A town with a lush landscape and steeped in architectural history provides inspiration for all
The ferry ride from Rockland to Vinalhaven takes about an hour and a half; the last 30 minutes or so offer a view of the island’s notably craggy coastline. The largest island in Penobscot Bay, Vinalhaven’s protected anchorages are said to have attracted early English settlers, and the numerous coves and tidal estuaries remain fascinating places to explore. Following the discovery of granite in the early 1800s, Vinalhaven became a significant source of the stone for nearly a century, providing granite for the Washington Monument, Cathedral of St. John, and the Brooklyn Bridge, among many other prominent landmarks. Filled with fresh water, the quarries are now popular, though chilly, swimming holes where local children often learn to swim. With about 1,300 full-time residents, Vinalhaven also boasts the largest year-round population of any offshore island in Maine. Kids attend a thriving K–12 school, and aside from the fact that it is 15 miles from the mainland, Vinalhaven operates much like any other small town in the state. Its primary industry is lobster fishing; Vinalhaven, Stonington, and Rockland are Maine’s top lobstering communities, according to the Island Institute. On Maine islands, including this one, much of life is dictated by the seasons and by the ebb and flow of the tides.
Phil Crossman moved to the island when he was four years old; his mother was born and raised there, and he traces his family history on Vinalhaven back to 1792—“right from the Mayflower,” he quips. Having operated the Tidewater Motel in Carver’s Harbor—Vinalhaven’s downtown— for 50 years before turning it over to his daughter, Sarah Crossman, and her husband, Chad King, last October, Crossman continues to serve as a town selectman, as well as on several local committees. He writes a column for the Working Waterfront, an online publication of the Island Institute, and has authored two books about life on Vinalhaven: Away Happens, and Observations: A Maine Island, a Century of Newsletters and the Stories Found Between the Lines.
Crossman has also played an active role in local preservation efforts, helping to found Historic Down Street LLC, because “we were very concerned about the disappearance of the remaining architectural artifacts that defined downtown,” he says. Among other projects, the nonprofit oversaw the renovation of the island’s original fire department building, where antique engines are now on display. Crossman’s wife, painter and printmaker Elaine Austin Crossman, owns New Era Gallery on Main Street, open from late May through December. The cultural hub of the island, it hosts “a wide range of artists and regular shows all summer long that are absolutely mobbed,” says Phil Crossman. A restored barn at the back of the gallery is a performance space for artist talks and musical performances.
Outside of Carver’s Harbor, Vinalhaven offers “endless opportunities for hiking, kayaking, and exploring the beauty of the island,” says Crossman. “The Vinalhaven Land Trust maintains a wonderful system of trails that lead all over the place: down to the water, up to the hills, and through historic sites.” On the island’s east side, Carrying Place Preserve (which has a boat launch for kayaks) and Huber Preserve are among the five Vinalhaven preserves maintained by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust; the other three are islands just offshore in Seal Bay. At the mouth of Carver’s Harbor, 45-acre Lane’s Island, owned largely by the Nature Conservancy and accessible via a causeway, is “everybody’s favorite place,” Crossman says. On the west side, a large tidal estuary called the Basin, easily accessed at the Granite Island Road bridge, is “full of seals and spectacular bird life—I take people kayaking there all summer long.”
This season, Crossman is looking forward to the return of some established Vinalhaven restaurants, as well as new ones. Two popular restaurants, the Haven, a waterfront mainstay for decades, and the five-year-old Salt, closed last fall—the latter a loss for the community that was covered by the New York Times. This summer, Dot and Millie’s will replace the Haven, and the Nightingale, which took over the old Harbor Gawker space last year, is returning and expanding in its second season. “Another local woman has created a wonderful speakeasy with live music and a tapas menu; we’re all quite excited about it,” says Crossman. Named Skål, the Norwegian word for “cheers,” the new restaurant by Kris Davidson is located in a building that was the company store for the island’s largely Scandinavian quarry workers in the 1800s.
While new life is being breathed into some old Vinalhaven landmarks, perhaps the most prominent building on the island is in serious disrepair, awaiting the results of a high-profile lawsuit. The fate of the Star of Hope Lodge, a former Odd Fellows Hall on Main Street that was the home and studio of artist Robert Indiana for 40 years, remains uncertain following his death in May of 2018. Indiana’s will stipulates that the building be turned into a museum where visitors can see his art, but whether or not that happens, the tides will continue to rise and fall on Vinalhaven. “It’s just a charming place to live, and a good deal of that has to do with the fact that we all know one another,” says Crossman. “We know when to step up and help, and we know when to keep our mouths shut. It’s really community in the best sense.”