Next Thursday, March 23, I’ll provide an illustrated lecture on the history of Willard Beach. Willard Beach is a popular year-round destination in South Portland. In the summer on a sunny day, you’ll find the shore teaming with beachgoers. It’s always struck me as interesting to see the various ways that people choose to use the beach.

I used to take my own kids to play on the playground and to explore the water’s edge in search of hermit crabs. We all know what a popular spot it is for people walking their dogs – which led to the understandable struggle over how we can all enjoy the beach, even if some of that use might be at odds with others.

A view of Willard Beach in 1890. South Portland Historical Society will hold an illustrated lecture, “The History of Willard Beach,” on Thursday, March 23 at the Community Center. South Portland Historical Society photo

The history of the beach is an interesting subject. Documented evidence dates back to the 1700s when William Simonton carried on a West Indies trade from the southern end of the beach, on the point that we now call Fishermen’s Point. That area was once called Wharf Point, a nod to Simonton’s business there, and the cove itself is still called Simonton’s Cove to this day.

In the 1800s, the beach was essentially a fishermen’s beach. Fishing shacks were located on the point and on the beach itself. If you could go back in time, you would have seen dories and dinghies pulled up on the beach, or tied to a mooring in the cove.

Another name for Simonton’s Cove in earlier times was Gurry Cove (the word “gurry” is defined as fish offal – or the fish waste that you get after cleaning a fish).

When the electric trolleys came to South Portland in 1895, the trolley company soon built the massive Willard Casino on the beach (an entertainment casino, not the gambling kind). Although the casino was only in existence for a short time, it did lead to the Willard and Loveitt’s Field neighborhoods becoming a destination for Canadian tourists, with hotels and boarding houses popping up. And the use of the beach by fishermen at times conflicted with the use of the beach as a recreational spot.


This small structure was the first Willard Beach bath house, located at the end of Willard Street on the site that would later be home to the Willard Casino. Ellen Willard (mother of Charles J. Willard, Jr.) was the proprietor of the bath house. South Portland Historical Society photo

As South Portland developed, so too did the sewage coming from all of the new homes. Until our sewage treatment plant opened in 1978, sewage was discharged directly into the harbor, which included a large pipe extending out into the water near Fishermen’s Point and one right on the beach, as well. If you talk with some older residents, they’ll tell you how Willard Beach wasn’t always a particularly pleasant destination due to the smell in the 1960s and 1970s.

The points on either end of the beach are also a source of interesting history. Spring Point was home to a fort as early as the Revolutionary War, when Fort Hancock was built on the site. Fort Hancock was replaced by the first variation of Fort Preble in 1808. Fort Preble saw many years of reconstruction and on-and-off use as a military base over the years. When the fort was in use, seeing soldiers on the beach was an everyday occurrence.

On the other end of the beach, Fishermen’s Point was used by fishermen to store their gear. There were once many more fishing shacks than there are today. We lost several shacks in the 1900s due to storms. Now that the shacks are vacant, the point is simply a scenic spot to view the harbor. The remaining fishing shacks are beloved by many in our community and they are also a mecca for former residents who come back for a nostalgic visit to South Portland.

As we sometimes hear at the museum, former residents often say that their first stop in the city is a trip to Willard Beach to see if the fishing shacks are still there.

An earlier view of Fishermen’s Point, showing many fish houses which have been lost over the years. South Portland Historical Society photo

With thoughts of the severity of storms in recent years, I approached Craig Piper last year to see if he might be willing to help the South Portland Historical Society. Craig is an architect and lives with his family in Loveitt’s Field. We talked about how a major storm could wash away one, or both, of the existing shacks in the future, and I wondered if he could design architectural plans of the shacks that would make it possible for us to reconstruct them if they were ever lost. What I hadn’t expected was that Craig would call in a whole team of professionals to help.

Craig is a senior principal and architect at SMRT Architects and Engineers in Portland, and they were thrilled to take this on as a project for us.


The team from SMRT first came to the museum last spring where we went over the history of Fishermen’s Point, how the shacks had come to be, and how they were used. The team then headed over to the point with all of their equipment, including a generator to power their lighting and a special, cutting-edge camera that allowed them to document 360-degree images of the interiors of both shacks.

After a day of measuring and documenting all of the materials that make up the shacks, on both the interior and exterior, they took all the data back to their office. We had subsequent discussions about exactly what plans were wanted. SMRT had found in their measurements that the existing beams and lumber used are of inconsistent sizes. Since it was fishermen who had constructed these shacks, it was apparent that they had used any material that they had on hand or could salvage. Rather than having SMRT create drawings of an exact replication (which would result in great difficulties in obtaining similar-sized materials during a rebuild), we asked that they create drawings that would be more practical in nature.

People enjoying a day at Willard Beach. South Portland Historical Society photo

What SMRT completed for us this past year was two-fold.

First, they created architectural drawings that would result in the exact exterior look of the existing buildings, but which would allow a modern-day builder to obtain material found at a lumberyard today. And secondly, SMRT created 3D photographs of the two existing shacks which allow the viewer to explore a 360-degree view of the interiors, on multiple levels.

If you would like to enjoy these incredible interior views of the fishing shacks, please visit the historical society’s website at and click on the tab called “Fishermen’s Point fishing shacks.”

Our thanks to Craig Piper and the team at SMRT Architects and Engineers for the donation of their time and expertise on the project. During the significant storm that we experienced last month, which wreaked havoc on the beach and the dunes, we were lucky that we didn’t lose either fishing shack, but they did sustain quite a bit of damage. It is our hope that the city is able to repair the damage to the siding and support structures and that we can all continue to enjoy these beautiful structures that harken back to a different time.

If you’re interested in the history of Willard Beach, please join us at the Community Center next Thursday, March 23, at 6:30 p.m. where I’ll be giving an illustrated lecture about the history of the beach and Fishermen’s Point. Admission to the lecture is free for current members of the South Portland Historical Society. Non-members may attend with a $20 donation, but if you live in South Portland, we highly recommend that you support the historical society with a $25 annual membership.

Members enjoy free or reduced admission to all Society programs and lectures for a year, as well as the knowledge that they are playing a part in preserving local history. For more on this or other programs, visit, join us on Facebook at South Portland Historical Society, or reach out to us at 207-767-7299, [email protected], or 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society. She can be reached at [email protected]

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