Pumpkin Knob, Portland


The story goes that my grandmother expressed concern that my mom and dad were taking me, a baby, across the ocean waters of Casco Bay to the island in a small boat, sometimes pulling a lobster trap on the way out. My young mom supposedly replied, “Not to worry. If babies fall in, they pop up three times!”

“Now where in the world……?” my horrified grandmother wondered did she hear a thing like that?

Amazing I survived my childhood!

On the other hand, how blessed a childhood I had.

I was about two in the film reel preserved in the dented tin canister my dad gave me later in life before he died. In the home movie, I was traipsing around the island, while my dad was building a tar paper shack with materials he carted from South Portland in that small boat, painstakingly, a few supplies at a time. It was the early 1960’s.

In the film and in real life, a cigarette always dangled from my father’s lips, and his wrinkled face and veined forearms were deeply tanned. He always wore a button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbow, dark dress parents, and sandals with dark socks later in life.

On the island, we had to take care not to step in the poison ivy that grew among the walking paths we were creating, near where I played, while my parents worked. We picnicked. In our time owning the island, there was never electricity or running water. We were like explorers, adventurers in a new world. Wild blueberries growing on very low bushes were easy for a child to pick and eat.

My memories of that time are more what I see on that film than anything I can recall in my mind.

Pumpkin Knob is a nearly 2-acre island of ledge and trees in Hussey Sound, Maine. Today, it has a cottage, a dock, and a gazebo. It has been privately owned for as long as some longtime Peaks Islanders can remember.

There’s a story in my family that a German U-boat was caught in a net that had been strung from Pumpkin Knob across to Long Island during World War II. Perhaps it was true – I found this information written:

Although it was a major naval anchorage, the Casco Bay area saw action only once in World War II. USS Eagle 56 (PE-56) exploded and sank a few miles east of the Cape Elizabeth Military Reservation on 23 April 1945. Despite some evidence of an enemy submarine in the area, a Court of Inquiry initially attributed this to a boiler explosion. However, in 2001 the Navy determined that Eagle 56 was torpedoed by U-853, a German U-boat that was later sunk in the Battle of Point Judith, Rhode Island on 5-6 May 1945, two days before Germany's surrender.

Forts and lookout towers still abound all over the islands, Portland, South Portland, and Cape Elizabeth. Fort Gorges graces the bay just in front of the Eastern Promenade peninsula of Portland. These fortifications were begun as far back as the Revolutionary War in the late 1700’s – the time of Outlander on the other side of the world if you’re into that book and Netflix series.

“Nobody ever thinks of Pumpkin Knob. It’s just there,” said Kim MacIsaac, who has lived on Peaks for more than 60 years. “It’s had numerous owners over the years. I haven’t been there since I was child. It’s covered in poison ivy.”

The legendary movie director John Ford, whose family lived in Cape Elizabeth and had a cottage on Peaks Island, is believed to have spent time on Pumpkin Knob and had an ownership interest in the small island at one point, Kim said.

It is now owned by a family that uses it for a summer retreat and recently passed it down to a new generation, said Tom Bergh, owner of Maine Island Kayak Co. on Peaks Island. “You see them quite a bit in the summer,” said Bergh, who said he did not know the owners by name. At this time of social distancing, what a perfect spot to come to – your own tiny island.

I lost my father to divorce shortly after that old home movie was shot; my father lost the island when I was a teenager. Story goes that he sold it to help an adult child of his then-wife out of a scrape for $50,000. Who knows if that’s true? As you can see, stories surrounding our island are many.

I know how much my father loved the island and how upset he was when the kids of the new owners he sold to – “hippies,” he called them in the late 1960’s – burned his little tar paper shack to the ground supposedly at a party one night. So much work by my father and mother wiped out in a flash.

Story also goes that some lobstermen poisoned my father’s Doberman Pincers he would sometimes leave on the island to keep trespassers off. They had been coming ashore for years likely and didn’t want to be told they couldn’t any longer.

Pumpkin Knob is all mystery, shadow, and lore to me. When my father was alive, I didn’t learn as much as I should have about our times there. I never asked and he didn’t volunteer. In my hopes of learning more later in life, I find very little history written about this tiny island in Maine. A chapter of my latest mystery, Eventide, is about Pumpkin Knob – fiction sprinkled with as much of the lore that I could remember. It might be true; it might not. Oftentimes family memories and stories are like that.

Regardless, it’s one I’m so pleased to have in my repertoire.

For more information on the history of our area’s forts, please see:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harbor_Defenses_of_Portland