Dec 042011
To understand the origin of the term “Down East,” you have to know a little about geography and history.  Some sailing experience helps, too.
Map of Down East Maine CoastFirst of all, Down East generally refers to the part of the coast of Maine from Penobscot Bay to the Canadian border, as this map courtesy of shows.  It includes Hancock and Washington counties and generally excludes Mount Desert Island, although usage varies.

(For example, does include it.  But the same article that says Down East Maine generally doesn’t include Mount Desert Island, says it does include Bar Harbor.  That writer may well be among the many New Yorkers I’ve spoken with who say they’ve been to Bar Harbor, but never MDI.)

More geography.

Map of New EnglandTake a look at the New England map at the right and note how far east the coastline of Maine extends beyond Boston, Massachusetts to the south.  (That’s why Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island and Mars Hill further north are, depending on the time of year, the first locations in the U.S. to see the sunrise.)

Now for the history.

The term Down East Maine came into usage in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  During this period, many American cities were being built by the lumber, limestone, and granite from Maine.  So active was this sailing commerce between Boston and Maine, for example, that one schooner captain said, “The entire Maine coast was one vast neighborhood in which every schooner was as familiar as the house next door…”

That brings us to the contribution to the term made by sailing vocabulary.

When you’re sailing with the wind at your back, you’re sailing down wind.  During the Age of Sail in New England, the prime sailing season was from late spring through early fall – when the prevailing winds were from the southwest.

Thus, those ports in Maine were “Down East.”

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