Introduction Biography Selected Works History of Gardiner Location Map Bibliography

Robinson in the Context of the History of Gardiner, Maine
by Danny D. Smith,
Chairman, Special Collections Committee,
Gardiner Library Association

Dr. Silvester Gardiner (1708–1786) acquired choice land at the confluence of the Cobbossee Stream and Kennebec River in 1754 from a Boston-based land company known as the Kennebec Proprietors. In his dividend from the company, he acquired the last mile of the stream that drops 130 feet, sites for eight dams to provide water power for saw and grist mills. These mills drew business from a fifty-mile radius. Starting in 1754 settlers built along the lower stream at the heart of the present commercial district. The American Revolution abruptly halted the prosperity of Gardinerstown. Dr. Gardiner, a Loyalist, fled to England and left behind his substantial holdings, including this settlement of 600 people. Renamed Pittston, after a more patriotic company investor, the town deteriorated. After the war, General Henry Dearborn, who had passed through this area during the Arnold Expedition to Quebec in 1775, re-established the community.

Dr. Gardiner’s land holdings were held in trust for his grandson Robert Hallowell until 1803 when the grandson came of legal age and changed his surname to Gardiner as required by his grandfather’s will. Robert Hallowell Gardiner transformed the frontier outpost into a thriving industrial and commercial center. He began to sell lots to settlers in 1808 when the Solomon Adams Survey was completed. He repaired mills and dams, built stores, and established the Gardiner Savings Bank. He gave the community Christ Church, the Common, and the Lyceum, the first industrial arts school in the nation. He became the first mayor when the town received its city charter in 1849.

The community developed socially and commercially in the nineteenth century. Gardiner’s location at the head of deep water navigation made the city a busy port for transportation and trade. Steamboats arrived for the first time in 1818, and for more than a century, steamboats such as the Star of the East and the Della Collins (Dean Robinson once had been engaged to marry Della Collins) connected the city to Boothbay, Boston, and New York. Shipbuilding began in the 1700s, and four local shipyards turned out nearly four hundred vessels. Between Bath and Augusta, forty-six ice houses stood along the Kennebec. Each year men harvested more than a million tons of this “frozen gold” which schooners transported to Boston, New York, and around the world. Robinson, one winter, served as a time keeper for one of the ice houses.

The nineteeth century was rich in cadastral Maps showing property owners. This section of Gardiner called "Village Plan No. 1" appeared in H.E. Halfpenny, Atlas of Kennebec County, Maine (Philidelphia:Caldwell & Halfpeny, 1879) when Robinson was ten years old. Several of the landmarks listed in this website appear on that section of Water Street and Main[e] Street (now Avenue) skirting the two sides of the Mill Pond, later filled in. It is now the parking lot for Hannaford's Grocery.

Gardiner was a center of industry. Cobbossee Stream with its eight dams was the location of many industries, including the manufacture of wood products, shoes, paper, clothing, and tools. Gardiner Pottery opened in 1853 and operated for fifty-three years making durable containers and utensils. By 1892 Joshua Gray’s mill was exporting eight million broom handles annually. A mill-pond at the mouth of the Cobbossee stockpiled thousands of logs from northern Maine forests headed for Gardiner’s sawmills. In 1851 the first train arrived in Gardiner. The trains slowly displaced river transportation, but they also brought a new flow of goods and people to Gardiner. A twenty-four-inch narrow gauge railroad, the Kennebec Central, ran from Randolph to the Veterans Home at Togus, and trolley cars carried passengers to Bath, Lewiston, Auburn, or Waterville. At one time as many as twenty-six trains passed through Gardiner daily.

This is the view that Robinson and fellow members of the Quadruped Club would have seen from the window of the room they rented. Here at the site of Dam No. 1 near Bridge Street., mills flourished from 1754 to 1917 when a flood washed the dam out. It was never rebuilt. As shown in this 1870s view, logs cut on the headwaters of the Kennebec were floated downriver and diverted to the mill pond at the mouth of Cobbossee Stream. By the late 1840s, a causeway, now the stretch of Maine Avenue opposite Hannaford, was in place for the railroad, and a system of locks held the water here to transport lots to the thirty-odd factories on Bridge Street, which manufactured them into diverse products.

The community of Gardiner known to Edwin Arlington Robinson at the end of the nineteenth century had rapidly emerged from wilderness to a thriving industrial, commercial, and transportation center. Adjacent to the Kennebec River and Cobbossee Street grew Water Street, a flourishing business district of stores and offices, including Dean Robinson’s pharmacy and three banks in which Edward Robinson invested. Around the corner at Church Street and Maine Avenue trains took on passengers and freight, and horse-drawn carriages crossed the Kennebec via the covered Gardiner-Randolph bridge. In 1896 two sawmills turned out 60 million board feet a year. In this context, Robinson lamented that the only important things that mattered to Gardiner folk were voting the Republican ticket and holding a steady job.

Robinson grew up amid the workings of a busy industrial town and would have noticed, at the turn of the century, the fading of the ice industry and the advent of outside interests buying up stores and factories. After 1900 the lumber business rapidly declined, and the predominant industries in Gardiner were paper and shoe factories. The railroad replaced the river as the primary means of transportation.

“Village Plan No. 2” from H.E. Halfpenny’s 1879 atlas shows the property owners whom Robinson knew intimately on Lincoln and Dresden Streets (now Avenues). Note Oak Grove Cemetery, Capt. Jordan, E. Robinson, J.L. Schumann, I.G. Vannah, the Common, and the High School. Many other residents named in several Robinson biographies appear on this map.

Although Gardiner was populated principally by the working class whose values and attitudes are portrayed in the poet’s Tilbury Town characters such as Reuben Bright, John Everldown, Isaac, and Archibald, the city also had the reputation as one of the leading literary centers in the state. Setting the stage for Robinson was the Gardiner family and the guests they brought to Oaklands of national significance, many of whom were accomplished scholars. Dr. Gertrude Heath, Dr. Alanson Tucker Schumann, Caroline Swan, Judge Henry Webster, and others formed a circle of local writers who inspired one another. Most importantly, Laura E. Richards brought national attention to the community with her own literary accomplishments. Her mother Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” always excited attention during her twice-yearly visits to Gardiner in May (close to Julia's birthday on the 27th) and in November for Thanksgiving from 1876 to 1910. Mrs. Richards was a civic leader who inspired a small band of activists to establish the Gardiner Public Library in 1881, the second earliest public library in the state. This is the community that Robinson knew during his formative years. Today Gardiner has preserved its historic downtown, the library, a revitalized performing arts center at Johnson Hall, the Common, and many well-kept houses. This bedroom community of 7,000 citizens maintains close ties with the surrounding towns of Farmingdale, Pittston, Randolph, West Gardiner, and Litchfield.

Today Gardiner is undergoing an economic revival that is detailed in the city’s new website Gardiner was chosen in October 2001 as one of the four original Main Street Maine communities. See its website: The Gardiner schools are part of Maine School Administrative District #11. See their website

A Virtual Tour of Robinson's Gardiner, Maine

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This website is maintained by the Gardiner Public Library
152 Water Street, Gardiner, Maine 04345, and the Gardiner Library Association.

This website is sponsored by the Kennebec-Chaudière Heritage Commission and Maine Humanities Council, the J. W. Robinson Welfare Trust Fund, the Gardiner Library Association, and the Gardiner Board of Trade.

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