ELLSWORTH — A young eagle watches from a rock as Randy Heckman steers his skiff through the mooring field on the Union River. The city’s harbormaster, Heckman is on the water a couple of hours after sunrise, checking boats and enjoying the hidden beauty of this wooded tidal waterway.

Just up the riverbank, traffic is rushing along the congested, mile-long retail strip leading to Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park and Down East. More than 30,000 vehicles pass through on a summer day.

For most travelers, including most Mainers, Ellsworth is a place to gas up, fill up, get through. They don’t visit the waterfront, or even know it exists.

But some people are stopping and staying.

Ellsworth was Maine’s fastest-growing community during the past decade, up nearly 20 percent, according to census figures. The city now is home to 7,741 residents.

Newcomers are finding plenty of room to stretch out. Ellsworth is Maine’s largest community by size, covering 95 square miles.

Four lakes, the scenic river and an authentic, revitalized downtown offer a diversity of places to live and recreate.

As the peak tourist season winds down, the days here take on a slower, down-home rhythm. For visitors with a spare moment to turn off the highway, it’s a prime time to discover the Ellsworth they don’t know.

The waterfront

Pulsing in summer, the waterfront relaxes in mid-September. A mix of boats bob at their moorings. They draw the eye upriver to the city’s downtown and the white steeple of the First Congregational Church. The quiet is broken when the harbor’s sole lobsterman and his son fire up their boat, 22 Magnum, for a day on the bay.

Heckman points to the chart on the wall of his office, a log cabin overlooking the marina. He’s three miles upriver from Union River Bay, nearly 35 miles from the prime cruising grounds off Mount Desert Island.

“You have to be coming here because we’re not on the way to anything,” he says.

Boaters who do find their way to Ellsworth, and take the short stroll to the historic downtown, return impressed.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was here,’ ” Heckman says.

‘Treasures’ and challenges

Leslie Harlow is preparing for the lunch crowd. She and a partner bought the old Masonic Hall and turned it into a cafe, The Maine Grind. Local food and crafts, and Wi-Fi connectivity, make it a popular gathering place.

Ellsworth’s downtown feels comfortable and lively. Almost every storefront is occupied. The Grand theater, an art deco landmark, is restored and hosting performances.

Harlow has lived in the area 40 years. She recently bought a house downtown. She’s a big Ellsworth booster — she’ll talk all day about the city’s charms; the walking path along the river, the gardens and trails at the Woodlawn estate, the scenic railroad and its weekend excursions.

“We’ve got all these nice little treasures,” she says.

But Harlow’s also blunt about the city’s challenges. She wants Ellsworth to be known as a destination, not a gateway to someplace else.

“We need to get more people out of their cars, and not on the strip,” she says.

Downtown visitors

The downtown needs more visitors like Suzanne and Hawley Peterson.

The couple is from Maryland but has a house in Stonington. They’re showing off Maine to relatives from England. Their visitors are enjoying Ellsworth’s “quaint” downtown. After shopping at The Grasshopper Shop boutique, they sit in the sun and sip beverages at The Maine Grind.

Hawley Peterson remarks on the number of new stores on Main Street.

“Compared to 10 years ago, it’s amazing how the downtown has changed,” he says.

But commerce can’t be summed up on a sunny September day. The seasonally unadjusted jobless rate in Ellsworth swung from 12 percent last February, well above the statewide average, to less than 7 percent in July.

And for all the population growth, a close look at the census figures gives some pause. The largest block of new residents is between 40 and 54 years old.

In the orchard

The Johnston family has been growing apples on a ridge above Branch Lake since 1955.

Orchards are few Down East. Folks from Bangor and the far corners of Washington County drive here for the 14 varieties of pick-your-own, spread across 18 acres.

“Over the weekend, we had 50 to 60 cars all day,” says Brett Johnston.

Rein and Ellen Duke are here from Gouldsboro, 40 minutes away. They’ve got their grandkids, and Rein Duke is pushing the boy in a plastic cart.

“We’ve been coming here for years,” he says. “It’s like a ritual.”

On the lake

Stalking lake trout and landlocked salmon is a ritual on Green Lake, a six-mile waterway that straddles Ellsworth and Dedham. Branch Lake, the city’s water supply, and Graham and Leonard lakes, created by damming the Union River, attract fishermen year round.

James Elliott and Rob Peck say Green Lake is one of the best places around for lake trout. They’re here from Bangor.

The lake is quiet as Elliott backs his aluminum boat down the ramp. No other boats are out; many cottages are shut for the season. A loon paddles by. It dives as Elliott starts the outboard and heads for deeper water.

And on the strip

It’s not quiet on High Street. That’s the local name for routes 1 and 3. It’s the gateway — or the gantlet — that travelers must navigate on their way to and from Mount Desert Island and Washington County.

National retailers discovered this choke point in the 1980s. They created one of the ugliest commercial strips in Maine, a chaotic row of gas stations, motels and strip malls.

The city has softened the impact by adding sidewalks, landscaping and an urban park. Four traffic lanes help. But in late afternoon, at the junction of routes 1 and 3, traffic is stalled. A disabled tour bus makes matters worse.

Evening in big box land

In recent years, developers have climbed the Route 3 hill. They’re creating their vision of a regional retail hub for more than 60,000 residents.

Acadia Crossing includes a half-million square feet of retail space, dominated by The Home Depot and a Walmart Supercenter.

Lowe’s has risen across the road, not far from Marden’s. Saplings and weeds cover the vacant expanses. Last week, Lowe’s announced it is closing the stores here and in Biddeford, part of a national consolidation. The true test of this commercial district awaits better economic times.

It’s a good thing for Hancock County residents like Henry and Laurie Erhard. They drove 35 minutes from Penobscot to find carpet padding. They looked first at Marden’s — they try to buy local — but ended up at The Home Depot.

Standing by their 1972 Volkswagen camper in the near-empty parking lot, they muse about the inevitability of big-box retailing and Ellsworth’s role.

“It beats the heck out of driving to Bangor,” Henry Erhard says.

Then he loads the carpet pad, cranks the vintage van and drives into the twilight.


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