South Freeport village, where the tower of Casco Castle still stands, is a small village once famous for shipbuilding. It is located twelve miles from Portland, Maine, by water and fifteen miles by land. In the early nineteen hundreds it was quiet, and communication with the outside world was by means of the Maine Central Railroad and in summer by steamboat from Portland and the islands. Local travel was by horse and buggy or sleigh.
The building of Casco Castle in 1903 is linked to the development of the electric trolley car that was then regarded as the ultimate in rapid transportation. The Brunswick-Yarmouth Street Railway was a link in the system by which a person with sufficient stamina could travel from Bangor to Boston “on the cars.”
Amos Gerald of Fairfield, Maine, a natural promoter, dreamed of making a fortune for himself and others in the street railway business. To increase patronage of the trolleys a number of amusement parks were built, the showiest of these being Casco Castle and Amusement Park in South Freeport.
The Castle was built on a high rocky hill overlooking the bay which gave it its name. The approach from the trolley line was by means of a suspension bridge across a branch of Spar Creek. A flight of steep steps led to the hotel which was built entirely of wood with gray shingles to simulate stone. Many described the Castle as a “Yankee’s dream” of a Spanish castle. It was joined by bridges to the stone tower which still stands today.
The tower is a remarkable piece of work. The contractor and builder was a local man, Benjamin Franklin Dunning. As nearby rocky fields were cleared, the stones were used for walls, really stone fences, which lined the roads and separated neighboring properties. Stones from some of these walls were hauled up the steep hill by ox and horse and built into the tower. Wooden stairs with platforms lined the tower which was one hundred feet high. The views of the bay and the countryside from the top of the tower were magnificent.
The hotel had accommodations for a hundred guests. Rates, according to the menu cards, were three dollars a day for room and meals or “twelve dollars and up per week.” Shore, steak and chicken dinners were fifty cents. It is well to remember that the common laborers then earned a dollar for a long day’s work and worked six days a week.
The amusement park that surrounded the hill on three sides was open to the public. There was a small zoo with a frequent change of denizens. There were usually monkeys, bison and Angus cattle (a rare sight in Maine in those days). Once there were two wolves and a coyote. One summer a peacock strutted about the grounds and put on a great display.
The formal gardens were worthy of the name. The superintendent, J. J. Turner, was an expert gardener and made the most of the rocky hillside. The Castle ballpark was the delight of local fans, for Freeport was and still is a great baseball town.
The picnic grounds probably attracted more people than the hotel dining room. Comparatively rapid and cheap transportation drew the crowds. The trolley fare at first was five cents for three miles, and on summer Sundays the open trolleys were packed.
The hotel itself had, it seems, only a few paying seasons. In spite of early reports it was never a resort for the fashionable or the wealthy. The rapid rise of the automobile led to the decline of the trolley, and fashions in amusements changed and after a few seasons the hotel was closed. A few attempts were made toward revival; the last was in 1914 which ended in disaster. In September, as the guests were packing up to leave, fire broke out, and the entire hotel structure burned to the ground. The wooden stairs in the tower sent flames shooting high into the air. There was so suspicion of arson as the wood was tinder dry. The masonry of the tower withstood the heat of the flames, and today is a well-known landmark for the fishing and pleasure boats that throng the bay.
The stone tower of the Casco Castle stands today on private property. The best place to view the tower is from Freeport’s town park, Winslow Park, located at the end of Staples Point Road.
Freeport Historical Society’s collections include the notebooks of J. J. Turner, a contribution from his great-grandson David Emmith. David’s website The Life and Times of John J. Turner highlights The Casco Castle Years as recorded in Turner’s extensive scrapbooks of photos, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia.