The story of modern-day Gardiner begins in the mid-18th century when Dr. Sylvester Gardiner — a highly respected Boston surgeon – acquired the rights to develop the land at the confluence of the Kennebec River and Cobbosseeconte Stream.
Along with his considerable medical skills, Dr. Gardner had a quick mind and a strong entrepreneurial streak. He quickly set about harnessing the tremendous energy generated by the 130’ drop at the last mile of the Cobbossee, and used it to power two saw mills, a felting mill, a potash factory and a grist mill – the latter being the only such facility within a 50-mile radius at which settlers could grind their corn. And so in 1754, “Gardinerston Plantation” was established.
As workers settled the area to man all of this newly-created industry, the settlement soon became the area’s primary economic center. Then in 1803, the Town of Gardiner was officially incorporated. For more than half of the 19th century, the Gardiner economy was driven by shipbuilding and trade; in 1849, the year we became a city, there were 10 large wharves along the waterfront serving the shipping industry — moving vast quantities of lumber and other goods produced by the many mills and tanneries located on the Cobbossee Stream.
Gardiner’s economy prospered as the city was connected by railroad in 1851… paper mills were established in the 1860s… ice production for refrigeration flourished from the 1880s through the 1920s… and several shoe and leather companies, along with the paper mills, ensured a firm economic base until well after the Second World War.
In the latter half of the 20th century – as had occurred throughout New England – the mill-driven economy in Gardiner gave way to modern industry. In recent years, our central location and fast access to the region’s major markets has attracted a broad range of new businesses, from precision manufacturing to warehousing and logistics to specialty food distribution.
The 21st century has seen downtown Gardiner undergo a resurgence as niche retail and both commercial and personal services contribute to a burgeoning service economy; while within reasonable commuting distance to Maine’s major employment centers (Augusta, Bath and Portland), we’re far enough away to make Gardiner an important service center for the surrounding area in its own right. As a matter of fact, over 30,000 vehicles pass through downtown Gardiner on any given day!