Rails Across America, Part 8
The eighth installment in a series of Dispatches chronicling Ryan Kim’s journey by rail to small towns across America.
There is no downtown in Wells, Maine: life in this tourist town is stretched out in long strips that run parallel to the three miles of beautiful sandy beach. The road that most closely resembles a core artery is the narrow-shouldered, sidewalk-less Route 1, which in mid-August sits thicker than a lobster bisque, clogged with traffic. According to the US Census, Wells had a 2010 population of 9,589. But, various permanent residents estimate that Wells’ population booms during the summer to anywhere between 20,000-50,000, with Town Planner Mike Livingston’s estimate at about 30,000. Regardless the actual number, the summer swell of Bostonians and French Canadians, the latter whom have arrived in greater numbers since the exchange rate moved in their favor in 2009, is staggering and significant. Almost all cultural and economic activity revolves around the tourist season, which peaks between June and mid-October, but continues year-round due to Wells’ proximity to two ski resorts, which are both within a thirty-minute drive away.
Naturally endowed with a safe harbor, navigable rivers, waterpower, forests, and marshes, Wells was founded in the 1640’s by European families who arrived to build sawmills. The town’s early settlers struggled with both violent conflicts with the local Indians and being “subjugated” under the Puritan rule of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1653-1820. Yet, Wells’ prospered through shipbuilding (outdated by trains in the 1880’s), lumbering, ice harvesting, lobster fishing, and tourism. For decades, Wells merchants participated in a triangular trade system that traded lumber and fish for sugar in the Caribbean islands, which was then traded in England for manufactured goods that were delivered back to Maine. Though Wells still has an industrial park and a handful of manufacturers, its economy today can be captured by its status as a “vacation mecca”, according to Joe of the Historical Museum.
Evidence of the town’s existence as a visitor’s destination is ubiquitous. The cars in the overflowing beach parking lots mostly bear Massachusetts and Quebec license plates, and conversations on the public $1-ride trolleys are often held in more French than English. Vast neighborhoods of small second-homes and vacation trailers blanket the landscape. The town boasts a community college and an expansive antique auto museum but no daily paper, and a Wal-Mart lurks about seven miles away. However, the influence of any of these is hardly felt and practically invisible to the ephemeral eyes that head from myriad motels to the beaches and back, arms full of folding chairs, hands clutching lobster rolls and bags of saltwater taffy. At night, Wells stays busy with its restaurants and snack shacks staying open until ten-thirty or eleven throughout the week. There is no local sales tax beyond the state’s 6 percent, and property taxes are among the lowest in the state, at a rate of .86 percent. Visitors love it so much, they don’t just come once, but habitually. Some come so often that they’ve named their getaway beach houses in the tradition of ship owners: Second Wind, Canonicus.