Once among the largest harbor cities on the East Coast, Rockland developed rapidly in the 1850s around shipbuilding and lime production. In 1854 the city was home to twelve lime quarries and 125 lime kilns supplying much of the lime for cement going to build cities from Boston to New York. There were close to 300 vessels coming in and out of Rockland to transport the mineral to various ports in the country, which contributed to the shipbuilding business. By 1886, shipbuilding was surpassed by the lime business, which had twelve manufacturers employing 1,000 workers.
The opening of the Knox and Lincoln Railroad in 1871 brought an influx of tourists. This prompted the establishment of inns and hotels to accommodate the new tourism industry. In the early 1900s, as the age of automobiles spawned, travelers were no longer restricted to the limits of train service, but were free to explore elsewhere.
With its harbor location, fishing grew in popularity as the need for lime waned in the early and mid-1900s, and as a result the Rockland Harbor was home to a number of fish processing plants. And while they flourished throughout the 1900s, the processing plants produced a smell which discouraged visitors. It was only after the Farnsworth Museum opened in the early 1990s, that Rockland began to convert back from a fishing town to a tourist destination as this world renowned art museum brought with it galleries, upscale restaurants and inns to accommodate the new tourist.
Today, Rockland’s downtown has transformed into one of unique shops, boutiques, fine dining and art galleries. Rockland is the commercial center of the midcoast Maine region, with many historic inns, a coffee roaster, toy store and many boutiques and specialty shops. Additionally, Rockland was named a Coast Guard City in March 2008, in recognition of the long-standing and special relationship that the city and its residents have with the United States Coast Guard and in 2009 it was named one of the coolest small cities in the country. Rockland is the self-proclaimed “Lobster Capital of the Universe” not only because of the prolific lobstering industry, but also festivals such as the Maine Lobster Festival and Lobsterpalooza, both focusing attention on Midcoast lobsters.
Mid-Coast Outdoor Fun on Penobscot Bay
Rockland, ME, is the gateway to Maine’s largest bay, Penobscot Bay. Whether it’s an island hopping excursion, time on a real lobster boat or a sail aboard Maine’s historic windjammers, the appeal of the Bay is undeniable. Penobscot Bay is approximately thirty miles long by thirty miles wide. Among its many islands are Vinalhaven, North Haven, Islesboro, Deer Isle, and Isle au Haut. These five large islands and hundreds of smaller ones provide protection from the open sea, making Penobscot Bay a very popular sailing, pleasure boating, paddleboarding and sea kayaking destination. The bay’s numerous harbors, coves, estuaries, and islands offer solitude, hundreds of miles of coast to explore, and serve as a photographer’s and also a birder’s paradise. Many visitors are drawn to make a day of visiting some of Penobscot Bay’s more lively islands. Board your choice of ferries, charter boats, windjammers or even private airplanes for a scenic tour.
Hoping to get out on the water? Spend a couple of hours on a lobster boat and haul your own dinner while learning the lore of the lobster from a Captain Jack, a salty lobsterman. For those who’d rather do the boating themselves, Rockland offers a choice of sea kayak and Stand-Up Paddleboard outfitters too. For many, the allure of the past comes alive aboard one of the historic windjammers that make Rockland their home. Whether it’s for a day-sail or three-to-six-day cruise, the taste of living history can’t be beat anywhere else in the country aboard one of these floating living marine museums. Consult Maine Windjammer Association to learn about opportunities for sailing Maine’s coast, windjammer- style.
On land, the Rockland Harbor Trail is a public four-mile footpath along the historic waterfront of Rockland Harbor. The Harbor Trail connects many of Rockland’s waterfront points of interest ending at the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, one of six lighthouses in Knox County. Hiking and biking opportunities also abound throughout Rockland. And there are 40 lighthouses to explore in Knox County, many within an easy drive of Rockland. Talk to your Inns Along the Coast innkeeper about the best route for your own self-guided lighthouse tour. Schedule your visit during Maine Lighthouse Week in June and get in on even more lighthouse-themed events.
Midcoast Museums & Artworks
In foul weather or fair, there’s something indoors in the Rockland-Thomaston-Owls Head area to interest everyone, starting at one of five outstanding museums. The Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center is at the center of Rockland’s lively art community is the Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center. The museum celebrates Maine’s role in American art. Its over 15,000 works displayed in 20,00 square feet of gallery space constitute a nationally recognized collection of works from many of America’s greatest artists. The museum has one of the nation's largest collections of works by sculptor Louise Nevelson, a Rockland native. Its Wyeth Center features works of Andrew, N.C. and Jamie Wyeth.
The Maine Lighthouse Museum houses the largest collection of Fresnel lighthouse lenses and the most important landmark collection of lighthouse artifacts and Coast Guard memorabilia in the United States. The Owls Head Transportation Museum is dedicated to collecting, preserving, exhibiting and demonstrating pre-1920 landmark aircraft, ground vehicles, engines and related technologies significant to the evolution of transportation in Maine. The museum is open year-round. In the summer, it hosts antique car, motorcycle, and plane rallies of all kinds. Book a ride in an antique car or a biplane.
Next, explore the story of the extensive schooner fleet that sailed out of Rockland in the 19th century at the Sail Power and Steam Museum. In the summer, the museum hosts many special events both historic and musical. Lastly, The Henry Knox Museum in Thomaston invites visitors to explore the people and purpose behind the American Revolution. Touch, feel, smell, and even taste life as it was more than 220 years ago and imagine, what it was like to participate in creating monumental, historic change.
Rockland’s art community is served by a number of galleries offering works by local and regional artists. Arts in Rockland (AIR) organizes artwalks each first Friday in June, July and August where galleries open their doors with food and beverage celebrations to downtown Rockland visitors.
And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Bay Chamber Concerts offering a robust schedule of music throughout the year. Top this off with the fully restored Strand Theater in downtown Rockland, and you have a vibrant arts community.
Rockland’s Dining & Shopping
When you think Maine, you think “lobster.” Penobscot Bay is the home of the largest fleet of lobster boats in the world and fresh lobster is available year-round. You can eat lobster in a restaurant setting or right off the boat at several sea-side lobster pounds. From internationally-famous, award-winning dining to the popular local diner, Rockland offers dining experiences to fit every taste. The food scene has attracted the attention of both the Food Channel and the Travel Channel. From outstanding sushi to food with a traditional New England, Southern, Nouvelle Cuisine, or Italian flavor, you’d need an extended stay to sample all that’s offered. Many of the restaurants are chef-owned and follow a buy-fresh, buy-local, field-to-table philosophy. In fact, Rockland is home to a multiple-James Beard Award winning chef, Melissa Kelly, who’s restaurant, Primo, with its garden and small farm, has attracted international attention.
Artisan breads, olive oil and vinegar tasting, fresh-off-the-farm produce and cheeses, unusual pizzas and much more will please any foodie’s palate. Take your own “foodie tour” or follow one described by your Inns Along the Coast innkeeper.
The Mid-Coast is also the home of a burgeoning wine industry. Wine and beer tours are available to sample an ever-increasing variety of potables. Visit the local farm markets, some open year-round, to sample everything from organic to liquid in the Rockland area.
The North Atlantic Blues Festival is held every year, the second weekend in July, the Blues Festival brings world-class musicians to Rockland for two days of soulful music making.
The Maine Lobster Festival is held at the end of July/beginning of August, when Rockland hosts a five-day festival celebrating our favorite crustacean. With carnival rides, parades, beauty contests, live music and vendors of all kinds, the festival has the atmosphere of an old fashioned county fair.
Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors Show is held the weekend after the Lobster Festival, when Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors Magazine fills up Rockland Harbor with the biggest in-the-water boat show in Maine. Boat designers and outfitters as well as cabinet and furniture makers display their finest products.
Lobsterpalooza, held every September, brings restaurants from Lincolnville to Port Clyde together to celebrate lobster by offering special dishes during this week-long festival. The celebration ends with a lobster mac-and-cheese contest.
Festival of Lights is always held the Saturday after Thanksgiving, as Rockland kicks off the holiday season with a parade and the lighting of the lobster-pot Christmas tree. Take a holiday tour of the three Historic Inns of Rockland along with some private homes too.
Pies on Parade is New England’s largest pie celebration. Held each year the Sunday after National Pie Day (always Jan 23rd), more than 25 businesses serve up over 55 different kinds of pies to benefit the Area Interfaith Outreach Food Pantry. From sweet, fruit and chocolate pies to pizza pie, Shepherds Pie, pot pies and whoopie pies, tour goers travel from one end of Rockland to the other to get fill up on pie.