American Futures: Eastport's big bet on global trade (plus, a quiz!)

Kai Ryssdal stands on the Eastport Port Authority pier, watching a cargo ship come into dock

When Jim Fallows at The Atlantic told us about the next place he wanted to go for our American Futures project, he told us we’d have to travel a ways to get there.

Kai Ryssdal joins Jim Fallows and his wife Deb in their Cirrus SR-22 that they’re flying across the country

Eastport, Maine is as far east as you can get in the United States. The town sits on Moose Island, with Canada only a short boat ride away.

A downtown pier in Eastport, ME. Canada lies in the distance.

Eastport, Maine has about 1,300 residents, a far cry from the 5,000 they lived there nearly a century ago. Back then, the city was known as the sardine capital of the U.S., when two dozen sardine factories employed a good portion of the town.

Those factories are all shuttered now.

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Eastport can be difficult to get to: There’s no rail line, the largest commercial airport is a two-hour drive away and only a single road connects the island and mainland. But Eastport's location is why they’re hoping to make a comeback and revive the once thriving local economy.

The town has the deepest natural seaport in the continental United States, which means massive cargo ships can get in and out. They’re also closer to Europe than any other port in the United States. 

Chris Gardner directs the Eastport Port Authority, and helped lead many of the town’s investments in building a pier that could accommodate those massive cargo ships. He says his motto is: "Always say yes." And saying "yes" is why Eastport ended up shipping live, pregnant dairy cows to Turkey and Russia.

Until then, Eastport shipped mainly wood products, especially pulp from the surrounding Maine forests. They’re making plans to grow that business, too. Gardner says they expect the European market for wood chips and pellets to grow in the coming years, and they’ve already purchased the equipment they’ll need to load it. For now, they mostly ship wood pulp to Asia.

Wood pulp from a local mill is stacked in warehouses at the port. It’s loaded into cargo ships by the truckload.

A job at the terminal is considered a good one in Eastport -- employees receive health care insurance and retirement plans -- but the work isn’t full-time since there aren’t enough ships coming in, yet.

Almost everyone you meet in Eastport works a couple of jobs, "one for every season" says Eastport resident Jesse McPhail. And seasons run Eastport. They fish according to the season: Salmon, lobster, scallops, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. Summers mean tourists, and hospitality jobs. And others have trades, like electricians or masons, but don’t get enough business throughout the year to make it full-time.

That’s the story of Eastport, a town full of people ‘making a go of it.’ They’re betting that global trade will boost the deepwater port that’s so close to Europe. In the meantime, Eastport waits between its two seasons.


About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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I live in Jonesboro, Maine - just a few miles south of Eastport, and I visit there frequently, both to show this great potential port to visitors from the outside world, but also to fish for mackerel off the docks in August. But the "potential" your report suggests for Eastport is more "potential" than real. As you may know, the upper one-half of the State of Maine is in desperate need of a "healthy economy." Gone are the days of extracting resources as a means of wealth and employment. Yet, neither the State, nor the Feds, have done anything visible to get a substantially economy going in this wonderful part of the United States. You are right, Eastport has huge potential. But we citizens of Washington County see absolutely no evidence that the State or the Federal Government are doing anything smart to help generate the requisite infrastructure. Perhaps you have already covered the following suggestion in previous "American Futures" segments, but if not - please consider doing stories on either Cleveland or Syracuse or Rochester ....all cities that have been devastated by loss of their "old economy" .....but are reputed to have been staging comebacks. Are these comebacks true? If so, what lessons can other states/communities (like the State of Maine) learn from them? Many thanks. I think the "American Futures" feature of your program is excellent.

Great place to visit. You won't be sorry (unless you are there sometime between Nov. and April!) Best lobster rolls in the world, nice people, great public library, ride the ferry and drop money in the shops.

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