Gardiner (population 6,198) was founded in 1754 by Dr. Sylvester Gardiner, who acquired the rights to develop the land at the confluence of the Kennebec River and Cobbosseeconte Stream. Dr. Gardiner exploited the 130’ drop during the last mile of the stream by erecting several mills. Following on these early industrial ventures, ship building and trading became the basis of the community’s economy from the early 1800’s until the Civil War.
Beginning in the 1860’s, numerous paper mills were located in Gardiner, and the ice industry flourished between the 1880’s and 1920’s. Starting in the 1960’s, many of the mills began a slow process of decline and eventually closure, and the community is now principally a service and retail center.
Gardiner’s downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an historic district and is the focus of the community’s Main Street Program revitalization efforts. A Façade Improvement Program has leveraged over $160,000 in private funds, and in 2003 alone the district saw $253,000 in private reinvestment and the opening of 16 new businesses. The City is partnering with non-profit and private interests to rehabilitate Johnson Hall Opera House (1864), which will permit expanded use of this functioning arts center.
Gardiner also recently completed its link to the new Kennebec River Rail Trail. The trail will become part of the Kennebec River Historic Waterway, which was created by the State of Maine to coordinate the management and promotion of recreational, scenic and historic lands along the Kennebec River.
Designated a Preserve America Community in August 2005.