What happened nearly 70 years ago on Little Chebeague Island is hard for us to imagine today: a quiet summer colony on an 86-acre island in Casco Bay that included the site of a summer hotel and farmed fields, suddenly taken over by the federal government for the use of the U.S. Navy.
But around that time, in fact, such things happened in many places; in 1943 the United States was in the midst of World War II, and much of its North Atlantic fleet was based in Casco Bay.  Portland and the surrounding communities were on a war footing.

So the Navy’s decision to take over Little Chebeague and turn it into a recreation and training center wasn’t all that surprising. Nearby Long Island was already the site of a tank farm and refueling depot. Anti-submarine chains stretched across entrances and narrow passages between islands and mainland; shipyards in South Portland operated around the clock; observation towers and gun emplacements sprouted on islands and peninsulas to protect the bay from enemy attack.

“Little Chebeague has a not-unusual history for a Maine Island,” notes Erno Bonebakker of Portland, who is managing a revitalization project on the long-neglected island, which has been an “unimproved” state park since the 1970s.

Bonebakker’s connection to Little Chebeague is through the Maine Island Trail Association (MITA), which began maintaining trails and campsites on the island as part of its Maine Island Trail back in the 1990s. MITA’s approach, as on other islands, is to provide supervised volunteers who educate the public, clean campsites, cut brush and perform other chores on islands that may be state-owned or private. Little Chebeague, which lies within the towns of Chebeague and Long Island, is on the trail and gets fairly heavy use by recreational boaters because it’s close to Portland. It also has popular beaches.

This summer’s revitalization project was funded by a $20,000 recreational trails grant from the state Department of Conservation. The money is being used to pay for equipment for restoration (including a brush hog that traveled to the island on a small boat), as well as maintenance, labor and materials for the project. Priorities this summer are re-clearing historic fields, opening trails and controlling invasive plants such as bittersweet, a vine that can kill large trees. A longer-range MITA goal, not yet funded, is creating on ongoing system for maintaining the island as a recreational resource for Casco Bay.

In the 19th century Little Chebeague was used for pasturing livestock and farmed, likely producing fresh produce for the Portland market. Summer hotels were built there in the years after the Civil War, followed by a dozen or so private cottages.  Like other islands all along the Maine coast, Little Chebeague was cleared of its original forest by the early 1800s and most of it remained so until the Navy left after World War II. Today much of the island is forested or at least overgrown. The few remaining cottages are in poor condition, but there are no current plans, Bonebakker says, to deal with them.

The Navy built and maintained ball fields, a bowling alley, boxing rings and a skeet range on the island. “Hundreds of sailors at a time enjoyed lobster dinners before sailing off to escort convoys across the Atlantic,” states a “Welcome to Chebeague” brochure that’s distributed to visitors.

One bit of island history, unaffected by this summer’s projects, is a metal former Navy building that was designed to train firefighters. “Everybody who served in the Navy or Coast Guard remembers going through this program-there are similar buildings everywhere,” says Bonebakker, himself a Coast Guard veteran who received his firefighting training in an identical building in Japan. He recalls “nasty old chief petty officers who taught shipboard firefighting of oil fires with water.” Like its counterparts worldwide, the building on Little Chebeague contained a mockup of shipboard engine room space and included chimneys, dampers, ship’s doors and gratings. It still stands on the island’s East Beach.

Informing users of the island’s history is one focus of the MITA project.  “Interpretive signage will be revised and renewed,” the brochure tells visitors. The signs and brochure-as well as this summer’s trail and field clearing – build on the work of Richard Innes, a volunteer who researched the island’s history and helped to maintain the island the 1990s until 2006. Innes wrote an island history for Little Chebeague, covering the years 1874 until 2002.

In addition to his book, Innes left definite fingerprints on the island: he spearheaded maintenance for many years, and in 2008, already in his 90s, he set down his thoughts about the place for the Oceanside Conservation Land Trust. “To attract enough visitors to justify development,” he wrote, “there must be a sufficiently robust package of attractions.” He then suggested mounting “various commemorative displays” relating to the history of the Casco Bay islands, encouraging the development of access by a steamboat or a steamboat-simulating ferry, and a covered facility for clambakes.  Except for the signage, which is a part of this summer’s project, none of these ideas has yet been developed. But in his 2008 report, Innes noted that rising fuel prices “may produce some regression from auto-based tourism to other alternatives like rail travel and ones somewhat similar to the century-ago popularity of boating to the islands.”

Alternate futures for Little Chebeague, in other words-Innes urged planners to consider them as they contemplated the island’s next half-century.

“I began pestering MITA to do something on the island after Dick Innes stopped working there,” says Bonebakker. Other groups have joined the effort: Rippleffect, an outdoor learning organization that operates a summer program on next-door Cow Island; Portland Trails; Maine Audubon and the two land trusts in the area.

Rippleffect’s involvement is through its Cow Island Conservation Corps, a program it operates on an island so named a short distance from Little Chebeague. High school students taking part in four-week internships this summer will spend one of their weeks on Little Chebeague. While they don’t run machinery, according to Cow Island youth program Director Leah McDonald, they are clearing trails on Little Chebeague. “Kids apply for this internship,” she said, explaining that most are students with an interest in environmental advocacy and stewardship. Twelve students are working on Cow and Little Chebeague this summer. In addition, a small number of students participating in the Cow Island Youth Leadership Summit – another Rippleffect program – “give back” three days of community service, including one on Little Chebeague.

In the future, Bonebakker said, he’s interested in “accessing the community of boaters” that use the island. Little Chebeague’s history with mariners, extending back to the farmers and rusticators of the 19th century, through the Navy and its wartime sailors and up to the present, is a long and varied one. That history is something to understand and savor, and this summer’s restoration program is clearly a start.

 David D. Platt is former editor of The Working Waterfront.