“East of Frenchman Bay one finally enters the region that can truly be called ‘down east,’” writes Philip W. Conkling in the 2nd edition of Islands in Time, his classic 1981 study of the Gulf of Maine. “The climate here is more boreal than in southern Maine. Peat bogs and tamarack replace pine and oak forests; the fogs are more enduring and impenetrable; the society is more sparse and egalitarian.”
The term comes from the 19th century age of sail, when there were no Interstate highways, and bulk freight traveled by coastal schooner instead of tractor-trailer.
The prevailing ocean winds came steadily out of the southwest, which meant that ships heading for Maine from Boston were blown down the coast to the east. (Ships returning were said to sail ‘up,’ i.e. into the wind.)
“One of the first things a newcomer to the Maine coast learns is that there is no north or south,” Conkling adds. “There is only east and west.” He feels that mid-coast towns like Camden, Belfast, and even Bar Harbor are not truly ‘down east,’ and reserves that term for the coast of Washington County, “the raw edge of America” at the end of both Maine and the United States.