Brunswick discontinues war hero's imaginary street

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BRUNSWICK — In an intriguing example of the sometimes-tenuous relationship between people and reality, the Town Council on Monday unanimously voted to do away with a 105-year-old street that existed only in the imagination of a long-dead war hero.

“It’s a street that doesn’t exist,” Town Manager Gary Brown told the council.

Civil War veteran and four-time Maine Gov. Joshua Chamberlain owned a 35-acre parcel of land in Brunswick that included the current site of the Longfellow School.

Chamberlain’s impact on Brunswick and the world at large can be felt in many ways, big and small. He has been the subject of Hollywood films, a line of Shipyard Brewing Co. pale ale, a bridge in Bangor, and, of course, the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum.

Monday’s vote eclipsed one of the small, unintended Chamberlain legacies that not even the most devout historical enthusiast is likely to miss.

In 1907, Chamberlain received approval from the town to establish a subdivision that included provisions for a Hawthorne Street (which is completely different from the nearby Hawthorne Street that exists in Brunswick today).

But when Chamberlain died seven years later, the subdivision remained unbuilt, and Hawthorne Street remained only as lines on a surveyor’s map.

In 1923, the town purchased the property, and inherited the street along with it. Chamberlain’s will had specified that nothing could be built on the land with the exception of schools or “dwellings to cost not less than $2,000,” a significant sum at the time.

“This stipulation alone might explain why nothing was built there,” Jennifer Blanchard, executive director of the Pejepscot Historical Society, said.

The land eventually became the site of the Longfellow School, which conformed to the conditions Chamberlain had laid out.

The non-existent roadway stretches from Longfellow Avenue to South Street, right through the school playground.

Over the decades, the presence of the street has been felt from time to time, like an apparition that only appears in certain, unlikely circumstances. In one case, the street became the subject of correspondence between the town of Brunswick and Rosamund Allen, Chamberlain’s granddaughter.

In 1984, Allen was asked by E. Boyd Livesay, a representative of the town, to give up her residual rights to the street, a request that apparently bewildered Allen who, naturally, had never heard of such a street.

“I can quite understand your confusion concerning ‘Paper Streets,’ as there is little reference to them except among lawyers, engineers, surveyors and city planners,” Livesay wrote to Allen.

Allen did eventually give up her rights to the street, but it still existed in the town’s books.

And it’s not the only one, according to Councilor Gerald Favreau.

“There are a lot of paper streets in Brunswick,” he said. “… These are all town-owned properties that someday, if necessary, they can create streets there.”

“Usually, people don’t know about it unless there is some sort of legal action that takes place,” council Chairwoman Joane King added.

Hawthorne Street became an issue again this year, when the town attempted to deed the Longfellow School to Bowdoin.

“The title search and research indicated that as part of the Joshua Chamberlain subdivision approved in 1907, there is what we call a paper street,” Brown said. “… They’ve simply asked to give them clear title to all of the property over there, that this street that doesn’t exist be formally discontinued by the Town Council.”

Another layer of surreality was added when Bowdoin College Treasurer S. Catherine Longley first had to formally agree that subtracting the never-there street from the books wouldn’t harm the institution.

“Bowdoin College hereby agrees that Bowdoin College will incur no damages as a result of the discontinuance of the portion of Hawthorne Street described in this notice,” according to the document, “and hereby waives any claim to or payment of any and all damages arising out of such discontinuance.”

The town’s leaders have assured Bowdoin College that the formal discontinuance of Hawthorne Street clears its title once and for all.

But after 105 years of non-corporeal existence, it remains to be seen whether Hawthorne Street will simply cease to be, or whether certain passersby on a moonlit night will see some glimmer of the street that never was.

Edited on 5/10/11 to correct the association of E. Boyd Livesay.

Research by Ann Frey of the Pejepscot Historical Society contributed to this report. Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or matthh@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hh_matt.

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On paper, Hawthorne Street in Brunswick runs right through the Longfellow School playground.

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