In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Explore photos from the "Malaga Island: A Story Best Left Untold" documentary

The themed images below document the exhibition at the Salt Institute in Portland, Maine of Malaga Island: A Story Best Left Untold, produced by Kate Philbrick, photographer, and Rob Rosenthal, radio producer in February, 2009.

The Salt Institute gallery exhibition included photographs of the island in 2009, constructed mages from historical documents, old postcards, and a presentation of the radio program.

Malaga Island Archaeology

Fish hook excavated on Malaga Island
Fish hook excavated on Malaga IslandBy Kate Philbrick, 2009

Even though Malaga was frequently in the press, not much is known about day-to-day life for the islanders. For several summers in the mid-2000s, a team of student archeologists under the guidance of professors Rob Sanford and Nate Hamilton from the University of Southern Maine conducted archeological research. They dug, scraped, and sifted dirt to fill-in the picture of daily living. The researchers uncovered tens of thousands of artifacts – pottery, fishhooks, dishes, buttons, medicine bottles, nails and so much more.

Some of what the team found contradicts press reports about island living. While the newspapers declared the islanders to be "lazy" and "shiftless,’" Rob Sanford says the artifacts point to an industrious, hard-working community living on the economic edge. "We found all kinds of evidence of a productive, local-based economy…. It looks to me like they worked pretty hard… So they weren’t just casually waiting there for hand-outs and things."

Additionally, Nate Hamilton says the archeological record indicates island living was not easy, just like it was for any community living on the Maine coast during the turn of the 20th century. There wasn’t easy access to drinking water and insulating the homes for the winter was a challenge.

Malaga Island Cemetery

Malaga resident cemetery at Pineland
Malaga resident cemetery at PinelandBy Kate Philbrick, 2009

Soon after the State of Maine purchased Malaga in 1911, they committed eight islanders to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded. The threat of eviction lingered over the remaining islanders for many months. According to a newspaper report, the state’s agent to Malaga, George Pease, visited the island in February of 1912 and all of the islanders hid. He came upon a young boy and told him to tell the others to come out or he would send more people to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded.

Eventually, the state issued an eviction notice with a deadline of July 1, 1912. On that day, Pease arrived on Malaga to set fire to the buildings. It was a wasted trip, no one was there and the homes were gone. All that remained were the school and the graveyard.

Soon after the islanders vacated Malaga, the State took two more steps to complete the purging of the community. First, the State donated the school to another island. Then, they removed the graveyard. Seventeen bodies were dug up, placed in five caskets, then shipped by train to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded where they were re-buried. A fifty-year old community of black and multi-race families was destroyed. Six months later, the State sold Malaga to the highest bidder for sixteen hundred and fifty dollars - four times what they paid for it.

Malaga Island Descendants

Malaga descendant
Malaga descendantBy Kate Philbrick, 2009

After the eviction, a stigma followed descendants in Phippsburg and nearby, a stigma of multiple race heritage and feeblemindedness. Out of fear of being ridiculed, generations of descendants refused to talk about the Island. So we were surprised and grateful when several descendants talked with us on tape. Most of them told the same story - families hid the past. For some it was silence, for others history was buried in anger or denial. And, they say the barbs and slurs from neighbors have lessened over the years, but they still remain.

Malaga Island in 2012

Malaga Island
Malaga IslandBy Kate Philbrick, 2009

The community on Malaga remained relatively unchanged for many, many years from the 1860’s to the turn of the century. They fished, raised families, and did what they could to eke out a living on Maine’s fairly unforgiving coastline.

But, while island life stayed somewhat constant, the world around Malaga changed. In particular, the economy collapsed. Traditional industries like wooden shipbuilding and fishing declined precipitously.

By the early 1900’s, the state of Maine, including costal towns like Phippsburg, looked to tourism and development as way to dig out of the state’s economic slump. It’s around this time Maine was dubbed “Vacationland.” And, article after article in newspapers proclaimed the New Meadows River area around Malaga ripe for spas, inns, and second homes.

“From the mouth of this pleasant river throughout its entire length, its waters are dotted with islands and pierced with pleasant land points which afford perfect locations for the construction of pleasant summer houses.” Front page, Bath Independent and Enterprise, 1903.

In this context, the Malaga mixed-race community was viewed as a burden, an eyesore, and a possible impediment to economic growth. While the eviction of the islanders was prompted by racism, eugenics, and political retribution, tensions over the island were clearly fueled by economic woes so removal of the islanders was seen as a way to solve part of that problem.

Oddly, though, after the village was cleared from Malaga, nothing ever happened on the island. No hotels. No spas. No second homes or cottages. Nothing. Ironically, a few descendants now store some of their lobster traps and fishing gear there. But, the island remains relatively untouched.

Today, Malaga is owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT), a conservation group. MCHT has created a walking path and erected some signage but they plan to keep the island wild and uninhabited while still allowing the fisherman their limited use of Malaga.

Photo Illustrations by Kate Philbrick

As a documentary photographer, I photograph what is happening in front of me. I record what I see in the most truthful way possible. Working on a story which happened in the early 1900s was challenging because I wasn't there to record events such as the houses being dismantled and moved or Governor Plaisted's visit to the island. I had to find a way to visually portray the contrast of the islanders as they really were with the newspapers depiction of the community.

Our research for this story led us to local archives in Maine and one in Boston, to find documentation of what happened leading up to the eviction and it's aftermath. I was able to scan roughly two hundred documents and old photographs referring to Malaga and it's people. This section of imagery is a combination of some of those scanned documents with photographs I took on my visits to the island during a two and a half year period. For me, these photo illustrations show the layers of this sad story that still effect the community.

—Kate Philbrick, Project Photographer