The City of South Portland is a coastal community in southern Maine encompassing an area of 12.93 square miles. The city has been referred to as two cities, with the western half of the city hosting commercial, industrial and advanced technology property and the eastern half of the city sporting a community college, a beach area, several parks, one of the State’s largest marinas, a municipal boat ramp, a maritime museum and the second busiest oil port on the entire East Coast.
On November 1, 1765, South Portland and what is now Cape Elizabeth (known then collectively as "Cape Elizabeth") was established, separating from Falmouth. In the 1800s, the community was home to both residential and industrial activity. The residential area of what is now Cape Elizabeth, and historically industrial areas of the City, such as the Ligonia neighborhood, the shipyards and commercial activity in Ferry Village, Knightville, and Turner's Island, and a military base. When automobile travel developed, Maine's major highway came through the town. Throughout the years, the combination of business, industrial and residential has been a defining feature of the community.
In 1895, what is now Cape Elizabeth separated (keeping the historical name of the town), and the Town of South Portland was established. In 1898, South Portland became a City by Charter. The City of South Portland houses historical records for Cape Elizabeth going back to 1765.
In 1940, a shipyard was established in the East Coast of the community to build cargo ships for Great Britain. When the United States became involved with World War II the shipyard expanded and turned out 274 Liberty and Ocean ships, which accounted for more than 10 percent of all the Liberty ships built during the WWII era. At its peak, the shipyard employed some 30,000 people, including thousands of women, "Wendy the Welders" and "Rosie the Riveters" who took over the jobs vacated by men going into the service. The shipyard gradually ceased operations after the war ended in 1945.
The city remained relatively quiet until the mid 1960’s when consideration was given to develop a piece of land on the west end of the city. Recognizing the location as having a healthy economic future, the city purchased 137 acres from Dwyer’s pig farm in anticipation of the Interstate 295 spur through Portland and South Portland that would be linking with the turnpike just south of the farm, with the added advantage of the close proximity of the Portland International Jetport (the runway is actually located in South Portland). When a developer came to the area looking for a likely spot for a shopping center, South Portland was chosen over Portland, Scarborough and Falmouth. As a result, the Maine Mall opened its first twenty stores to crowds of shoppers in August 1971. In September of 1972 the total taxable sales for the month were 7.5 million. The Mall employed 2,000 employees and had a 10 million dollar annual payroll. In the last 30 years the Maine Mall area has evolved from farmland into the largest retail, commercial, and office complex north of Boston and currently employs more than 3,000 people. Each year the Mall’s 140 businesses draw 13 million visitors to its 1.2 million square feet of retail space. The population of South Portland swells from 23,300 to between 60,000 and 80,000 whenever the Mall’s doors are open.
The South Portland Historical Society and Museum remains a great resource for learning about the history of Cape Elizabeth and South Portland.