Maine: An Encyclopedia


Location Map for Wiscasset

Location Map for Wiscasset

Year Population
1970 2,244
1980 2,832
1990 3,339
2000 3,603
2010 3,732
Winthrop Population Chart 1790-2010

Population Trend 1790-2010

Geographic Data
N. Latitude 44:00:54
W. Latitude 69:41:20
Maine House District 87
Maine Senate District 13
Congress District 1
Area sq. mi. (total) 27.7
Area sq. mi. (land) 24.6
Population/sqmi (land) 151.7
County: Lincoln
Nickels-Sortwell House (2001)

Nickels-Sortwell House (2001)

Downtown Wiscasset (2001)

Downtown Wiscasset (2001)

[wiss-CASS-et] is a town in Lincoln County, incorporated on February 13, 1760 as the town of Pownalborough from the former Frankfort Plantation.

In 1605, explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived in Wiscasset and met with Native Americans. When the town was established, the Pownalborough Courthouse (in Dresden, once a part of Wiscasset) was built to serve the area. The fifteenth town chartered in Maine, it was named for Massachusetts Governor Thomas Pownall.

A census of “Pownal borough” in 1766 reported 114 families, 100 houses, 26 brick chimneys, and 639 inhabitants.

The name was changed to its Indian designation, Wiscasset, on June 10, 1802. Depending on the source, it means simply “the outlet” (Eckstorm) or “Comes out from but you don’t see where” (Bond).

One can hardly improve on the following account in Isaacson:

First visitor to the site was Samuel de Champlain who met with a group of “savages” July 5, 1605 and “gave them some cakes and peas with which they were greatly pleased.” The English began settling 40 years later, but fled during King Phillip’s War. After 1730, the seaport grew and life became “monstrous fine,” a visitor commented. In 1791 there were 35 square riggers owned here and often a man could walk across the harbor on the decks of ships lying at anchor. A handsome town was built during this era; some of the houses of those days are still in use. (p. 253)

Lincoln County Courthouse (2001)

Lincoln County Courthouse (2001)

First Congregational Church (2001)

First Congregational Church (2001)

The Lincoln County Courthouse above, completed in 1824, is the oldest in continuous use and its records are well preserved. Daniel Webster once haunted its chambers. It shares space on a hill overlooking the main street with the First Congregational Church. The steeple bell and weather vane on the church above were made by Paul Revere.

1811 Jail and Museum (2013)

1811 Jail and Museum (2013) @

Lincoln County Historical Association cares for the 1811 Jail and Museum, along with other historic properties in Wiscasset. The brick museum attached to the jail was once the jail keeper’s house.

Governor and judge Samuel E. Smith lived in the community and practiced law here beginning in 1812. Jeremiah Bailey was a resident here when he was elected to Congress in 1834.  Franklin Clark and John D. McCrate are two more members of Congress born here.

Civil War General Ellis Spear taught school in Wiscasset until he volunteered for the U.S. Army, later serving with Joshua Chamberlain as his second in command at Gettysburg.

Since 1918 Camp Chewonki has been offering outdoor programs on Chewonki Neck in Wiscasset. This film clip, now preserved at Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, illustrates camp activities in the 1940s.

Castle Tucker in Wiscasset (2012)

Castle Tucker on Lee Street in Wiscasset (2012)

Castle Tucker in Wiscasset (2012)

Castle Tucker overlooking the Sheepscot River (2012)

Wiscasset Public Library (2012)

Wiscasset Public Library (’12)

On June 20, 1925, two ships, including the USS Bowdoin commanded by explorer Donald MacMillan, left Wiscasset on what was known as “The Greenland Expedition of 1925.”  The plan was to use seaplanes to extend the area of exploration.  Richard Byrd and his three amphibious planes, sailed on the USS Peary, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Eugene F. McDonald.

According to  Raimund E. Goerler, “MacMillan established a tidal observatory station at Etah in northwestern Greenland, conducted important ornithological studies, and took the first natural color photographs in the Arctic. McDonald demonstrated that shortwave radio could be used in the Arctic for long-distance communication.”

Wiscasset Municipal Airport is a general aviation facility serving the Lincoln County area,

Administrative Building at Wiscasset Municipal Airport (2012)

Administrative Building at Wiscasset Municipal Airport

Sign at the Airport (2012)

Sign at the Airport (2012) @

Wiscasset Municipal Airport (2012)

Wiscasset Municipal Airport (2012)

Wiscasset Middle School on Route 218 (2013)

Wiscasset Middle School on Route 218 (2013) @

The town was once best known for it’s Maine Yankee Atomic Power plant, which generated much energy and controversy. No longer in operation, disputes over the disposition of its dangerous spent fuel continues.  This short video clip, at Northeast Historic Film, illustrates the tone of anti-nuclear power arguments made during one of several referendum elections on the issue in the 1980’s. Just close the new window tab to get back to the Encyclopedia.

Medal of HonorCongressional Medal of Honor winner:

Civil War


Form of Government: Town Meeting-Select Board-Manager.

More Videos!


Additional resources

Chase, Fannie Scott. Wiscasset in Pownalborough: A History of the Shire Town and the Salient Historical Features of the Territory between the Sheepscot and Kennebec Rivers. Wiscasset, Me. 1967. (Portland, Me. Anthoensen Press)

Dunsford, Allton. Wiscasset Maine. Published by the Wiscasset Public Library. 1988. [Maine State Library]

Goerler, Raimund E.  To the Pole:The Diary and Notebook of Richard E. Byrd, 1925-1927. Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State University Press. c1998.

Isaacson, Dorris. Maine: A Guide Downeast.

*Maine. Historic Preservation Commission. Augusta, Me.  Text and photo from National Register of Historic Places:,

Nickels-Sortwell House: 70000078.PDF
Wiscasset Historic District: 73000242.PDF
Wiscasset Jail and Museum: 70000054.PDF

Patterson, William D. Old Wiscasset: Historical Data. Augusta, Me. Augusta Press. 1951. [Maine State Library]

Patterson, William D. Wiscasset in Early Days: Historical Notes Pertaining to the Old Town on the Sheepscot River. Bath, Me. Printed by the Times Co.. c1929. [University of Maine, Raymond H. Fogler Library, Special Collections; Maine State Library]

Sheils, Peggy. “1811 Old Jail and Lincoln County Museum.” Maine Archives and Museums Newsletter. August, 2003. p. 17

National Register of Historic Places – Listings

HESPER and LUTHER LITTLE (wrecked schooners, demolished), Wiscasset waterfront off Water Street

Nickels-Sortwell House, National Historic Landmark

[Northeast corner of Main and Federal Streets] Built in 1807-08, the Nickels-Sortwell House is a splendid example of a large and elaborate frame town house designed in the Adamesque-Federal style. Captain William Nickels, a shipmaster, built this three-story residence. He died shortly thereafter and the house passed through many hands. It was used as a hotel from around 1820 to 1900, when it was acquired by Alvin F. Sortwell. The house was restored by Sortwell in 1917-18. In 1958 Miss Frances Sortwell deeded the mansion to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.* [See photo above left.]

Parsons, Josiah K., Homestead, Greenleaf Cove Road

Red Brick School, Warren Street

Scott, Capt. George, House, Federal Street

U.S. Customhouse (Old Customhouse) and Post Office, Water Street

Wiscasset Historic District

[roughly Parker, Dresden, Bradford, Main, and Federal Streets] Wiscasset is an authentic late 18th and 19th century sea and river port. Its growth is visible in its buildings that remain, as a whole, intact and are a type of field museum. The town is known for its historic setting and by its inclusion in many books about New England towns of note.

The boundaries of the Wiscasset Historic District have been drawn to encompass the historic village and its waterfront along the Sheepscot River. Among the many buildings in the district are Castle Tucker, the Old Jail, the Nickel-Sortwell House, and the Wiscasset Library. [See photos above.]

Wiscasset’s location overlooking a deep harbor, well protected from pirates and privateers, made her a logical place for shipping. The town grew from the waterfront back. The prosperous ended with the Embargo Acts and the War of 1812.  With the affluence occurring around 1800, grander homes were built. Today one sees those about the “rim” as a series of fires gutted the center of town.

Elegant House in the District (2012)Elegant House in the District (2012)

Equally important to the town are the homes that stretch out Federal Street, a true road of 19th century living changed by newer buildings. Wiscasset is proud of its heritage and strives to preserve its cultural and esthetic environment. Many of the present owners are descendants of the builders of these homes. The constant stream of tourists pausing before these houses reflects the importance of preserving Wiscasset’s best natural resource. *

Wiscasset Jail and Museum

[Maine Route 218] Lincoln County has built two jails since its formation in 1760 but neither was designed to hold prisoners for long terms. By 1807, the population had increased, the port towns were crowded with shipping and a great lumber industry had developed. The influx of seamen and woodsmen introduced an element of disorder new to the community. A small wooden jail was no longer adequate.


The new jail was completed in 1811 with granite walls from the Edgecomb quarries. Forty prisoners could be held in the twelve cells. Fire destroyed the jailer’s house and it was replaced in 1837 by the present brick house. In it the jailer’s wife prepared meals for prisoners and other inmates who at times numbered as many as fifty. Poor debtors, women prisoners, the sick and insane were quartered on the third floor of the jail and in the attic rooms of the jailer’s house. From 1811 until the State Prison was built in 1821, the Jail was the principal penitentiary in Maine.

In 1954 it was given to the Lincoln County Cultural and Historical Association with the stipulation that it be open to the public at least two months each year. The attached jailer’s house became a museum.* [See photo above.]

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