Conflicting interests between Wells and Ogunquit in 1883

The bridge to prosperity
The bridge to prosperity

“When a sturdy young man finds his own path to be in conflict with that of his father it is time for him to set up a household of his own,” argued one Maine legislator who was in favor of Ogunquit’s separation from Wells in 1921.

The indignant retort: “A child should not be allowed to leave his mother’s house to avoid paying his share of her bills after she has devoted her life to rearing him.”

Wells and Ogunquit had suffered a strained familial relationship ever since February 1883, when businessmen of Ogunquit Village sought to override a vote of the town of Wells by petitioning the Maine Legislature for a bridge across the tidewaters of the Ogunquit River. Village residents wanted to capitalize on their beautiful sandy beach but the river separated them from it.

A majority of Wells residents lived north of the river and they carried every vote. Tourism at Wells Beach had declined since the Island Ledge House burned in 1877, and then the Atlantic House went up in flames in 1885, taking with it even more tourism dollars. Most of the summer sojourners who visited Wells Beach were travelling north when they arrived and easy access to Ogunquit Beach might divert the few that still came. Taxpayers living farther inland also had no inclination to pay for improvements from which they would not benefit.

The bridge bill was finally passed by the Legislature in 1885. Wells voters then lobbied to have the bridge built upriver that it might be of “common convenience.” The Legislature left the location of the bridge up to the county commissioners, who chose an Ogunquit location. A committee of Wells voters appealed that decision, claiming that the county commissioners were not qualified to make such a choice. By October 1888, the court of last resort had spoken in favor of a location near the mouth of the Ogunquit River. Meanwhile, real estate sales in the village quickened in anticipation.

The following report appeared in the Biddeford Weekly Journal on October 5, 1888: “The proposed bridge shall be let out by contract and be completed by June 1st 1889. W. M. Hatch, B Maxwell, and A K Tripp were chosen a committee to make the plans, specifications etc and put the bridge under contract and to have charge of the whole matter.”

The plan was in place by the first of January 1889. Pilings were set and partly planked by April. In May, what was referred to in the local papers as a “tiny mistake” was discovered when work according to the plan was completed but the bridge was still a few feet short of the beachside land. The bridge opened on time nonetheless and Ogunquit enjoyed its most robust tourist season to date.

From that day forward town meetings in Wells were contentious. Warrant articles for sewers and sidewalks in Ogunquit were voted down. Town Hall burned and the location of the new Town Hall was hotly debated, as was the prudence of renting out commercial space within its walls. According to the official town history, when Ogunquit Village landowners wanted streetlights, Wells voters expressed their opposition with “hollering and foot stomping enough to shake the foundation of Wells Town Hall.”

The article was defeated and Ogunquit voters again went to the state Legislature; this time, with a bill authorizing a charter for the Ogunquit Village Corporation. They got their charter and their streetlights. According to the 1913 charter, 60 percent of taxes paid to the town of Wells by Ogunquit Village residents, was to be returned to the Village Corporation.

Similar issues were faced by towns up and down the coast of Maine when the growth of tourism along the shore necessitated infrastructure improvements from which inlanders did not benefit and for which they could not be persuaded to pay. Old Orchard Beach separated from Saco in 1883, and North Kennebunkport — now known as Arundel — broke off from Kennebunkport in 1915.

A yay vote to amend the charter of the Ogunquit Village Corporation tax formula in 1921 prompted Ogunquit taxpayers to petition the Legislature to allow them to break off from Wells. The measure was postponed indefinitely by the Legislature after it heard the testimony of 50 Wells taxpayers. Another attempt to legally separate into two towns was defeated in 1971.

The Maine Legislature finally approved a 1979 referendum for Ogunquit to secede from Wells. An Ogunquit Village Corporation vote in favor of the referendum passed 480 to 94 in October of 1979. Wells opposed the secession.

 

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