Peaks Island is the most populous island in Casco Bay, Maine. It is part of the city of Portland and is approximately 3 miles from downtown. The island became a popular summer destination in the late 19th century, when it was known as the Coney Island of Maine, home to hotels, cottages, theaters, and amusement parks.
Hollywood film director John Ford was known as "The Mayor of Peaks Island" because of his great affinity for the island. He vacationed there from boyhood through the early 1960s, worked as an usher at the Gem Theater and was a deckhand on the Casco Bay Lines ferries in his youth.
Besides the Gem, which featured famous performers including the Barrymore family, two other summer theaters were located on the island. One, the Pavilion, opened in 1887, is said to be the first summer theater in the country. The Greenwood Garden Amusement Park sported the Greenwood Garden Playhouse.
George M. Cohan tried his productions out at the island's theaters before taking them to Broadway. Circa 1908, D.W. Griffith was torn between continuing to appear in plays produced at the island's playhouses as he frequently did or heading to Hollywood.
Most of the hotels were lost to fires over the years. The Gem Theater was destroyed by fire on September 7, 1934. 17 buildings burned to the ground on June 2, 1936, including the new Union House Hotel. The only original hotel structure remaining on the island is the Avenue House, which has been converted into condominiums.
During World War II, the island was home to a large military defense installation, including the largest structure, Battery Steele, which housed two 16 inch (406 mm) guns. When Battery Steele's guns were first tested, windows on the opposite side of the island shattered.