The dead can’t talk, it’s true, but luckily here in Portland there are some dedicated folks willing to talk for them.
And about them.
Portland has a legion of enthusiastic cemetery volunteers who spend hours trying to unearth information about the prominent folks buried here. Then they share those stories by conducting historic cemetery tours.
With Halloween around the corner, cemeteries are a hot topic. But really any time is a great time to take a guided cemetery tour in Portland and see the final resting spots of people like prohibition pioneer Neal Dow or former U.S. Sen. William Pitt Fessenden, who has three Portland streets named for him. (William, Pitt and Fessenden, all near the University of Southern Maine.)
During October, there will be more than 20 individual tours scheduled at Portland cemeteries. Most are at the sprawling, park-like Evergreen Cemetery in the Deering Center neighborhood, and at the historic Eastern Cemetery in Portland’s East End. There are also tours this month at the Stroudwater Burying Ground, off outer Congress Street.
Here, then, is a list of some of the cemetery tours scheduled in Portland in October, sorted by cemetery:
672 Stevens Ave., Portland. Free. friendsofevergreen.org
Noon Thursday: The Wreck of the Otraska tour tells the story of the lives and deaths of the crew of the Otraska, a fishing vessel that went down in a sudden squall in October 1861. Six of the seven young men aboard the Portland ship were lost at sea.
10:30 a.m. Saturday: On the new Eastern Avenue tour, volunteer docents point out the materials used in various graves and markers, as well as the artwork and designs and the thought behind them.
2 p.m. Sunday: The Portland Rum Riot tour takes visitors to the graves of prominent people involved in this famed 1855 event. According to Sue Devine, who leads this tour, the riot began outside City Hall in Portland after angry crowds learned that Mayor Neal Dow, who had helped pass temperance laws in Maine, had bought a giant stash of alcohol and was storing it on city property. Under the laws of the day, only a duly authorized “agent” could buy alcohol for medicinal municipal use, Devine said. So people were mad at what they saw as an abuse of power – and probably a few were just mad that they couldn’t buy a drink themselves. Either way, shots were fired to disperse the crowd and one young man who came to Portland to get married, 21-year-old John Robbins, was killed.
10:30 a.m. Oct. 17: The SS Portland tour leads visitors to the graves or markers memorializing passengers and crew who lost their lives when the ship sank in November 1898, during its nightly trip from Boston to Portland. Historians estimate that 190 or more people were on board. There were no survivors. Before the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the SS Portland was considered the deadliest marine accident on record.
2 p.m. Oct. 18: The Maine Charitable Mechanics Association tours the graves of business and trade leaders who were involved in this group, formed in 1815 to provide opportunities for apprentices.
10:30 a.m. Oct. 24: The Elks Tour explores the impact Elks Club members had on Portland life in the early 20th century.
2 p.m. Oct. 25: Suffragists is a tour that talks about notable Portland women involved in the struggle to get the right to vote.
10:30 a.m. Oct. 31: The Spiritualists is a new tour, on Halloween no less, focusing on Portlanders who believed – or said they believed – the living can communicate with the dead.
Congress and Mountfort streets, Portland. $10. spiritsalive.org
11 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday: One-hour walking tours are led by the cemetery’s volunteer group, Spirts Alive, on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 18. The focus is on the people and features of Eastern Cemetery, which was established in 1668. One fascinating feature of the cemetery discussed on tours is the field of underground tombs, some 85 of them, that could hold up to 30 people each. The tombs would be purchased by families, says tour guide Ron Romano, and they had to be dug up every time a new family member died. Each tomb had its own private stairway leading to a domed, underground room. The tombs were mostly built between 1795 and 1825. Capt. Lemuel Moody, who built the landmark Portland Observatory on Munjoy Hill, is buried in one.
The tours are given by a rotating cast of volunteers, each with different areas of interest. Romano, for example, is a student of gravestone art and can talk about the designs in Eastern Cemetery done by Bartlett Adams, Portland’s first stonecutter. Before he came to Portland in 1800, people had to have their headstones cut and engraved in Boston.
Children under 12 are free for these tours.
Oct. 22-25 and 28-30: Walk Among the Shadows events are special nighttime tours put on annually at Eastern Cemetery. They feature actors from the Acorn Productions theater company. This year the tour’s theme is “The Bombardment of Falmouth.” The actors play Portlanders who were around for that attack by the British in 1775. The tour is a play, with four scenes and a monologue, at various graves and sites around the cemetery. The tours are about 50 minutes long, and groups are taken through the cemetery from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. each of the scheduled nights, except Oct. 25, when tours run from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
The $10 price drops $5 for those under 12.
1270 Westbrook St., Portland. $12, $6 for those 12 and under. tatehouse.org
Noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 17 and 24: Tours on the hour will be given by volunteer “specters” talking about the various colorful, and sometimes tragic, figures buried in this historic graveyard on the Stroudwater River. The cemetery is located near the historic Tate House Museum, built in 1755. One of the “specters,” or spirits, talking to the tour crowd will be George Tate, a senior mast agent for the British Navy who built the house. The tours are a benefit to help preserve the Tate House.