WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the American Guide Series, A WPA Federal Writers’ Project: US Route One, Maine

Owl’s Head Lighthouse Lighthouse Entrance

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. Beginning with this photo essay, I will be posting a series of articles based upon tours recommended in the guides. This post, following a suggested tour in Maine, is my first offering.

Route One, Rockland

Part 1

U.S. One: From Maine to Florida

This guide was written in 1938. As its name suggests, it follows the original North/South route on the East Coast. With the construction of Route 95 in the 1950s, most highway traffic was diverted, but U.S. 1 has remained the major route passing through all of the towns and cities on the coast. The guide is a captivating mix of history, stories, and architectural information containing both factual and fanciful information.

Most Easterners know Route One for its gas stations, fast food restaurants, and strip malls. But in Maine, large portions of the route still retain a small town feel, with beautifully preserved 19th century architecture and stunning views of the ocean. Driving down Route One, one can easily follow the highlights of the 1938 Guide, enjoying, as its authors did, the world of lobstermen, clipper ships, small harbors, wharves, ferries, pine trees, and ocean views.

The Guide’s description of this route, the ocean, and the communities that bordered it in 1938 is positively lyrical:

US 1 in Maine runs close to the coast from one end of the State to the other. It runs through resort areas, rolling and rocky farmlands, and along the banks of broad rivers; it crosses high hills locally called mountains and blueberry plains. It connects the two ends of the 2,500-mile coast line, which are but 225 miles apart by air line.

The […] whole of the broken and jagged coast has a picturesque charm that makes it a favorite with summer travelers. South of Maine, land and sea have few rigid boundaries; the waves encroach and retreat, the land is washed away and built up. But on the Maine shore they meet abruptly; that old devil sea at times comes dashing in as though it had been gathering force halfway around the earth to break the stubborn, granite headlands; it attacks with a roar, retreats, and returns to attack again.

The Guide aptly describes everyday life in 1930s Maine:

There are two coasts of Maine. The coast known to most visitors has spruce-tipped hills and hard beaches dappled with the red, orange, green, blue, and white raiment of visitors, blue-green waters broken by tilting sails and the wakes of speeding motorboats, and a brilliant blue sky […]

The second coast of Maine is for four or five months muffled in snow; travel is at times difficult and most hotels and many of the rooms in homes are closed. But this Maine has its own charm. The rural inhabitants, even though striving to add to their limited incomes, have time to relax and they accept the comparatively few visitors as members of their families, telling them long stories of grandfathers and uncles who never returned from the sea, of the great-aunts who heard voices, and other tales characteristic of a country that part of the year has almost pioneer isolation.

There are other rewards for those who visit this coast out of season. The chowder and baked beans, made in family quantities and eaten after strenuous climbs over snowy hills, have a finer flavor than those of summer; the headlands, snow-crowned, take on an icy glaze that sharpens their strange silhouettes; and the sea in acrobatic assaults causes the very rocks to tremble. But the glory of this Maine is its sky, unreal saffron after the gray light that comes before the dawn, blue as Persian tiles for a brief time at midday, and an unearthly pale green streaked with rose in the late afternoon, turning the snow pale heliotrope with purple shadows.

For a first exploratory foray, I chose to explore a stretch of Route One in mid-coast Maine, running south from Rockport, through Rockland and Owl’s Head. Several of the sights mentioned in the guide are slightly off the route, but in places, the route itself is the star.

Route One, Rockport

Rockland: Rockport and Owl’s Head are completely recognizable from the guide’s descriptions. In particular, Rockport seems unchanged. The guide recommends a visit to the harbor and then to the “Spite House.” Its description of the harbor is apt today:

From the bridge at the S. end of the village is a remarkable view of the harbor and the white lighthouse jutting out on the point. Goose River forms a V-shaped waterfront that has been landscaped by Mrs. Mary Louise Bok.


Spite house is also as it was in 1806 and in 1938. Here is the guide’s description:

SPITE HOUSE (L), on Deadman’s Point: Sometime after his third marriage, James McCobb built a house for his family. He died while his son Thomas was at sea. The third Mrs. McCobb, who had also been previously married, arranged a marriage between her son by her first husband and her stepdaughter, the sister of Thomas McCobb, thereby obtaining control of the large house.

When Thomas McCobb returned and learned of the marriage and its consequences, he became incensed, declared he would build himself a mansion large enough and sufficiently grand to overshadow the nearby residence occupied by his stepmother, and in 1806 built this beautiful structure which, from the day of its completion, has borne its present name.

In contrast to Rockport, Rockland has always been a more commercial town, oriented toward fishing, shipbuilding, and serving as the gateway to the Maine’s offshore islands.

Plaque at the Residence of Edna St. Vincent Millay

The guide recommends visiting the residence of Edna St. Vincent Millay (at the time a very well-known poet, lesser known today) and the public landing. Millay’s house is now owned by a foundation that is raising money to restore it.


Residence of Edna St. Vincent Millay


Rockland Fishing Wharves

Rockport Harbor is large and well-protected, and seems relatively unchanged since the 1930’s. There is a new ferry terminal, but nearby are wharves harboring several 19th century commercial schooners and clipper ships. The view of the lengthy breakwater and the islands is unimpeded and very scenic.

Schooner Under Repair


Rockland Harbor Dawn


Owl’s Head Harbor

The most remote of these three villages is Owls’ Head. To reach it, one needs to take a four-mile detour off Route One, but the journey is worth every bit of the drive. Owl’s Head is tiny settlement located at the end of a peninsula just south of Rockland. But despite its isolation, a lot of historical events happened here, perhaps due to the fact that Owls’ Head is strategically placed at the confluence of several ocean waterways.

Samuel Champlain visited Owls Head in 1605 when it was called Bedabec Point (“cape of the waters.”) Then, in 1755, the Guide recounts a massacre:

The town was the scene of a bloody encounter in 1755 when Captain Cargyle, famous Indian fighter employing Indian tactics, killed and scalped nine braves, receiving a bounty of 200 pounds sterling each.

Lobster Traps Owl’s Head Harbor

As late as 1820, the guide tells us, American and British pirates used the harbor as a base for their raids, but by 1938, the harbor was occupied only by lobstermen. The same is true today.

Buoys, Owl’s Head Harbor

The number of boats in Owl’s Head’s small harbor is impressive. A lobsterman explained to me that the cross-currents from the outer islands had created a deep trench just outside the harbor whose steep sides were a perfect place for lobsters to breed. Boats working out of this harbor can bring in a haul of 400-600 lobsters per day.

Just past the harbor, on Owl’s Head Point, is the Owl’s Head Lighthouse. It has remained in continuous use since it was built in 1826 and it looks exactly as the guide describes:

OWL’S HEAD LIGHT […] was built in 1826, during the administration of President John Quincy Adams. The old white tower is only 26 ft. high; but because of its situation the light can be seen 16 miles at sea. In summer, yachts cruising in these waters are welcomed by three strokes of a bell. Snowshoeing parties from Rockland visit the snow-clad headland in winter.

The road ends [a quarter mile from the lighthouse.] From this point it is but a short walk to the shore, where the red and yellow quartz-streaked face of the headland, worn smooth by the pounding of the surf, rears itself nearly 100 ft. above sea level. Tall spruces, their roots clinging tenaciously to the few inches of soil, crown the summit.

Owl’s Head Lighthouse

The description is apt, but, in true guide style, understated. I was completely alone during my visit to the lighthouse. As I walked the path, the views were stunning. It could have been 1826 or 1938; the beauty and seclusion of the Maine Coast were undiminished.


Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage And View to the Islands


Own’s Head Coast

Following the guide on my short Route One trip, I was impressed yet again by its writers. Their infectious enthusiasm for each community they encountered, from the larger picture to the smallest detail, gave me much to think about and even more to see. I can’t wait to set out again, exploring many other places in our country, American Guide Series in hand.