House Island is a 24 acre island just off the coast of Portland on the north side of the entrance to Portland Harbor between Cushing Island and Fort Gorges. The historic district encompasses the entire island which is comprised of two distinct land forms separated by a narrow isthmus. The south end of the island is dominated by Fort Scammel. On the north end are three 1907 buildings and a pump station associated with the US Hospital, Quarantine and Immigration Station that operated on the island in the late 19th/early 20th century. Also located on the island are cut granite wharves, the remains of a late 19th century lobster pound, a cemetery, the site of the City of Portland’s Inspection Station, and two United States Coast Guard markers.
House Island has a rich history, the various chapters of which are evident in the remaining structures and sites. It long served as a center for fishing, for military fortifications and, later, as a site for processing immigrants into the United States in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries. After the United States government’s sale of the island following World War II, the island was privately owned by the Cushing family until its sale in 2014. The Cushing family offered tours of Fort Scammel and ran a business hosting corporate and other events on the north end of the island.
Significance of House Island
House Island’s Fort Scammell is significant as one of the major fortifications of the Federal strategy to protect coastal cities leading up to the War of 1812 and again during the Civil War. Because of its location, Fort Scammell, along with Fort Gorges and Fort Preble, was a critical element in the defense of the entrance to Portland Harbor. Built in 1808 as a second system fort with a blockhouse, the extant fort structures are the result of a redesign of the fort from 1862-1870 to conform to national third system fortification designs. The fort was also slightly altered again in the 1890s during a massive construction and modernization program with a focus on concrete fortifications, the installation of large caliber breech loading artillery, and the installation of mine fields, with smaller guns employed to protect mine fields from mine sweeping vessels. During this period Fort Scammell’s East Battery was equipped to control a minefield in Whitehead Passage and the fort was upgraded with 15-inch Rodman cannons. During World War One concrete bases for three-inch anti- aircraft guns were built on the South and East Batteries, but no guns were installed. The site and extant above ground resources are significant at the local, state, and national level for their role in the United States’ design and strategy for coastal defenses.
In addition, Fort Scammell is significant for its association with Army Engineer Thomas Lincoln Casey (1831-1896). Casey oversaw construction on coastal fortifications in Maine, including Fort Knox, Fort Preble, Fort Scammell, and Fort Gorges. He oversaw the Washington Monument construction 1879-1888, was the engineer of the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress, and served as the Chief of Engineers for the United States Army Corps of Engineers from 1888-1895.
Structures Related to Immigration Station
The House Island Historic District also provides a unique state and local example of the social history surrounding immigration in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly the public health laws for immigrants from foreign ports and the immigration laws of the early 20th century which established quotas for entry into the United States. As the site of Portland’s Inspection and Quarantine Station, House Island served as a port of entry for European immigrants arriving in New England in the late 19th century to work in area mills, to immigrate to the western states, or to immigrate north into Canada via the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad. In the 20th century the United States Hospital, Quarantine and Immigration Station on House Island served as an alternative quarantine and inspection station to heavily used federal facilities in Boston and New York. The extant United States Hospital, Quarantine and Immigration Station facilities on the north half of House Island assumed the functions previously administered at the City of Portland’s Inspection Station located on the Fort Scammell military reservation. The site and extant above ground resources are significant at the local, state, and national level for their association with United States immigration policy and processing operations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition, the Acadian Revival style of the Small Detention Barracks and the Quarantine Hospital are locally unique examples of this style of architecture.
The historic district is also significant in the area of maritime history and commerce as it is a district that represents the local economic, cultural and social importance of fishing on Maine's islands. Although few remains of its fishing past are located on the island, just offshore on the northeast end of the island are the remains of three early 19th early century wharves used by the island’s fish curing businesses. The wharves and the remains of the c1889 lobster pound in Lobster Pound Cove provide evidence of the island’s importance in the local fishing economy. The lobster pound also provides evidence of the ingenuity of Maine’s lobster merchants to regulate supply and pricing for their product, a site significant to the lobster fishery’s rise to prominence in Maine, and is an early example of this type of enclosure in Maine.
Although no professional archeological investigations have been undertaken on House Island, other islands in Casco Bay have yielded artifacts 2000-4000 years old, evidence of Native American use of the islands for hunting, fishing, and gathering. House Island is locally and regionally significant for its potential ability to expand the archeological database for the late Ceramic period in Casco Bay, and to develop a more comprehensive understanding of island life from pre- contact into the early 19th century. The island has a strong likelihood to yield important information about Native American lifeways over a broad period, the early settlement of the island, and use of the island for marine trade. During the period 1623-1808 when the island was used primarily for fishing and farming there were numerous fish houses, flakes1, outbuildings, and two dwellings on the island as well as the extant remains of the wharves on the northeast end of the island and the lobster pound in the cove on the east side of the island.
More detailed information about the history of House Island is available through the Historic Preservation Office in the Planning Department.
Description of Island and Architectural Description of Extant Resources
House Island is an hourglass shaped island, with the north and south ends of the island connected by a narrow ridge dropping off to semicircular beaches on the east and west sides of the island. The island is characterized by a zone of exposed bedrock around the shoreline with sand beaches on either side of the narrow ridge connecting the two halves of the island, a small sandy beach to the east of the Public Health Officer’s Residence and by the former Starling and Trefethen Wharves on the north east side of the island. Like most small coastal islands, the surface of the island has a thin layer of topsoil with bedrock either bare or close to the surface. Exposed bedrock is particularly predominate on the south half of the island. The south half of the island is dominated by Fort Scammell. The cut granite exteriors of the east and west battery are connected by the earth covered magazines and exterior walls of the south battery and unfinished site of the north battery. The fort is centered around a roughly rectangular parade ground that is entered through a sally port on the west side of the island. To the west of the fort is a stone wharf, the remains of a second wharf, the site of the 1892 Portland Inspection Station, and the remains of the stone cutting yard and the partial foundations of the stone work house. On the north end of the island are three wood framed structures associated with the former United States Hospital, Quarantine and Immigration Station, used as seasonal residences and for private functions in the second half of the twentieth century. Primary access is via a dock on the west side of the island. The various resources on the island are connected by mown trails.