Earliest records of the Old Orchard Beach area date back to 1653. The first settler, Thomas Rogers, established “Garden by the Sea “in 1657. A few years later ten militiamen repelled 150 attacking Indians near the beach, but a relief party of townspeople coming to support the malitiamen were killed in an ambush, and Roger’s home was burned.
The “old” apple orchard, from which the town took its name, a landmark to sailors for many years, was on high land above the long sand beach. In 1820 Maine, formally part of Massachusetts, became a State by act of Congress. In that same year the first Publick House (inn) was opened serving coach travelers and other transients year round. In 1837, E.C. Staples was coaxed into taking summer boarders at his farm for $1.50 per week. Convinced of Old Orchard Beach’s potential as a summer resort, Staples built the first Old Orchard Boarding House near the top of today’s Old Orchard Street.
1842 brought the first steam railroad from Boston to Portland with a station just 2 miles west of town. The first restaurant to sell seafood treats and “shore dinners” opened in 1851 near Staples Street. The Grand Trunk Railroad opened in 1853 connecting Montreal to Old Orchard Beach, enabling Canadian visitors to flock to this closest beach to Montreal and avoid the long carriage trip.
The Civil War began in 1861 followed by years of growth and building of homes, streets, stores, livery stables, and beachfront hotels. 1873 brought the Boston & Maine Railroad passing right through Old Orchard Beach and stopping on the site of today’s Chamber of Commerce. In that same year a group of Methodists formed the Old Orchard Campground Association. The Ocean Park Association built “The Temple” in 1881, and nationally known speakers were heard every Sunday all summer.
In 1892 electric trolley cars replaced horse cars to Biddeford and Saco. 1898 proved to be an unfortuitous year to complete the first Pier. Built of steel and measuring 1,770 feet long and 20 feet above the tides, their Pier was severely damaged in November of that same year. 1900 brought the first town hall and 1902 the first amusement area complete with roller skating, merry-go-round, rides, games, and refreshment stands. The Portland to Old Orchard Beach Electric Railway opened in 1903 where 14 miles of track were traveled in under one hour for $.20.
The great fire of 1907 destroyed the entire beachfront as firemen from Portland, Biddeford, and Saco rushed to the beach but struggled to contain the blaze, hampered by low water pressure. Rebuilding began at once, and one project “the standpipe” assured adequate water for all.
March 1909 brought another damaging storm destroying “White City” at the end of the Pier and reducing the Pier to 700 feet. An international auto race was held on the beach in 1910 with Dave Lewis winning the 100 mile race. The 1920’s and 30’s were the Big Band era. All the famous dance bands, Guy Lombardo, Rudy Valle, Duke Ellington, and more visited the Pier Casino each summer, and thousands danced over the waves under the revolving crystal ball.
Sparked by Lindbergh’s daring flight, many Trans-Atlantic flights took advantage of Old Orchard Beach’s long stretch of wide hard packed sand to attempt their own crossings. The storm of February 1978 almost demolished the Pier, and a new pier was immediately planned. Today’s Pier opened in June 1980.
Enjoy your Old Orchard Beach vacation this year as millions have for over 250 years!
Our thanks to the Old Orchard Beach Historical Society for their support in this brief history recap. Visit them at the Harmon Museum on Portland Avenue.