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‘I’ll tell you, when anything leaves, it crushes us’

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Captain George “Butch” Harris, took a skiff out to his fishing boat in Eastport, Maine.

By Globe Staff 

EASTPORT, Maine — Everybody here has a story about cows and cowboys, it seems. The sight of a rampaging black Angus being lassoed and hog-tied outside the WaCo Diner. The time a 6-foot-4-inch cowboy did a standing back flip inside the Happy Crab bar.

But the stories are more than a chance to crack a smile. The people here in the easternmost port in the country remember that the heifers — pregnant cattle trucked to Eastport from around the United States and Canada to be shipped overseas — brought much-needed money and a fresh connection to the world economy.

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Now, two years after the ships abruptly stopped sailing — the apparent result of civil war in Syria and turmoil in Ukraine — isolated Eastport is trying to remake itself for a cow-less future.

The challenges are enormous in isolated Eastport, a city of 1,300 people about 350 miles northeast of Boston. Young people routinely have left the city — median age of 56 — because of a lack of opportunity.

And then came 2014, when a run of bad luck left Eastport reeling.

On top of losing the heifer trade that year, the city’s imposing breakwater — vital protection for the fishing fleet and cruise ships — collapsed in the dead of night in December.

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In a third blow, a Canadian-run ferry was halted from Eastport to Deer Island in nearby New Brunswick, a move that hurt visitor traffic and the downtown businesses that cater to it.

What’s more, Eastport’s booming sardine industry collapsed decades ago, and the city has lost about 75 percent of its population since 1900. The median household income is approximately $33,000, compared with $53,000 nationwide, and 19 percent of residents live in poverty.

The heifer business helped take a little sting out of the struggle, if only for five years.

The opportunity came out of the blue, via an unexpected phone call from Texas that asked whether Eastport could ship pregnant cows overseas, where cattle stocks had been ravaged by mad cow disease. Turkish buyers wanted American dairy cattle to give birth in that country, partly so they could be resold in the European Union. Black Angus beef cattle were shipped through the Black Sea to Russia.

“It was found gold,” Gardner said.

Tens of thousands of head of cattle were trucked to Eastport over the years by a cattle-insemination company based in Texas. Once in the city — where their moos both startled and delighted residents — the animals were walked into containers and then hoisted onto the decks of 400- and 500-foot ships.

Capt. Bob Peacock

Cows were loaded from trucks into containers to be shipped in Eastport, Maine.

Gardner said that losing the cows cost the port approximately 20 percent of its business. Officials did not provide a precise estimate of the total economic loss to the city, but a harbor pilot said dozens of longshoremen, most of whom also work as lobstermen, each made up to $12,000 a year from the cows — or about $500 for every shipment.

Bob Peacock, one of two harbor pilots here, was also hurt. At the height of the cow trade in 2012, Peacock said, he made more than $20,000 guiding 12 cattle ships in and out of the deepest natural harbor in the continental United States.

“I’ll tell you, when anything leaves, it crushes us,” said Bob Davis, a former high school teacher.

Much of the compact downtown is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but vacant spaces and Victorian homes in disrepair are not hard to find. Still, the owner of the WaCo Diner — the oldest diner in Maine — said the city’s looks have steadily improved.

“When I came to this town, all those stores had boards on the windows,” said Bob Del Papa, who has lived in Eastport for 14 years.

Now, Eastport is looking to make its own luck. The breakwater is expected to be rebuilt by next fall. Artists and artisans have bolstered a lively creative scene. And dozens of telecommuters, entranced by natural beauty and undaunted by isolation, have made the city their home.

Instead of pregnant cows, there is road salt imported from Morocco and wood pulp headed to Europe.

Last month, the city launched a website devoted to recruiting people to relocate here and telecommute. About 30 newcomers already are working here, including editors, writers, artists, and graphic and web designers, said Lora Whelan, the assistant editor and publisher of The Quoddy Tides newspaper.

Coleman Brice, a New Jersey native who provides computer support for a New York record label, moved here five years ago.

“We found a community of kindred spirits who have come from all kinds of eclectic cities and been Eastport-ed,” said Brice, who lives in a home with a partial water view. “I wanted to afford my son an opportunity to grow up in a kind of old-fashioned environment, where there are still plenty of trees, and it is safe to walk around.”

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Day breaks in Eastport, Maine.

The city is beginning to plan for rising waters caused by climate change. And a vision is taking shape to help Eastport residents “age in place,” which City Manager Elaine Abbott described as the ability to live independently while remaining active in the community.

City and port officials also are hoping that the big cargo pier, located on the back side of the island from downtown, will recoup some of the lost cow business by striking new and different deals with European buyers. The port currently moves about 300,000 tons of wood pulp a year.

“Our past is our future. We need to look to the ocean,” said Gardner, the port director.

Eastport has been looking seaward for centuries, and new routes might be opening up. The city is closer to Europe than any other port on the Eastern Seaboard, Gardner said, and the shrinking ice cap might soon mean the port can look to the Far East.

The ocean brings potential, but it also brings peril. George “Butch” Harris Jr., a fisherman whose family has lived here since the 18th century, lost most of his income in the breakwater collapse.

The 118-foot schooner that Harris used for whale-watching excursions was destroyed, but he found a way forward. Harris bought a smaller boat and resumed business, he skippers for commercial fishing trips, and he uses a dragger to harvest sea urchins, scallops, and lobsters.

His overall business is down 30 percent, but Harris is staying put.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” he said.

Dr. Jenie Smith, who moved to Maine from Minnesota, knows that feeling. Smith is a practicing nephrologist — a medical doctor who specializes in kidneys — but she also owns and works in Dastardly Dick’s, a coffee shop on downtown Water Street. Juggling multiple jobs, even for a physician, is a way of life here.

When asked why she chose Eastport, Smith seemed taken aback.

“Have you looked out there? Seriously?” Smith asked, sweeping her arm toward Passamaquoddy Bay. “I keep telling my physician friends to close their eyes and jump” — into a new life.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.