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York, Maine: The First City in Maine

Less than an hour’s drive from Portland, York is a beautiful city favored by locals and tourists alike. The Victorian-style architecture gives the town a charming appeal but also serves as a window into the past. While older architecture is not uncommon in Maine, York holds the title of Maine’s first chartered city. Many of the structures that stood at the time of York’s origin have been preserved and can be seen today, hundreds of years later. Even if you’re not a history buff, the entertaining museums and scenic, historical destinations make this seaside town well worth the visit.


Europeans began settling in North America as early as the 15 century, and Indigenous People were here millennia before that. While there were many established tribes and villages throughout Maine, York was the first-ever city to be officially chartered by these new settlers. However, York was not the original name. In 1641, it was first charted under the name of Agamenticus, the Abenaki term for the York River and the surrounding area. Only a year later, it was renamed Gorgeana after Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the lord proprietor of Maine.

If you think back to your high school history class, you might remember that Maine was once part of Massachusetts. After Gorge died in 1652, The Massachusetts Bay Company took control of his dominion and renamed the city York.

Like many coastal cities, York flourished and became a thriving hub for importing and exporting goods between the rest of the country, Europe, and the West Indies. Maine primarily exported lumber (lobsters were not considered the delicacy that they are today!) and imported sugar, molasses, and other commodities.

Historical Sights

The Old York Gaol – This former colonial jailhouse is one of the oldest of its kind in the country. A far cry from current prisons, the gaol looks like nothing more than a large barn. The oldest portion, initially built in 1720, contains a single cell surrounded by 2.5 ft thick stone walls. Crime must have picked up because, in 1736, a dining room, kitchen, parlor, and more cells were added. Over the decades since then, the prison was gradually expanded into the building that stands today. By 1879, the jail was decommissioned, and the building was used as a school, warehouse, and boarding house until 1900, when it was turned into a museum.

Nubble Lighthouse – Although the sandy beaches we do have are beautiful, Maine’s coastline mainly consists of craggy shores. During our country’s earlier years, York Harbor was essential in shipping goods. Due to the threats posed by our dangerous coastline, the people of York petitioned the United States Government to receive funding for a lighthouse. This request was approved in 1874 when President Rutherford B. Hayes granted York  $15,000 to build a lighthouse on the “nub” of the land.

Old Schoolhouse – Early colonizers were not known for their creativity in naming things. The Old Schoolhouse, also called York Corner Schoolhouse, is one of the oldest surviving schoolhouses in all of New England. Built-in 1755, it looks like something you would expect to find on Little House on the Prairie. Although this building was used to teach all of the children in the area, this one room structure is less than half the size of the Old York Gaol. The building is quite plain, but it serves as an excellent comparison of how far society and education have advanced.

-Written by Stacy Oswald & Photo by Benjamin Rascoe