Location, location, location.
Gardiner is right at the head of navigation on the Kennebec River. Ice was harvested at the furthest point upriver that deep-draft vessels could reach. In 1826, Rufus Page built the first ice house near Gardiner. Between the 1800s and 1920s, large blocks of ice would be cut from the river in winter, floated to an ice house, covered with sawdust, and stored keeping it frozen into summer. Year-round, the ice was loaded on ships and shipped south.
The city was founded in 1754 as Gardinerstown Plantation by Dr. Silvester Gardiner, who purchased and developed over 100,000 acres of wilderness on the Kennebec River. Dr. Gardiner was a prominent Boston physician, who lectured on anatomy, but made his fortune importing drugs for distribution and sale. He had an apothecary shop in Massachusetts and two in Connecticut.
Dr. Gardiner promoted land cultivation and introduced a gristmill builder, saw millwright, house carpenter and wheelwright to the settlement. Houses, mills, a church, and a blockhouse were built. Gardinerstown soon became the hub of the regional economy. Its location where the Kennebec River and Cobbesseeconte Stream met with falls that dropped 130 feet made it an ideal location for water-powered mills.
In 1774, Dr. Gardiner added his name to a letter affirming his allegiance to the Loyalist cause. When the British army evacuated Boston in 1776, he fled to Nova Scotia, then lived in England throughout the Revolutionary War.
In 1803, the Gardinerstown settlement was incorporated as the town of Gardiner. Shipbuilding and trade were primary industries from the 1800s to the Civil War. Gardiner was incorporated as a city in 1849. Tanneries and shoe factories prospered, and 10 large riverfront wharves shipped large amounts of lumber through Gardiner.
The city was connected by railroad in 1851. One of the earliest American workable steam automobiles was built in 1858. In the 1860s, paper mills and the commercial ice industry prevailed, but 100 years later, most mills declined and closed.
Most of the city’s antique architecture has been restored. In 1980, the entire downtown historic district was included in the National Register of Historic Places in Kennebec County.
The Gardiner Public Library (shown on the right) opened in April 1852 and was the second public library in the Maine and cost $13,000 to construct.
A famous Gardiner resident was Edwin Arlington Robinson (born 1869) an American poet who won three Pulitzer Prizes for his work in 1922, 1925, and 1928. Born in Head Tide, Lincoln County, Maine, his family moved to Gardiner in 1870. Reportedly, his parents wanted a girl and did not name him until he was six months old. On a holiday visit to a resort, other vacationers decided the child should have a name, and selected a man from Arlington, Massachusetts to draw a name from a hat. Robinson described his childhood in Maine as “stark and unhappy.” In his poems, Robinson renamed Gardiner, Tilbury Town, and it was the backdrop for poems written throughout his career. He published 28 books of poetry in his lifetime and died in New York City in 1935.