Downtown, Maine: Augusta
A travel series by Elizabeth Peavey
You know, when you go through life with a loser nickname — Stinky, Big Foot, Nuclear-Waste Breath (OK, not all nicknames are catchy) — it’s hard to shake it. Sure, you can get a nose job, marry a billionaire, and build an empire, but you’re still just Booger to those who knew you when.
So pity, then, the poor city of Augusta. Regardless of what it might try in ways of urban revival or renewal, it’s likely most Mainers will always refer to it by one name and one name only:
Yet that, my friends, is the very reason I chose it for this “Downtown, Maine” outing. The mission of this series is to prove you can have fun in any town in the state where one can walk, gawk, shop and drink. I have made the case for other towns — Biddeford-Saco, Lewiston-Auburn, Bath, Brunswick, Bridgton — so I was determined to do the same with our state capital.
At the onset, I realized we all need to adjust our thinking and open our minds to Augusta’s possibilities. Rather than picture it as the armpit (or other disparaging body part) of the state, it was time to regard it anew, starting with a fresh moniker. To do so, I first considered its most prominent feature: the great dome. (I am speaking of the State House, not the gubernatorial pate.) Secondly, I considered the mighty Kennebec that bisects the city and the terraced hills on which it’s built. And then there’s the confluence of culture, history and politics, all jumbled together in its state buildings. That’s when it dawned on me. A great dome, a famous river, a hilled city, a seat of history: Augusta is the Florence of Maine!
Next, I worked on a name that would help bring these two cities together in our thinking. While “Flogusta” had a certain bravado, it also smacked a bit of effluent. “Augflor,” “Encegua,” and “Florsta” didn’t quite cut it, either. I finally settled on “Augustence,” hoping it might call to mind the splendor and dignity of a capital city.
All that was left was to prove it.
I can’t say I wasn’t presented with challenges. I usually start research for these tours from the food-and-drink end. Many years of travel writing have taught me to locate a town’s best bar, and everything will gravitate out from there. But I couldn’t find anyone who could offer any dining or drinking recommendations for Augusta. One friend who works for the state suggested the cafeteria at the State House. Another, a journalist who has logged more hours in the capital than any of us care to count, asserted there is no reason to set foot in any other establishment when one is within a 50-mile radius of the Liberal Cup in Hallowell. And a former legislator I know said she used to simply bring her lunch.
The Web proved equally unhelpful. Most of the chat on Chowhound was praise for the new Slates, also in Hallowell, which was rebuilt after a fire destroyed this longstanding, popular eatery in 2007. The Kennebec Valley Chamber site lists 32 restaurant members in the area, the bulk of which are chains like Subway and Ruby Tuesday. A restaurant called Cloud 9 at the Senator Inn & Spa describes itself as “one of Maine’s most unique restaurants” — the kind of boast that makes me hit the accelerator when looking for a place to eat. I continued my online search, but when I got to the post that read, “The House of Pancakes has great lobster stew,” I knew I was on my own.
Not unlike Rome (while we’re on our Italian theme), all — or, at least, most — roads from Portland lead to Augusta. I-295 or I-95 will get you there in a little under an hour. Or, from 295 and Route 1, you can take Route 27 or Route 24, which hug the east and west banks of the Kennebec, respectively. Routes 9 (accessed from Presumpscot Street) and 201 (accessed from I-295 in Topsham) will both roll you through farm country. All the secondary roads are as pleasing as the interstates are dull, so the choice is up to you.
To begin our tour, find your way to downtown Augusta. I would like to be a little more specific and helpful here, but I can’t. Considering the numerous traffic circles, the two bridges spanning the east and west sides of the city, and the one-way main drag downtown, I’m afraid you’re on your own. The good news is that once you park your car, most of our tour will be on foot. (Also, watch where you park. Many of the lots require stickers.) Don’t worry if you get lost or trapped in a rotary. It will give you an opportunity to survey the terrain and regard the history surrounding you, and there’s much to see.
Located only 45 miles to open ocean, Augusta has a long history as a trading port. It was initially used by Native Americans, who named it “Cushnoc” (“head of the tide”), and then in the early 17th century by European settlers. After a 75-year pause in commerce for those pesky Indian wars and other conflicts, a booming river trade was born. Old Fort Western, America’s oldest surviving wooden garrison, was constructed in 1754 to protect those interests. The village, which included Hallowell and clearly lacked a marketing director, was thus named “the Fort.” In 1797, Massachusetts authorities approved separation of the two. The new town was first incorporated as Harrington, but residents, feeling that sounded too much like “herring town,” changed its name to Augusta. (Seems our capital’s name crisis is nothing new.)
Augusta was established as our state capital in 1827, and the impressive capitol building, designed by Charles Bulfinch, was completed in 1832. Augusta continued to thrive as a seaport well into the 1800s, with fleets of schooners sailing weekly between its docks and Boston. When the river trade tanked, it became — like so many other towns along Maine’s rivers — a textile and manufacturing center. And also like those towns, it took a big hit once those jobs moved overseas and the mills shut down. As if that wasn’t hurt enough, there was the problem of all those government types infiltrating the city, which should’ve made the townsfolk head for Fort Western and start shooting. Now, of course, it’s too late.
Once you’ve oriented yourself and parked, make your way to the trailhead of the Kennebec River Rail Trail, located at the south end of Water Street. (There is also a trailhead located at the YMCA.) This 6.5-mile trail parallels the Kennebec, providing great river vistas, including the spooky, Victorian-style Augusta Mental Health Institute compound on the opposite bank, as well as glimpses of the capitol dome to your west.
At the one-mile marker, you will come upon the Augusta Sanitary District Wastewater Treatment Facility (“Hail, Flogusta!”). Take a right on the path that leads up a steepish grade to the YMCA trailhead and to Capitol Park. There, you can survey the Vietnam Memorial and take in the full grandeur of the Maine State House, which is topped by a 15-foot statue, the “Lady of Wisdom,” who proves the trickle-down theory does not always hold. A keen eye (or a pair of binoculars) will reveal she holds a pine bough aloft like a torch in one hand and a pinecone in the other. We’ll be checking back with her later. Now it’s time to forge on.
Make your way down Capitol Street to Gage Street, which runs parallel to the trail and will take us back into Augusta’s downtown. While the trail itself is perfectly level, this street will give you a true sense of the steep inclines on which Augusta is built. Taking a neighborhood detour like this will also show you the city’s working-class roots and offer up an occasional surprise, like the vintage trailer home at 50 Gage St. colorfully bedecked and festooned as though it was sited in the hills of Santa Fe.
Returning to town, you’re going to be ready for refreshment. If it’s light fare you want, try Java Joe’s on Water Street. This bright and sunny café has big windows that will let you take in all the goings-on along Water Street while sampling breakfast items, soups, salads or sandwiches. And don’t forget to try a cup of their Carrabassett Coffee Company coffee, especially my favorite, the Backdraft roast.
Down the street, the Vickery Café also specializes in light fare, with an emphasis on baked goods. If you need a little more substance (and hooch), your best bet is the Riverfront Barbecue & Grille (formerly part of a Beale Street Barbeque trio that included joints in Bath and South Portland). Aptly housed in a one-time gin mill, this 1903 structure has been nicely restored with wooden booths and a cozy bar, as well as BBQ tchotchkes and Jazzfest photos by Portland photographer (and pal of mine) Jack Stepp. The Riverfront’s reliable Memphis-style barbecue and good selection of draft beers will refuel you after your walk.
Once you’re fed, you’ll be ready to take a look at the Riverfront District on Water Street, where, in 1860, a fire destroyed much of the downtown. Today, most of the buildings you see were built between 1860 and the 1920s, with 14 of them listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the massive and ultra-turreted 1890 Olde Federal Building. Farther down Water Street, you can stop at a viewing site to take a look across the river at Fort Western. I can honestly say that as many times as I’ve been to and through Augusta, I’d never noticed this F-Troop-looking fort tucked on the east bank before. Perhaps that’s because I’ve too often let my eyes dwell on this part of town’s tattoo parlors and video-game shops, vacant storefronts and businesses in transition (whether they were coming or going, I couldn’t always tell).
On this visit, however, I took a closer look at those businesses. A building permit was pasted in the window of China Town, a restaurant I was told by a recent Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors review offered “the best Chinese takeout in the state of Maine.” (Though that claim sounded dubious, I’d have been willing to give it a shot if it was still open.) The tall, kelly-green letters of a former Lamey Wellehan shoe store — whose footprint in the community dates back to the 1940s, and who ditched downtown for the Western Avenue strip — all but gaped above the empty storefront. And the beautiful ruins of the 1913 Colonial Theater stood like a bookmark at the northern end of town.
Yet, for those willing to look, there are signs of life. Things are bustling at the Children’s Discovery Museum in the Vickery Building. A provocative display of ridiculously uncomfortable-looking, racy lingerie and strappy stilettos liven up the window at the appropriately named ArchEnemies.
The most curious shop in Augusta (and perhaps in Maine) is a place called Cosmic Charlie’s. The sign aloft reads “Have You Ever Been Experienced?” and the sandwich board outside says the store will “make you feel like a kid in a candy store.” I suppose this would be true if you are a stoned, pierced-and-studded, tie-dyed, D&D-playing, S&M-loving kid. I’d never before seen so much hardware that one can poke, drive or clamp into one’s flesh. There’s a vast assortment of decorative skulls and dragons, acres of incense, cases of jewelry, reams of rock posters and racks of hippie dresses. And yet, this was probably the friendliest place I visited in all of Augusta. Charlie himself (the eponymous pooch) raced out to welcome me. The inked and studded clerks behind the counter also gave me a warm greeting. I wandered through the two large rooms, where a mother and teen daughter shopped together for that special something. (What, a first nose ring? Some Wiccan wear?) A woman with sunglasses shoved back into her blonde bob perused the cases as though she was browsing at Talbot’s. On my way out, I noticed a big box of frosted cupcakes by the door with a sign that read: “Try one. They’re good!”
As pleasant as it would have been to tarry and further examine the navel-, nipple- and nostril-wear, no trip to Augusta would be complete without a visit to the bureaucratic side of town. Those who might need a cup of courage before facing the inner workings of Maine’s political process — and who wouldn’t? — might stop at Bridge Street Tavern on the way. Bridge Street (the road, not the bar) will bring you from Water to State Street, where most of the government buildings are clustered. If you happen to be in town midweek, tours are offered at the Blaine House (a.k.a. the governor’s crib) between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday. But for those on the move, a quick stop at the Maine State House is next. Park around the back, but make sure not to take Hannah Pingree’s or John Martin’s spot. (There are special areas for pol parking, with proper plates required; us prols must head to the rear.) As you approach the entrance, brace yourself for the click-clack of women in heels, the sight of local TV reporters primping for the camera, and the hushed tones of deal-making going on.
Once you elbow by all the puffed-up politicos (maybe “‘Gusty” would be a more apt nickname for this city), the Capitol Building merits a quick tour. If you visit before the end of April, you’ll be treated to an exhibit of mostly recent paintings by renowned Maine landscape artist (and pal of mine) Dennis Pinette. As you wander upstairs, note how the governor’s office is tucked under the first-floor staircase, like a janitor’s closet. (Fill in your own political crack here, I’m running out of steam.) Also make sure to take a moment to step out onto the upper-story veranda that overlooks Capitol Park, the city and the river that lie beyond. Or, if you want a true feeling of Augustence, gaze up into that magnificent dome and try to will a little wisdom down from Our Lady above.
The last stop on the tour is next door at the Maine State Museum, a true highlight for anyone who has even the slightest interest in the state’s history. From a depiction of a Paleo-Indian meat cache to a 1960s-era rec room, it’s all here: natural history (read: stuffed animals); exhibits dedicated to manufacturing, fishing, farming and logging, among other Maine industries; and old rocks. Lots of old rocks.
(Warning: Do not visit the exhibit “12,000 Years in Maine” with someone who has a degree in Anthropology and Archeology — even if you’re married to him — unless you want to hear the background on every pottery shard and arrowhead in the collection.)
Most entertaining is the museum’s new exhibit, “At Home in Maine,” which features junk from Maine houses (or “domestic artifacts,” in museum-speak) from the past two centuries. You can see a 1940s summer kitchen, poke through a realistic attic (replete with creaky floorboards) and push a button that will activate the sound of an early toilet flush — the perfect antidote to looking at all those rocks.
Another effective antidote: a craft-brewed beer at the aforementioned (and excellent) Liberal Cup in Hallowell on your way out of town. This dark, English-style pub has a welcoming bar and lounge, as well as a full dining room. The grub is pub-style and plentiful, and their beer can’t be beat. You will be just as happy at the cozy bar at Slates or at the first-rate A-1 Diner in Gardener.
But if you really want to cap off your tour, it turns out I can recommend a stop at Cloud 9, after all. Its massive dining room is, indeed, unique, as it features towering banquettes at one end (think of a place Joan Crawford would take her young daughter for a rare beefsteak) and a standard-looking hotel dining room at the other. The place is absolutely packed at lunch. And the bar — decorated with a faux library motif on one wall and framed Moulin Rouge prints on the other — is inviting, even if you’re not bedding down here for the night.
Which we are not. Because contrary to my journalist friend’s opinion, the best place for a Portlander to go within a 50 (ish)-mile radius of the Liberal Cup is, in the end, home.