In most of New England, a casual restaurant where you eat steamers, fried clams, or lobster at harbor-side picnic tables is probably called a “clam shack” or “lobster shack.” In Maine, though, it’s likely to be a “lobster pound.” This difference in terminology derives from Maine’s lobstering past, but alternative lobster tales obscure the word origin.
My first guess was that the name lobster pound came about because people sometimes order their lobsters by the pound at these establishments.
That was wrong.
According to “A History of Lobster” published by the Gulf of Maine Aquarium, a lobster pound used to refer to the tank that was built inside a shack on a deep tidal creek or harbor through which sea water was piped to nourish the lobsters therein. The first such lobster pound – modeled after those on lobster boats called “smacks” – was built in 1875 on Vinalhaven, a small island off the coast of Rockland and west of Isle Au Haut.
(The fact that part of Acadia National Park is on Isle Au Haut begins to explain the relationship of geography and word origin when it comes to lobster pounds.)
A second definition of lobster pound seems to be a large holding area for lobster created by wharves and netting. The tide cleans and refreshes the holding area. I recently chanced upon such a lobster pound as I was exploring Swan’s Island by bike. You can also witness this design at Riverview Lobster Pound in Pemaquid, Maine, which was built in 1888 by Freeman Grover. The area of this pound is two acres of surface and, according to its owners, “can accommodate over 50,000 pounds of lobsters comfortably.”
Whether we’re talking about the holding tank or the tidal lobster pound, the one thing the historians suggest for both is that they were wholesaling operations, intended to hold lobsters for long enough to take advantage of price fluctuations.
In the part of Maine I know best – the Mount Desert Island area, including Bar Harbor and Trenton – there are a lot of retail lobster pounds. Some, such as Thurston’s Lobster Pound on Bass Harbor, authentically hold their lobsters in tanks with sea water from the harbor below passing freely through them. On the other hand, the lobster pounds on Bar Harbor Road that seem too far from the coast to be pumping in fresh sea water offer another benefit: they boil the lobster roadside in vats fired by wood. Purists savoring the wood-scented breeze while eating sweet lobster chunks in a toasted, buttered roll…well, they forgive.
When you visit Acadia National Park, you should put eating at local lobster pounds high on your agenda. Some are clustered along main roads; others are off the beaten path. Click here for insider’s tips on the best lobster pounds when you visit Acadia National Park.