. It’s situated on the Portland peninsula near Maine’s southernmost border. Originally, this outcrop was peopled by the Wabanaki, who called it Machigonne, or “Great Neck.” English settlers would later rechristen it “Casco” in 1633 and then “Falmouth Neck” in 1658 [PDF].

4. In 1675, what’s now the Portland area was set ablaze during a Native American raid. The assault came during King Philip’s War, a conflict between natives and settlers that raged on from 1675 to 1676. An even bigger attack was launched in May 1690. This time, the perpetrators were a combination of French and indigenous forces, who also burned the settlement to the ground.

5. Portland as we know it started out as part of a bigger metropolis. Dubbed “Old Falmouth” by historians, it was created in the aftermath of the 1690 raid. Within this urban hub were modern-day Portland, Westbrook, Cape Elizabeth, South Portland, and the current city of Falmouth. On October 18, 1775, the region was once again besieged. As part of Britain’s retaliation against the colonies following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Royal Navy cannons bombarded Old Falmouth.

6. In 1786, Portland finally broke away from Old Falmouth for good, earning independent township status on July 4. Ironically, given the date, it was named after the British Isle of Portland.

7. No transatlantic port in the U.S. is closer to Europe than Portland. According to the city’s official website, it’s also America’s 20th-largest fishing port.


Acclaimed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and author Stephen King were both born in Portland. King still maintains a residence in his native state; he and his wife Tabitha divide their time between Florida and the city of Bangor.

9. Another famous native is five-time Olympic medalist Ian Crocker. A born-and-raised Portlander, the swimmer attended Cheverus Jesuit High School. His resume includes multiple Pan Pacific championships and two gold medals—the latest of which came in 2003, after Crocker became the first man to ever swim the 100-meter butterfly in under 51 seconds.

10. Let’s just say that Portland doesn’t have the most original nickname. Informally, it’s called “Forest City,” an alias that’s also used by Cleveland, Ohio and London, Ontario. In Portland’s case, the moniker can be traced back to a burial site. During the 1850s, the government-funded Forest City Cemetery was established. Before long, people began referring to all of Portland as “Forest City” and the name stuck.

11. The suburb of South Portland is home to the famous Maine Mall—the largest American commercial, retail, and office complex north of Boston. When it’s closed, only about 23,000 people can be found in South Portland. But when the mall’s open, that number jumps to anywhere between 60,000 and 80,000.

12. Like Bigfoot? Check out the International Cryptozoology Museum. Founder Loren Coleman ranks among the planet’s leading Sasquatch experts. In 2003, he established this unique museum inside of a Portland house he’d purchased. Visitors can see stuffed jackalopes, yeti footprint casts, and a fully-furred Bigfoot model.

 Portland was Maine’s first state capital. For seven years, it retained the title; a two-story building on the corner of Myrtle and Congress streets served as the statehouse. But in 1827, the more centrally-located Augusta was officially designated the new capital. The legislature would use the Portland-based statehouse until 1832, when the one in Augusta was completed.

14. Every year, downtown Portland salutes the beginning of summer with the annual Old Port Festival. Established in 1973, it’s now the largest one-day festival in Maine. Originally, it was always thrown on the first Sunday of June, but in 2010, this date was changed to the second Sunday—which historically has gotten less rain. Drop on by for some live music, street performers, and local cuisine.

15. Billed as “America’s first all-display fresh seafood auction,” the Portland Fish Exchange has been doing business since 1986. On a daily basis, fishermen present their latest catch and entertain offers from seafood wholesalers and processors.

16. The Civil War came to Maine’s doorstep in 1863. The Battle of Portland Harbor—a conflict that was started by a group of undercover Confederates—took place on June 27. Led by Lieutenant Charles Read, the southerners decided to sneak into Portland's Casco Bay and steal a federal cutter, the USRC Caleb Cushing. But before long, news reached federal authorities, who sent four Union ships out to capture them. A heated ammunition exchange ensued, with Uncle Sam ultimately coming out on top. Read was forced to surrender and imprisoned.

17. Portland was ravaged by yet another fire on July 4, 1866. That day of celebration turned into a nightmare when fireworks triggered an inferno. In total, 1800 buildings were destroyed, leaving 4000 people homeless. To prevent history from repeating itself, the city set up a fire alarm signal system the very next year.

18. Attention, gum chewers: The first factory that was ever built specifically to manufacture this treat was constructed in Portland by businessman John Curtis. His company, Curtis & Son, set up the facility way back in 1850.

19. Where is the so-called “Italian sandwich” really from? Maine, of course. An early forerunner of subs and hoagies, these were created by Giovanni Amato, a Portland baker, in 1902. The story goes that some of Amato’s customers persuaded him to create massive sandwiches by cutting loaves of bread lengthwise. In Portland, a standard “Italian” sammie comes with boiled ham, sliced tomatoes, olives, onions, green peppers, and American cheese. This is coated with a mixture of salt, oil, and more pepper. Mangia!

20. Former mayor Neal Dow (1804-1897) is regarded as the father of Prohibition. At age 23, he co-founded the Maine Temperance Society, beginning a lifelong crusade against liquor. As mayor, Dow used his political clout to help turn Maine into America’s first dry state in 1851. Four years later, it was discovered that he’d quietly allowed the city to buy $1600 worth of “medical and mechanical alcohol.” Angry protesters surrounded City Hall on June 2, 1855. Dow ordered the militia to shoot, killing one protester and injuring seven more. Everything went downhill from there. A year after the incident, Dow lost his re-election bid and Maine repealed its anti-booze laws.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 Despite having a population of just 60,000, Portland boasts an impressive 17 microbreweries—the most per capita of any city in the U.S., according to a recent analysis by the Brewers Association. Clearly, Prohibition never stood a chance there.

22. Here’s our obligatory, Maine lobster-related fact: In 2009, Portlanders joined forces to assemble the world’s biggest lobster roll. A 61-foot, 9 1/2-inch marvel, it contained 4 gallons of Miracle Whip and 48 pounds of lobster meat. However, just last year, the record was shattered by two groups out of Canada, who both constructed rolls that were more than 70 feet in length. (A heated feud over which roll had actually broken the record ensued.)

23. In 2013, Portland became the first East Coast city in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana—at least nominally. That November, around 70 percent of voters supported a groundbreaking referendum on pot possession. The measure allows residents aged 21 and older to carry as much as 2.5 ounces. But be warned: Portlanders still aren’t allowed to purchase the drug, sell it, or smoke it in a public area. Furthermore, as Maine Attorney General Janet Mills pointed out, the referendum “does not override state or federal laws” against weed.

24. They may play in Boston, but the Red Sox are wildly popular throughout New England. As a nod to the organization, the minor-league Portland Sea Dogs use a 37-foot replica of Fenway’s “Green Monster” wall in their own outfield. Fans call it the Maine Monster—or should we say “monstaah”?

25. To honor the city's long history of overcoming adversity, its flag and city seal show a Phoenix rising from the ashes. Also included on both is the Latin word resurgam, which means “I shall rise again.”

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Photograph by James Ewing. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
A New Exhibit Celebrates New York City's Public Art Legacy
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Photograph by James Ewing. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

Walking through New York City could be likened to strolling through a smog-filled gallery. For the past 50 years and more, artists have brightened its streets, subways, and buildings with vibrant mosaics, installations, sculptures, and murals. To celebrate their creativity—and the pioneering public art initiatives that made these works possible—the Museum of the City of New York has created a new exhibit, "Art in the Open: Fifty Years of Public Art."

"Art in the Open" features over 125 works by artists such as Kara Walker, Keith Haring, and Roy Lichtenstein, among others, all of which once graced the city's five boroughs. The exhibit explores the social and historical motivation behind outdoor art, and also connects it with overarching urban themes.

“The ubiquity of public art is a big part of what makes New York City so special,” said Museum of the City of New York director Whitney Donhauser in a statement. “From parks to the subways, from Staten Island to the Bronx, creativity is all around us. Experiencing the wide variety of art created for public spaces gathered together within the walls of a museum offers visitors a new lens for appreciating and understanding our city’s extraordinary 50-year commitment to public art.”

The exhibit runs from November 10, 2017 through May 13, 2018. Head to the Museum of the City of New York website for more details, or check out some photos below.

Jane Dickson's 1982 artwork "Untitled," part of "Messages to the Public"

Jane Dickson, Untitled, part of Messages to the Public, Times Square, 1982.

Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

Ugo Rondinone's 2013 installation "Human Nature"

Ugo Rondinone, Human Nature, Rockefeller Center, 2013. Presented by Nespresso, Organized by Tishman Speyer and Public Art Fund.

Photograph by Bart Barlow. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

Subway artwork "Times Square Mural" designed by Roy Lichtenstein,
Times Square Mural (2002) © Roy Lichtenstein, NYCT Times Square-42nd Street Station. Commissioned by MTA Arts & Design.
Courtesy of Museum of the City of New York

Vik Muniz's 2017 subway artwork "Perfect Strangers"

Perfect Strangers (2017) © Vik Muniz, NYCT Second Avenue-72nd Street Station. Commissioned by MTA Arts & Design.

Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Rob Pruitt's 2011 artwork "The Andy Monument"

Rob Pruitt, The Andy Monument, Union Square, 2011.

Photograph by James Ewing. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

Laurie Hawkinson, Erika Rothenberg, and John Malpede's 2004 artwork "Freedom of Expression National Monument"

Laurie Hawkinson, Erika Rothenberg, and John Malpede, Freedom of Expression National Monument, 2004, Foley Square.

Photo courtesy of Erika Rothenberg

Artist Kara Walker's 2014 work "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby"

At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. A project of Creative Time. Domino Sugar Refinery, Brooklyn, NY, May 10 to July 6, 2014. 

Jason Wyche, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Artwork © 2014 Kara Walker.
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Fox Photos/Getty Images
How a London Tragedy Led to the Creation of 911
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Fox Photos/Getty Images

In trouble? Pick up the phone and call 911. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), 240 million 911 calls are made each year. But if it weren’t for a house fire and a group of angry Brits, the system might not exist today.

Though 911 is an American staple, its origins are in England. In 1935, there was no such thing as an emergency phone number, and phone calls were dependent on operators who connected people to exchanges or emergency services when necessary. England did have emergency fire call points, but they didn’t use telephone technology—instead, they relied on the telegraph, which was used to send a signal to fire departments from special boxes [PDF]. There were police call points, too, but they were generally unstandardized and inefficient, since police didn’t have a way to receive emergency calls while on their beats. Instead, officers would check in during their rounds at special police boxes, like the one you probably recognize from Doctor Who.

But all that changed after November 10, 1935, when a fire broke out at the home of a prominent London surgeon, Philip Franklin, at 27 Wimpole Street. As the blaze tore through the building, five women sleeping on the upper floors—Franklin’s wife and niece, as well as three servants—became trapped. A neighbor, Norman MacDonald, heard their screams and promptly picked up the phone to dial the operator. Nobody answered.

“It seemed entirely futile to continue holding on and listening to ringing tone, which awakened no response,” he later wrote. A neighbor went to a fire call point and firefighters soon arrived, but they were unable to save the five women.

27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tragedy sparked a national inquiry—and outrage. Two years later, London unveiled a new service: the emergency number 999. Officials thought it would be best to choose a number that was easy to find by touch on a rotary dial, and rejected a number of other options, like 111, that might be triggered by equipment malfunctions. (It wasn’t unusual for lines rubbing together and other technical glitches to trigger a 111 call; 222 was already in use by a local exchange, while 000 would have just contacted the operator after the first zero.)

The new number wasn’t immediately embraced. Of over 1000 calls made the first week, nearly 7 percent were pranks. And some members of Parliament objected, saying it would be easier to just install an emergency button on phones instead.

A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

The United States had a similar system of police telephones and signal boxes, but like the UK it lacked the technology to quickly and effectively call authorities during emergencies. In the 1950s, the National Association of Fire Chiefs, inspired by the UK’s system, requested a national emergency number, and by 1967 the FTC was meeting with AT&T, the nation’s largest telephone company, to hash out a plan.

The first 911 call in the United States—a test call made from a mayor’s office—was made in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968 [PDF]. The numbers 911 reportedly made the grade because they weren’t in use for any existing phone exchange, and were catchy and easily remembered.

As the service rolled out nationwide, police and fire departments struggled to keep up with call volume. Despite the success of the program, New York police, in particular, reported being strained and having to hire more officers.

It took a long time to implement the system. Only 50 percent of the United States had 911 service as of 1987, according to NENA. Today, coverage is still not universal, although it’s close: 96 percent of the country is currently covered.

The evolution of telephone technology has brought new challenges, however: The FCC estimates that a full 70 percent of calls now come from cell phones—and given the mobility of mobile phones, that’s a challenge for dispatchers and phone companies. The 911 system was built for landlines, and cell phone GPS systems don’t always transmit data quickly or accurately. Plus, the proliferation of cell phones has led to a spike in accidental butt dials, which tie up the line and can prevent real emergencies from getting the attention they need. Still, we've come a long way from the days of sending telegraph messages inside boxes.


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