Downtown, Maine: Biddeford-Saco
A travel series by Elizabeth Peavey
Ah, Biddeford-Saco in Mud Season…
OK, so it ain’t April in Paris, but still, the notion has appeal. Biddeford-Saco is close to Portland, and we should all learn something about our neighbors. Despite their proximity to us, these twin cities are fairly mysterious. Most Portlanders know at least something about Gorham (USM). We know Scarborough (sprawl). We know Westbrook (Sappi). We know Old Orchard Beach (dive bars and bumper cars). But Biddeford-Saco is largely unknown territory, save for the errant lone soul I encountered in my pre-trip research who confessed to misspending part of his youth on Alfred Street in Biddeford. (Someone would admit to that?)
Though these two towns are considered twin cities, they have about as much in common as — well, I can’t think of any twins to compare them to (the Olsens? The Bushes?), but how about another pair of famous siblings, Eddie Munster and his sister, Marilyn? One’s upright and good-looking; the other’s kind of scary, but fun. (I ran this comparison by my husband, John, who is my pop-culture guru, and he reminded me that Marilyn and Eddie were cousins, but I think you get the idea.)
The point is, calling these two towns “twins” is not really fair. Perhaps tellingly, it seems the only businesses latching on to that moniker — Twin City Auto Crushing, Twin City Hair Removal — are on the Biddeford side of the Saco River.
It is the river that both cleaves and binds these two cities. As was the genesis of so many industrial towns in Maine, the falls first attracted natives, then settlers, then more natives and settlers. Unpleasantness ensued. By the 18th century, a permanent white settlement was established under the aegis of Sir William Pepperell, whose name you will still see on everything from a town square to an outlet store. Saco was once known as Pepperrellborough, until residents decided the name was too unruly and reverted back to the earlier and pithier name of Saco.
The 19th century saw massive industrial development, with mills clustered around the falls, along the river and on the island plunked in its center: formerly York or Factory Island, and now Saco Island. Workers’ homes sprung up on the Biddeford side and owners’ manses on the Saco side. The high demand for labor in the late 19th century lured a huge influx of workers from Quebec and Europe, which explains the area’s Franco-American heritage and the preponderance of
As the industrial boom began its decline, mills closed, storefronts emptied and both towns got a little, well, fatigué. Today, however, a major revitalization is underway. The massive brick mill buildings are being converted into office, studio and commercial spaces, as well as condos. (Chamber-of-commerce types hail this as a good thing; I still prefer the beautiful ruin of derelict buildings.) Saco is in the midst of a green revolution, with a new, wholly sustainable train station slated to open later this year on Saco Island (the wind turbine went up this past February) and other eco-friendly advances. And while downtown Biddeford may still be a little scruffy, it’s hoppin’ with an influx of artists, students from the nearby University of New England, and travelers who can’t find their way out of the city’s tangle of streets.
There are three primary ways to arrive at our destination from Portland: via I-95 (and remember, when you travel a la Peavey, you avoid highways and toll roads at all costs), Route 1, or Route 9.
Route 1 often dishes up scenic vistas, authentic Main Streets, and kitsch on its way through our state, but don’t waste your brake fluid on this particular stretch. In Saco, it consists of what could be termed “Auto Row” — an endless wasteland of car dealerships — followed by “Tourist Row.” While I like the motels and cabins, the campsites and water parks, there’s not much else to distinguish this section of road.
Instead, take I-295 to the Scarborough exit and jump on Route 1 South just long enough to pass through what I call “Patriot’s Row” (you’ll see an American flag planted in the middle of Scarborough Marsh — probably smack dab in an Eastern Bittern’s nesting ground — and a much larger version luffing above Anjon’s Italian Restaurant). You will arrive at Dunstan Corner and take your second left onto Route 9, which takes you past expansive views of the marsh.
After passing through a residential area, you’ll see the Clambake restaurant on your left and then the ocean will appear before you. Hang a right and head through Old Orchard Beach, which, this time of year, is largely boarded up. The quiet beauty of this off-season beach town — the shuttered storefronts, the darkened neon, the empty sidewalks, the tarp-covered Tilt-A-Whirl — just breaks my heart. (I am not kidding. If it does not also break your heart, then perhaps you are on the wrong tour. Perhaps you would do better to quit our company now and jump on the turnpike and head for the nearest Red Lobster all-you-can-eat sea-legs buffet.)
Still with me? Good. Let’s move on.
From OOB, Route 9 rolls through Ocean Park. Established in the late 19th century as a religious summer community, these days Ocean Park hosts a number of Chautauqua-type events during the season. Wedged between marsh and ocean, you’ll pass Ferry Beach State Park and progress to Camp Ellis. This is a worthy detour, if only to examine what happens when Mother Nature decides she wants back what man has claimed his own. Camp Ellis’ stretch of oceanfront is routinely battered and washed away by storm-tossed surf, most violently of late by last year’s Patriots’ Day storm. But it’s also a quaint fishing village, and the off-season is probably the only time you’ll find a parking space, so you might as well have a gander. Wormwood’s Restaurant — a locally owned, family-friendly fish house — is a longtime favorite of both year-round and summer residents.
Heading back toward Saco on 9, you’ll pass the stately Laurel Hill Cemetery before arriving in town, where you’ll take a left onto Route 1 (Main Street). We’re going to bypass Saco proper for the moment and progress directly to the Amtrak parking lot on Saco Island (just aim for the turbine). The knoll atop the island is the perfect place to get your bearings before setting out.
To your east lies the flat, straight line of Main Street, with its nice shops and historic buildings. To the west, you can’t help but first notice the smokestack of the Maine Energy Recovery Company, a trash-to-energy plant across the river in downtown Biddeford. But there’s also the gold dome of Biddeford City Hall, and spires of churches can be seen jutting up above the jumbled and hilly terrain. The best views are through the blasted-out, arching windows of the old factory on the island — each frames its own picture. As you probably guessed, this scene breaks my heart, too.
From here, John and I took Main Street west toward Biddeford as it spirals down past the falls. At the bottom of the hill, we decided to take a quick right into a parking lot before getting caught up in downtown Biddeford. It was a lucky whim, because it brought us to explore North Dam Mill, an enormous, rambling structure in a partial state of rehab. In the parking lot, we passed a man in orange trousers who looked disheveled, in an arty sort of way, which I took as a good sign. Sure enough, on the first floor, we found a nicely renovated kitchen cabinet-and-woodworking showroom, lots of artist studios (the smell of today’s turpentine and yesteryear’s must and dust pervades the air; piped-in classical music eerily resonates through the walkways), and an auction hall, where we, along with numerous other browsers, poked around, looking at old junk.
We also found a great little restaurant, Union House Café, that smelled of strong coffee and other tempting food aromas. Tin ceiling tiles line the front counter; high windows and brick walls soar. This would be a great place for a light breakfast, lunch or snack. There’s also beer and wine — always a plus, even at 10 a.m. But we chose to forge on and explore.
As we wandered down the halls, we found an old scale built into the floor and hopped on. (A brief dispute ensued as to whether it was 10 or 15 pounds off, or absolutely correct.) I stopped to use the public loo — a rather decrepit affair, with its chipped paint, ancient stalls and exposed pipes — which also broke my heart, but not in a good way. As I rushed to wash my hands, I could almost hear the factory whistle blowing. “Break’s over. Back to work, Peavey!”
The illusion continued as John and I ascended a winding stairway painted various shades of insane-asylum green. My hand glided over the thick metal railing, worn smooth from years of factory girls’ hands doing the same. (“Step lively, Peavey, or your pay’ll be docked!”) There was no sign prohibiting us from going up the stairs, but it still felt a little like trespassing. On each of the four floors, there was a landing. And on each landing, there was a collection of fire gear and warnings posted outside the giant factory rooms, closed off by heavy fire doors. We heaved the doors on the fourth floor open, and I felt a rush of wind. It wasn’t hard to imagine how quickly fire could take down one of these behemoths; hence, all the precautions. John went in to look around. I was going to join him, but was afraid the doors would somehow slam shut and lock behind us, forcing us to climb out one of the windows and scale down the outside of the building. (ok, maybe I watched too many tv movies as a kid.) When I tried to prop the doors open with my reporter’s notebook, they almost severed the thing in half. I opted to wait on the landing.
The next stop was downtown Biddeford. As I have forewarned you, like many factory towns in the state — Lewiston/Auburn, Rumford and Skowhegan come to mind — the streets are laid out to encourage utter chaos. I will promise this: you will get lost and you will be disoriented, so I advise that you stay in your car for a few turns around town, just until you have your feet under you.
Continue on Main Street, bearing right where Main meets Alfred. Go up to the junction of Route 1 (Elm Street), take a left onto Elm, and then continue to take a series of lefts until you find your way back to Main Street. You need to make the circle four or five times to get the lay of downtown Biddeford. While doing so, you’ll observe the usual assortment of empty storefronts, tattoo parlors and government offices, but note that there are also art galleries and art supply shops, the historic Biddeford Theatre and loads of ethnic restaurants — sushi, Thai, Vietnamese, a New York-style deli; even Irish cuisine (Irish cuisine?), at Wonderbar Restaurant, tucked away on Washington Street. Each time you pass the Club Voltigeur (social club) sign on Route 1 that reads “Et porqouis pas?” remind yourself that’s the right attitude to have on your adventure. By the time you’ve made yourself dizzy, you’re ready to park and get out of the car.
Start at the nexus of Main and Alfred streets. My aforementioned friend who confessed to misspending his youth here told me The Jewel of India on Alfred Street has the best Indian food in Maine, though that’s like saying a place named the Jewel of Rockland has the best lobster roll in Mumbai. Across the street, Wiggle Weigle’s Books is housed in an 1870s-era Odd Fellows Lodge. It’s open and airy, with soaring windows, tidy shelves, stacks of books and helpful staff.
Around the corner, on Main, ata Martial Arts spans a huge storefront, with its glittering lineup of karate trophies, arranged according to color, standing along the giant plate-glass window. As we passed, a pint-sized meme wearing a rain bonnet to cover her extravagant bouffant stood admiring the display, perhaps looking for a grandchild’s name or getting ready to throw a couple chops herself. Nearby Bebe’s Burritos is also reported to have bueno grub, and the interior is certainly festive enough, with all sorts of Mexican doodads festooning the place. Although the gringo beer selection is spare, it’s surely worth a stop for a pop and a bite.
Across the street, Anytime Antiques has three floors of treasures and trash. It’s apparently a Biddeford social hub. We found the place busy with regulars checking out the ever-changing inventory. “She does such nice work,” exclaimed one woman to her husband, as she examined a painting on a piece of wood. Another customer stopped in to see if there had been any reduction in the price of a leather jacket. John found an old camp stove for $5 that looked like it had been used in WW II. I was afraid it would come home with us. (It did not.) I bought a Spode china bowl for $6 that matched a friend’s set.
Tucked behind the shop on an alley-like side street is the Palace Diner, a Worcester-style diner with a bright-red façade on which is painted this welcoming greeting: “Ladies Invited” (some places were considered too rough for the gentler sex back in the old days). The Palace has been a Biddeford mainstay since the 1920s. There’s nothing fancy here: breakfast burritos and standard diner fare — steak and eggs, franks and beans — at diner prices. But the counter lined with swivel stools, the mint-green interior tile, and the hours posted in French were inviting. Alas, the crew, a note said, was at the Camden Snow Bowl for the day. Quelle dommage.
Perhaps the most arresting and intriguing sight on our tour was on Lincoln Street, where the clock tower from one of the mill buildings was sitting on the ground, guts gone, the hands stopped at five o’clock. (It’s always happy hour in Biddeford.)
Speaking of time, it was time we shoved back across the river. To complete our loop, you should return to Saco via Route 1 (Elm Street). There are nice river views as you cross the bridge, and once you do, take a right to get yourself back to Main Street. Park anywhere (most street spaces are good for two hours) and prepare to walk.
The city’s Web site (sacomaine.org) offers an excellent historic walking tour of downtown Saco (click on “City History” in the “Community” section of the site). It provides just enough information to keep you interested in the architecture, without getting too deep into the cornice- and buttress-speak.
I’ll give you the highlights in a north-to-south loop in a moment, but first, a stop. No trip to Saco is complete without a hotdog or burger at Rapid Ray’s. Ray’s has been an institution here since Renald “Ray” Camire began selling burgers out of a bread truck in 1953. A mere $1.60 will get you a steaming dog you can wolf down right on the spot (there are no seats; you’ll have to stand) as you examine the collage of photos from Ray’s illustrious history.
If you have hotdog bun lodged in your throat, you can purchase something to slake your thirst at Vic & Whit’s: “Victualers satisfying taste buds since 1972.” And you may want to squirrel away a bottle from the fine wine selection for later. Owned by a former mayor of Saco, the business is expanding into a defunct shoe repair shop next door, doubling its space. If you want to know anything about Saco (especially its green revolution), this is the place to stop.
Heading north, you’ll pass Saco & Biddeford Savings Institution (note scalloping around the roof) and the 1927 Mutual Theatre. You’ll also pass the Saco City Hall, built in 1855; the former Dyer Library, circa 1893; and the Emma Hull House, a gorgeous, albeit somewhat rundown, Queen Anne-style manse with all sorts of Victorian flourishes. From here, cross over and hike up to the Saco Museum, one of the oldest museums in Maine. This John Calvin Stevens–designed building looks like a house, but it was never lived in. We got to see a Federal bedroom, a Victorian bedroom, a photographic display featuring Martin Luther King and some portraits of local elders. The best stash was in the basement, where we discovered archeological specimens (something for him: “Looky here, a thousand-year-old clump of dirt!”) and aged stuffed birds (something for her: “Looky here, a mislabeled woodcock!”).
By then we were ready for a late lunch, so we headed back to Pepperell Square, where we could’ve opted for light fare at the Blue Elephant. Instead, we settled at Mia’s, a quiet and cozy bistro, where we lunched on a tasty endive-and-pear salad, a Peaky toe and Jarlseberg crab melt, and a couple Pilsner Urquells. Refreshed, we were about to wind things down.
That is, until I noticed some very sparkly water views just on the other side of Mia’s. As we chased those views down Front Street, we passed under a railroad trestle and found a tiny park on our right, Cataract Park. It turned out this was also the start of Saco’s Riverwalk Trail. A hand-drawn trailhead map offered directions to the excellent falls and river views. As I watched the light glint off the ripples in the river and thought of these two great hulking towns behind me, I could feel my eyes widen and my brain start whirring.
“No,” John said, as he swiftly turned and ushered me back to the car. “We are not moving here.”