We’d heard about it for years: Swan Island in Richmond, Maine. An island that once was occupied, but now wasn’t. Antique houses with no residents. Natural beauty. Rich history. Trails and fields. A place accessible only by boat or ferry. Finally, this past Sunday, we traveled there.
The island is about 4 miles long and the ferry sets you down at one end of it. We set off to explore, intent on seeing the entire island. The dirt road sloped up from the dock and led us through towering pines and swathes of fern. Hidden birds serenaded us, darting between the trees, until the vista opened to a field full of milkweed. The scent reached us first, heavy and sweet in the warm air. Then, we saw the monarchs, flitting from blossom to blossom.
Walking further uphill, we saw the first house amidst trees. Was there an abandoned air about it, or did I just imagine it?
We wandered around the base of the home, past overgrown apple trees, peeking in the windows, noticing the huge central fireplace, an old spinning wheel, bed frames. Remnants of long ago lives.
The homes or past home sites are spread along the length of the island. Most of the houses are no longer there, but at each house or site, plaques gave a brief overview of the home and its owners. As we stopped and read, we imagined all the lives lived here, reading between the lines of text. The layers of experiences, the hopes and dreams and the tragedies of each home and its residents, seemed present in the air. The houses aren’t open, except on a few special occasions, but some of them weren’t secured, and we could easily have entered. We didn’t. It wasn’t so much a “following the rules” kind of thing, but I, for one, felt reluctant to stir the dust of these places.
The island is a peaceful place, though, rich in natural beauty. We walked for hours, enjoying the scenery and the beautiful Maine summer day. We talked about the stories we’d read, wondering about how life once was here. We enjoyed a picnic overlooking a field mosaiced with dozens of shades of green, purples, and pinks. We saw a bald eagle, a great blue heron, turkeys, and a hawk and heard and saw masses of unidentified birds. Assorted butterflies in a rainbow of colors fluttered over the milkweed-laden fields. Red squirrels and chipmunks popped up all over the place, and fish swam in the shallow waters of ponds. Leaving the road, we walked along woodland trails, which periodically cut through sunlit flower-strewn meadows.
Yet, under the beauty, there’s a poignant mood to the island. Somehow without the veil of the present, the past becomes more tangible. The weight of human history lingers. Lives begun and ended. Stories long forgotten. Once beloved homes, now empty houses. Beautiful. Sad. Lost. Melancholy.
My husband put it best. “This is a place that time left behind.”
Note: Swan Island has a fascinating history and you can read more about it here. There are stories of Abenaki princesses, visits from Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr, drownings, kidnappings, and then the more routine ice harvesting, ship building and farming.
I was particularly fascinated by the tale of one island resident, Frances Noble, who in 1755, at about one year old, was kidnapped by the Indians (along with the rest of her family), and sold to a French couple in Montreal, Canada. She was adopted by them and raised as their daughter. When she was 13 years old, she was found by government agents and though she didn’t want to leave her Canadian parents, was returned to Swan Island. In her absence, her mother had died, and her father was now living in poverty. Frances eventually became a teacher. What a story!