Even now, this late in the game, there’s a lot confusion about a term or word we’ve grown fond of. The term is “Downeast,” or “Down East” as some would have it. We still can’t quite agree on whether it’s a single word or a two-word phrase. And that’s just the beginning of the problem. And believe me, there is a problem.
A question you often get from summer complaints is: “How come they call a place that looks like it’s ‘up north’ ‘Down East?’” It’s a good question, and I’m sure there are all kinds of clever answers we could come up with here, but for the time being we’ll try and avoid the temptation.
To get the answer, you have to go back to the 19th century, when most everything in and out of Maine arrived and departed on sailing vessels, or packets. To sailors heading out of Boston, the most desirable trip you could take was a sail to Maine, since the prevailing winds along the New England coast are from the southwest to the northeast. If you were on a schooner sailing from Boston to Maine, you could expect a pleasant downwind sail to the northeast. To continue this, you could say that the least popular voyage for 19th-century sailors was an upwind sail from Down East to Boston.
When a sailor in Boston was asked where he was off to, he might say he was heading to Maine. But rather than drag the whole thing out and say, “I’m taking a downwind sail to the Northeast,” he would simply say, “I’m heading Down East.”
Even when I was a kid back in the 1960s, my grandfather would insist that if you were going to a ballgame at Fenway Park, you were going “up” to Boston, and when the game was over you’d leave Boston and come back “down” to Maine.
So, it all goes back to the days when schooners ruled the waves in these parts and many of the phrases of sailors became the phrases of Maine – and yes, I do know all the implications of that statement.
Then there’s the question of where Down East begins. Sailors in the old days considered it to be any destination from Maine to the Maritime Provinces. I once asked a new arrival to Portland if he’d ever been Down East and he matter-of-factly stated, “I’ve been to Freeport.”
Now, most everyone would admit that Freeport has more claim to the designation Down East than Fryeburg, but just barely. Most people in Portland and farther south agree that you’re not really Down East until you get up to about Bath, the shipbuilding town on the Kennebec. In Bath, you might be told that you have to go beyond Thomaston to Rockland if you want to get the feel for Down East. In Rockland, they’re likely to laugh right in your face and then tell you to keep on truckin’ because you won’t even get a good whiff of Down East until you get to the former broiler capital of the world – Belfast.
By now you should begin to catch on, so you won’t even stop in Belfast – you’ll just keep going. In Searsport, you might stop and someone there will tell you that you’re getting closer, but that you’ll have to get east of fashionable Ellsworth before you’re in the vicinity of Down East. This will go on and on until you finally find yourself in the visitor parking lot at West Quoddy Head Light, the easternmost point of land in the United States. Then you’ll scratch your head and wonder – as many have wondered before you – why is the easternmost point of land in the United States, why is the eastern most point of land Down East called WEST Quoddy Head?
Now, you surely understand what I mean when I say there’s a lot that’s still murky about this Down East business.
John McDonald is the author of five books on Maine. His latest, “John McDonald’s Maine Trivia: A User’s Guide to Useless Information,” is now in bookstores. Contact him at [email protected]