People walk along Back Cove trail on Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Part of an occasional series answering readers’ questions about Maine.

Q: What is the proper name for Portland’s Back Cove? Why do some people call it Back Bay?

The official name for the circular inlet separating the Portland peninsula from the rest of the city is Back Cove, though many refer to the body of water as Back Bay. Names of surrounding neighborhoods and restaurants don’t help clarify which name is more accurate. Back Cove Trail and the Back Cove neighborhood are close to the nearby Bayside neighborhood, Back Bay Tower, Back Bay Grill and Bayside American Cafe.

Nearly all official documents dating back as far as 1784 refer to the coastal inlet as Back Cove. The peninsula is where Europeans first settled in Portland in the 1630s and remained largely unchanged until the 1850s, according to State Historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. The cove used to extend to what is now Oxford Street before the land was filled in.

Baxter Boulevard, which opened in 1917 as a landscaped highway connecting Forest Avenue to Tukey’s Bridge along the coast of the bay, was originally called Back Cove Boulevard. The parkway was renamed in 1921 to honor Portland Mayor James Phinney Baxter, who spearheaded the project. Baxter Boulevard now borders the Back Cove Trail, a popular 3.6-mile loop that encircles Back Cove and is popular for runners, walkers and bikers.

“I call it Back Cove,” said Sophia Thoman, a South Portland resident who frequents the trail. “That’s what it’s called on Google Maps! My friends who grew up here also call it the Cove.”

In the mid-20th century, construction transformed the area surrounding the cove into a middle-class residential neighborhood. People began to adopt a more fashionable term for the cove and referred to it as “Back Bay,” perhaps a nod to Boston’s Back Bay, a destination known for its prominent Victorian brownstone homes, office buildings, shopping and cultural institutions, Shettleworth said.

“We also have a term that emerged at the time of urban renewal in the 1970s and began to call the area that was redeveloped ‘Bayside.’ It’s this sort of changing development of what things are called, … an evolution of terminology,” he said. “The historical name (is) Back Cove.”

Back Bay Grill, for example, opened in 1988. The original owner had worked at the Ritz Carlton in Boston’s Back Bay before opening Back Bay Grill in Portland and named the restaurant based on his Boston connection, said current owner Larry Matthews. To this day, Back Cove and Back Bay are both used by Mainers.

“The two phrases do get used interchangeably in some descriptions and common speech, but official documents and maps overwhelmingly identify the body of water as Back Cove,” said Tiffany Link, a research librarian at the Maine Historical Society.

For Bayside Neighborhood Association President Sarah Michniewicz, the terminology is a personal choice. “When I’m down there and referring to it in a more formal context, I call it Back Cove, but casually I say the bay. To me, they’re sort of interchangeable.”

Others, however, feel more strongly and stick to one name or the other, Link explained.

“Our recently retired librarian of 30-plus years and lifelong Portland resident, Nick Noyes, was constantly correcting visitors who called it Back Bay with a polite response of ‘Back Cove, please.’ ”

Staff Writer Emma Sorkin can be reached at: [email protected].

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