Those who attended the dedication of Augusta's Howard Hill Historical Park Thursday hiked through woods to get there, but it was a small journey compared to the years-long effort to establish the city park.
A partnership among the Kennebec Land Trust, the city of Augusta, and the Hallowell Conservation Commission, and with a boost from Kennebec Savings Bank, the project at the top of the hill near the State House was more than a decade in the making. And that was just the latest attempt.
Those involved gathered Thursday on an overlook offering a fall foliage-painted vista of the capital city and parts east, with the State House gleaming in the late afternoon sun below.
"There were a lot of times we didn't think we were going to make it," said Howard Lake, director of the Kennebec Land Trust. “At times, we thought maybe we wouldn’t be able to raise the money, and we had already spent a lot of money on it.
"But we persevered, and here we are.”
As Lake stood with the backdrop of the eastern vista behind him, he noted it was a special place. Real estate strategy holds that "it's location location location that matters," he said. "But people matter more," and the city park, which is held in trust by the KLT, wouldn't have happened with the persistence of those involved.
Preservation of the 164-acre hill between Augusta and Hallowell was necessary, speakers at the event said. It preserves green space and the wildlife in it and provides the area with a place to hike, snowshoe and enjoy nature, as well as a tree-laden area in the city to help mitigate climate change.
The process itself was also valuable, said Judy Camuso, commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It sets the stage for partnerships between the state, conservation groups and other stakeholders, groups have different goals and focuses, but can work together toward one end, she said.
"People will protect what they care about," she said.
The Kennebec Land Trust and the city of Augusta began in 2009 to pursue conservation options for the site that was once part of 500 acres owned by the Gannett family, who published several magazines as well as the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.
A large portion of the hill was a Maine game preserve from 1930 to 1969, but the western area, near the end of Capitol Street, was subdivided for homes in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, the Maine Parks and Recreation Commission attempted to buy 200 acres, but wasn't successful.
When the effort to turn the site into a conservation area began anew in 2009, nearly $1 million was pledged to the Kennebec Land Trust over the following years.
Some $337,000 of that was to be from the state Land for Maine's Future, but Gov. Paul LePage wouldn't release the $12 million voters had approved in 2010 and 2012 for 30 conservation projects, including Howard Hill. The $337,500 for the project was then cut to $163,500 by the state in 2016.
With a deadline on the purchase, the trust bought the land for $975,000 in 2015 with help from a bridge loan from Kennebec Savings Bank that closed the funding gap the state money holdup caused.
The land trust deeded the site to the city in 2017 and holds the conservation easement on it.
Andrew Silsby, president and CEO of Kennebec Savings Bank, at Thursday's Howard Hill Historical Park Dedication. The bank provided a bridge loan to Kennebec Land Trust to help complete the project.
'We got it done'
Kennebec Savings Bank President and CEO Andrew Silsby told those gathered Thursday that the bank "jumped on the opportunity" to help with the project.
He said when government, nonprofits and businesses work together on layering funding to protect the state's land "citizens win."
Silsby, an Augusta native, said his father, David Silsby, was a longtime advocate of preserving the land, and was always afraid development would mar it.
"He really felt strong that a state known for forestry and land should have a backdrop to its state house that's green" and protected from development. David Silsby was state revisor of statutes, as well as director of legislative research and director of the state house and Capitol Park commission, among other roles.
He directed his final remark to his father, who wasn't at the dedication but had had a long conversation with Silsby about the history of the site that morning, Silsby said.
"It didn't happen the way you thought it would happen, but we got it done," Silsby said.
'Pretty incredible for a little city'
The land for centuries was part of the Wabanaki Kennebec area hunting and fishing grounds, and is dotted with granite outcroppings, streams, ponds, a variety of trees and dozens of wildlife species. It was acquired in the late 1700s by Capt. James Howard, Augusta's founder.
William Howard Gannett, a Maine legislator, bought the land in the 1890s, and named it Ganneston Park. He developed carriage trails, some of which are overgrown but still visible,and public trails and gardens. The family built a camp at the top of the hill, and also built a large treehouse at the site of the overlook where Thursday's ceremony took place.
The new park connects to the Effie Berry Conservation Area in Hallowell, eight acres donated to the city of Hallowell by Mastway Development, owners of the under-development Stevens School campus.
Augusta Mayor David Rollins said Thursday the area is "a special place, but it's more special for the city of Augusta."
"When you add up all the things we have, it's pretty incredible for a little city," he said. The added green space is also a testament to the city's commitment to the environment.
City Manager Bill Bridgeo echoed that, and, indicating the State House below and the forested land stretching out beyond, said, "When you look out here it epitomizes who we are and what we're about."
About Howard Hill Historical Park
Howard Hill, the wooded backdrop to the Maine State House, is a large and diverse natural area on the west side of Augusta. Its 164 acres includes a cascading stream, steep ravines, large boulders, an expansive ridgeline with sheer cliffs, and diverse wildlife habitat. The property is crisscrossed by an informal network of old carriage roads and woods roads that provide expansive views over the State House and the Kennebec River valley.
It's now a city park, and is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m for nature observation, hiking and snow shoeing. Bow hunting is allowed in season with permission from the city of Augusta. No motorized vehicles are allowed, and dogs must be on a leash, and owners must pick up after them.
There are no bathrooms in the park, but the city plans an entrance with facilities and and parking via a driveway at the end of Ganneston Drive in the future.
The park is accessed through the Effie L. Berry Conservation Area trailhead in Hallowell, which provides a 0.6-mile walk on uneven terrain to the overlook. Parking is available at Stevens School Commons at the end of Coos Lane. There is also access on Sewall Street in Augusta directly opposite Brooklawn Avenue, which leads to a 0.8 mile walk, which has a steep uphill section, to the overlook. Parking is available at the State House. To access from Ganneston Drive, go to the end of Ganneston Drie and park in the street. The trailhead leads to a 0.4 mile walk to the overlook over gentle terrain.