Boaters head north recently in the Kennebec River between Richmond and Swan Island. A state-owned ferry that used to transport passengers to the wildlife management area and campground is seen docked in front of them. A year after the U.S. Coast Guard halted the service over safety concerns, state officials say it will not be restarted. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

RICHMOND — A year after the U.S. Coast Guard halted ferry service between Swan Island and Richmond over safety concerns, state wildlife officials say the service won’t be restarted.

That decision came earlier this year after the requirements dictated by the Coast Guard proved too onerous and expensive to meet, ending the practice of carrying school groups and others across the Kennebec River to spend a day or a night camping on the island that sits at the head of Merrymeeting Bay. The state had operated a ferry service to the island for over six decades.

Swan Island will remain open to the public, but visitors will now have to get there under their own power. Once they arrive, they’ll no longer have to pay to use the island, nor will they be able to reserve a campsite.

This decision allows the state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife to focus on wildlife and habitat management in the Steve Powell Wildlife Management Area and treat it the same as the department’s 69 other wildlife management areas.

“I see this as all positive,” Keel Kemper, a regional biologist for IF&W, said.

In no other wildlife management area in Maine did IF&W transport people across a body of water or charge for access.


An old homestead that might be the last farm from when the Swan Island wildlife management area was the town of Perkins is seen in August 2020. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

“Why did we treat Swan Island entirely different?” Kemper said. “Why do we hire wildlife biologists to carry your ice chests up and down the island? That has always struck me as an odd undertaking.”


Others are disappointed.

“We’re going to be looking at coming up with a Plan B for Swan Island access, because that’s a wonderful asset,” Darryl Sterling, economic development director for the town of Richmond, said. “We have a couple of things in the works.”

In addition to being part of a wildlife management area, the 4-mile-long Swan Island is also on the National Register of Historic Places, with evidence of human use and habitation going back thousands of years, and more recently with settlement by European colonialists in the 1700s and development of the short-lived town of Perkins.

“There are extreme restrictions about what can and can’t be done out there, which has limited any abilities to keep the buildings up and running,” said Jay Robbins, a historian and Richmond resident.


A sign for the former Swan Island Ferry Service is seen recently in Richmond. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

For a number of years the Friends of Swan Island, a nonprofit geared to raising money for the upkeep of the island’s historic buildings — including one built in the mid-1700s — secured grants and organized volunteers to pay for roof replacements and repairs and paint the buildings.

“We had quite a bit of success over the years, especially through the Davis Family Foundation,” Robbins, who was president of the organization for 15 years, said.

But in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, grant funding started to dry up, and within the last year, the organization folded. Robbins said no one had time to spend writing unsuccessful grant applications, and he sent the remaining funds to IF&W.

“When this happened with the ferry, we said if people aren’t going to be able to get out there with the ferry,” he said, “what’s the purpose?”


By the time the U.S. Coast Guard boarded the ferry at the end of May 2022, the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic had receded and activities that had been suspended during public health restrictions were starting up again.


Colin Tardiff, left, and Emerald Wright push the Swan Island ferry off a dock in Richmond in August 2020 before crossing the Kennebec River to Swan Island. A year after the U.S. Coast Guard halted the service over safety concerns, state officials say it will not be restarted. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

It’s not clear what triggered the inspection. Since the 1960s the state had provided access between Richmond and Swan Island, upgrading in 2015 to a larger boat that could carry up to 55 people in a single trip, It replaced a 15-passenger ferry more than five decades old and a barge of about the same age that was used to carry trucks and heavy equipment on and off the island.

The following year, the department invested about $300,000 to replace the wooden bulkhead that supported the boat landing in Richmond where the Swan Island ferry docked. At the same time, IF&W started offering special programs on the island to introduce more people to the island.

While IF&W officials said they had conferred with the Coast Guard at the time of the purchase, Coast Guard officials said there was no record of the ferry ever being inspected as a small passenger vessel.

The department was required to, among other things, provide the Coast Guard with evidence of a detailed operations plan and crew training plan, obtain a valid certificate of inspection and demonstrate that the captain is a holder of the appropriate merchant mariner credential to operate the ferry. It was also required to make some upgrades to the ferry itself, including changing out the plastic fuel tank for a metal one as well as providing a bilge pump with an alarm and different lifejackets.

In a presentation Kemper gave to the Richmond Board of Selectmen earlier this year, he said the cost of hiring a captain with credentials to run the ferry could be as much as $400 a day, and the department doesn’t have discretion to use the funds it receives for wildlife and habitat management for other purposes.

Now, officials say, the ferry will be used to transport department staff, equipment and vehicles to and from the island.


“We’re not going anywhere,” Kemper said.


State wildlife officials became interested in the island because it sits at the head of Merrymeeting Bay, the largest freshwater tidal estuary north of Chesapeake Bay.

“It was historically one of the premiere waterfowl locations on the entire East Coast flyway,” Kemper said, referring to the annual migration route for ducks and geese. “It’s hard to overstate the value to waterfowl.”

Turkeys walk through a field on Swan Island in August 2020. The island is located in the Kennebec River between Richmond and Dresden. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

The bay, formed where six rivers come together, is ringed with wild rice that provides both food and habitat for migrating birds. It also supports a variety of fish, including two species of sturgeon, shad, alewives and eels.

While people had lived on Swan Island for decades, farming, cutting ice and building boats, the population had dwindled to the point in 1917 that the town sought to dissolve itself and become an unincorporated territory to be overseen by the state, and that opened to the door to the acquisition of island properties.


A view of the main buildings of the Perkins Island lighthouse station seen in 1955 along the southwestern ledge of what is now Swan Island. A boathouse is to the left of the lighthouse and living quarters are to the right. Lewiston Journal archives via

By the 1940s, IF&W started acquiring properties on the island, some taken for nonpayment of taxes after they had been abandoned. Over the decades, the department opted to tear down a number of buildings and use others to house the staff that lived on the island, including Steve Powell, for whom the wildlife management area that includes Swan Island is named.

One of the buildings had been set aside for the summer crew to stay in, but now that building has been closed because of mold.

Kemper said the department looked into mold remediation, but at an estimated cost of $150,000 between repairs and the remediation itself, that  proved too costly for IF&W.

For Terri Blen Parker, that’s sad news. She spent her childhood on the island in that house with her grandparents. She was homeschooled by her grandmother and her grandfather was the game warden at the time, who spent a great deal of time bringing people from the mainland and back in a small boat.

Parker is a volunteer with the Richmond Historical & Cultural Society and has spent hours pulling together copies of photos and newspaper clippings about the history of the island. She’s also published two book about Swan Island. The most recent one is “Cinnamon’s Swan Island Adventures on the Kennebec River in Maine,” based on recollections of her childhood and illustrated with her own paintings.

She’s very interested in the fate of that building.


“Inquiring minds want to know,” she said.

Kemper said the building has been sealed off and no one is allowed inside.

C.A. Skolfield scrapes old, peeling paint off a house on Perkins Island in 1955 before applying a fresh coat. Lewiston Journal archives via

As for the other buildings, including a house that Sylvester Gardiner, who founded the city of Gardiner, built for his daughter and son-in-law, Kemper said his agency has had a longstanding relationship with the state Commission for Historic Preservation and a great appreciation for the buildings there, but not a lot of money to put into them.

“We try to keep them shut down and the vandalism to a dull roar and do what we can,” he said. “Historic preservation of old buildings is really expensive and really involved and is something that will have to be addressed in the future.”

Christi Chapman-Mitchell, assistant director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, acknowledged there has never been a good plan for the historic properties on the island.

“The Friends of Swan Island would go after grants, but without them, I don’t know who will,” Chapman-Mitchell said. “We’d love to see someone come up with a plan.


The island also had an important role in natural history.

When bald eagles had died off everywhere else in Maine, Kemper said the two remaining breeding pairs were on Swan Island and Merrymeeting Bay. Today there are more than 450 breeding pairs in the state.

“Swan Island was basically either the last holdout or the start of the eagle population,” Kemper said.


Officials from IF&W say they will continue to manage the island, with its fields and wooded areas, as they always have for the benefit of waterfowl, deer, woodcock and grouse. And in the next two years, they’ll do it with some additional funds approved by the state Legislature.

Nathan Webb, director of the Wildlife Division for Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said state lawmakers have appropriated $70,00o a year in the current two-year budget cycle for Swan Island, in part to cover the loss of fees collected for day visits and overnight camping.


A state-owned boat that was previously used as the Swan Island ferry is seen recently, far right, docked on Swan Island in the Kennebec River. Officials have ended the passenger ferry service from Richmond but will keep the island open to visitors who can motor or paddle there in their own vessels. The state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife is no longer charging fees for visiting or camping on the island. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“It’s in recognition of the real cost to run the island and trying to minimize the impact on other programs that previously we were tapping into to fund the operations out there” Webb said.

And some of the money will be allocated to maintain the buildings, which, Webb said, has been an issue.

Now, Kemper said, they’re focusing on eradicating invasive species like barberry and honeysuckle and evaluating how to control the deer population.

“Today, my two conservation aides are taking their exams to be able to do invasive species removal and be able to do some herbicide spraying for invasive species instead of carrying people’s ice chests up and down the island,” he said.

The purpose of the island is focusing on maintenance and enhancement of wildlife habitat.

The department has started providing information on how to get to Swan Island, including offering contacts to canoe and kayak rental businesses in Richmond and around the region.

And even as Richmond officials are working to develop a plan to restore some kind of ferry service to the island for those who can’t or won’t use small boats to get there, Kemper said he’s seen a man in a pontoon boat carrying people and their supplies across the Kennebec River to the island.

“The private sector has stepped up,” he said.

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