In the summer of 1912, the impoverished residents of Malaga Island were forcibly removed from their homes by the State of Maine. Lacking alternative living arrangements, their relocation was haphazard. Some found acceptable accommodations, others moved their tiny homes onto rafts, a few wandered, and a handful were deemed mentally unfit and placed in the Maine School for Feeble Minded.
A mixed race community, their odyssey began about a half century earlier when Henry and Fatima Darling Griffin are believed to have moved there. In the ensuing years, the fishing community located on the rugged 41 acre island situated at the mouth of New Meadows River in Casco Bay grew to about fifty. Racial issues and extreme poverty undoubtedly contributed to their problems, but they had an underlying legal dilemma. The island was owned by Eli Perry; technically they were squatters without title to the land. For reasons that are unclear and in dispute, the state purchased the island and evicted the unfortunate inhabitants.
No, I wasn’t around in the early 20th Century. I first learned about the disturbing history of Malaga from a Portland Sunday Telegram news article about thirty years ago. Curiosity motivated me to visit the island by kayak on several occasions beginning a few years later. My early explorations were largely unsatisfactory. While lobster traps were found stored on a shell beach on the northern end, the island was predominantly overgrown with a dense spruce forest and no conclusive signs of earlier habitation were identified.
Acquisition of the property by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust in 2001 has led to dramatic changes. A trail system has been established, the sites of former homes identified, and a kiosk provides information about the history of the people who lived there.
Recently, I scheduled a Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society (PPCS) sea kayak and hiking trip to Malaga. The adventure was jocularly referred to as a surf and turf. Within hours, three enthusiastic members volunteered to join me on the expedition. Not only do Chowderheads love all things outdoors, they’re also avid history buffs.
After considering several launching alternatives, I chose a boat landing at Bethel Point located at the end of a narrow peninsula a little west of Cundy’s Harbor to begin the excursion. My reasoning was selfish. I’d never paddled to Malaga from that location. An advantage of being a PPCS Trip Coordinator, you get to decide the whys and wherefores of the outing.
Partly sunny skies and light winds were forecast when four of us met at picturesque Bethel Point on a late summer day. Space is limited and a local business charges a small fee to park on their property. The narrow boat ramp faces substantial Yarmouth Island located a short distance south.
Cruising southerly through Ridley Cove in solo kayaks, seas were calm progressing towards West Cundy Point. Ominously, a fog bank could be observed approaching from the southeast. By the time the point was negotiated, the murky haze had engulfed us. Our next objective, nearby East Cundy Point, was barely visible.
I quickly took a bearing for the narrow channel between East Cundy Point and Rogue Island. Traversing the attenuated waterway, fog thickened entering outer New Meadows River. Our next objective, Bear Island was undetectable. My marine chart indicated the same course should bring us to the southern end of Bear Island. A twenty-five minute passage east in a whiteout delivered us on target.
Nearby Malaga parallels Bear Island on the east and a short paddle north brought us to the shell beach where a sign evidenced arrival at our destination. After changing footwear for the hike, several minutes were taken familiarizing ourselves with island history at the informative kiosk. A well-defined trail on rugged terrain meanders circuitously around the perimeter of the island passing salt marshes and a tiny pond. A spur path on the southern terminus led to a scenic ledge overlook that was our choice for a lunch spot. Returning north and completing the loop, numbered posts marked the sites of homes demolished a century ago.
Sanguine expectations that the fog would lift for our return were denied. Navigating across outer New Meadows River by compass was again necessary. This time we missed the mark passing just south of Rogue Island. Entering Ridley Cove, the fog finally dissipated providing clear views for the remainder of our voyage.
While a visit to Malaga is a somber one, when departing I invariably feel a sense of affinity for the destitute folks that once lived there.
Author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at email@example.com.