Ever wonder why folks refer to one coastal part of Maine as Down East? I did. I’ve heard it my whole life and until recently didn’t bother to ask where the term came from. And then the other day someone asked where Down East is and that is when it occurred to me that I was not exactly sure of its precise location either.
Is Down East just a Maine-ism? Or is it a real place?
As it turns out, Down East is an old maritime term used to describe a specific area of Maine. If you are looking at a map, Down East is a stretch of coastline that begins at Penobscot Bay and ends in Canada, although in the United States it ends on the Canadian border. This stretch includes Hancock and Washington counties, but for reasons I couldn’t discover, does not apparently include Acadia National Park.
Back in the wicked old days, the nineteenth century, to be exact, mariners hauling shipments up and down the eastern seaboard began to refer to this particular section of Maine’s coastal waters as Down East because, in order to get to Boston, which was a major shipping hub, mariners would have to navigate winds that blew from the southwest. This meant that mariners had to sail “downwind” in order to move from Boston to Maine. Down East became a shorthand way of saying all of that.
Eventually, mariners got super specific and when speaking about parts of the eastern seaboard that could be described as “down east” but obviously weren’t, in which case mariners would simply say, “down Maine” These same mariners sailed ships called Down Easters, just to further confuse matters. These big, gorgeous ships were essentially a next generation clipper for hauling enormous shipments of materials and food between ports.
It gets more interesting and perhaps confusing that the term Down East has a couple of other popular uses in Maine. For starters, some folks will refer to any coastal area in Maine as Down East. Also, Mainers like to refer certain folks as “Down Easters”.
So, Down East can be a person. And a boat. And a place?
I think I got it now.
CORRECTION: Thank you to Sidney for spotting my typo. Down East indeed refers to ships sailing from Boston to Maine and not the other way around. Good eye!