Maine’s Gambling History Begins With A Taboo Horse Bet In 1829

Written By J.R. Duren on April 29, 2022
A history of gambling in Maine

If you get the feeling that Maine has slow-rolled gambling, you’re spot on.

The state’s gambling history is a relatively recent one. And it’s indelibly linked to the constant tension between the state’s four federally-recognized tribes and its legislators and voters.

Amid that tension, there has been slow progress. As it stands, gambling in Maine is limited to:

  • One casino
  • One racetrack with slots
  • Several horse tracks
  • A smattering of tribally-run gambling halls
  • And a Lottery

Though Maine isn’t exactly a mecca of gambling, its history of cards, casinos, and betting goes back a long way.

1829: The churchgoer who pled for forgiveness

The earliest account of gambling in Maine came nearly 200 years ago in 1829. A man named Eben Carleton happened to find himself involved in a race between a couple of horses. Like any sensible gambler, he put down a bet on which horse would win.

Turns out his clandestine wager wasn’t as clandestine as he thought. Someone found out: That someone was Carleton’s reverend. And in that day and age in Maine, a good Christian betting on horses was grounds for some serious shame.

Carleton confessed, and dictated an apology to his reverend, who transcribed the dirty deeds onto a letter to Carleton’s church:

“I ask for forgiveness of God and of this church for this wrong,” he said. “I pray that I may be more watchful and circumspect in the time to come.”

There was no word on whether Carleton’s horse won, but Carleton lost.

While the unlucky bettor isn’t the most famous of names in the state’s tales of wheeling and dealing, we cover plenty more in our upcoming post about the most famous (and infamous) names in Maine’s gambling history.

The roaring 20’s at Bar Harbor and Poland Spring

If you were anywhere near Bar Harbor or Poland Spring at the beginning of the 20th century, then you knew about Bar Harbor Casino and Poland Spring House. And the irony of it all? Bar Harbor wasn’t a casino and Poland Spring was.

Bar Harbor Casino was the epicenter of the Bar Harbor social scene. It hosted sporting events, plays, concerts, town meetings and graduations. But the one thing it didn’t host? Gambling. As far as we know, no bets were placed, roulette wheels spun, or Texas Hold’Em hands played for money.

Poland Spring House, on the other hand, saw its fair share of money change hands over card games and other forms of gambling. The house became incredibly popular and expanded from a single house to a formidable hotel and resort destination. The gambling became pretty popular too, so much so that it caught the eye of Maine law enforcement.

In 1972, 50 state troopers and 150 other law enforcement officers raided a gambling ring operating at an inn on the Poland Spring property. Sixty people were arrested, making it the largest mass arrest in the state’s history at the time.

The property met its demise in 1975 when a fire ripped through the property and destroyed the main part of it.

Maine’s gambling boom from 1950 to 2012

1950: Scarborough Downs

Scarborough Downs Harness Racetrack was the state’s first major horse track. Built on 500 acres of marshland, it took developers 73 days to build the track. The one-mile track required moving and grading 1.5 million cubic yards of material. The first race kicked off on Jul. 1, 1950, and the track has been a staple in Maine racing ever since.

1973: Penobscot High Stakes Bingo

Penobscot High Stakes Bingo was a landmark facility opening. It was the first tribally owned gambling hall of its kind in the state. And one of the first Indian gaming operations in the country.

Owned by the Penobscot Nation, the Indian Island hall was a fixture among bingo players for more than four decades until its closure.

2004: Hollywood Casino Hotel

In 2003, the Maine legislature approved a bill to allow slot machines at commercial horse racing tracks. The decision was a landmark one, and it paved the way for Hollywood Casino Hotel’s launch in 2004.

Though not a casino in the traditional sense (there were no table games), the addition of a slots gaming facility to Hollywood Raceway ushered in a new era in Maine’s gambling history.

2012: Oxford Casino

Perhaps the biggest moment in Maine’s gambling history came in 2010. This is when voters approved the addition of one casino in Oxford County. The vote was incredibly close: 284,934 to 280,211, or a margin of victory of 0.8%.

Oxford casino offers a variety of table games as well as Class III slots. Making it Maine’s only casino with slots and table games.

Failed gambling expansion efforts in Maine

For as many victories as casinos and gambling halls have had in Maine, there are numerous failures. Many of those failures have been attempts by the state’s federally recognized tribes.

From 1993 to 2015, tribes pushed for casino legalization. Over that time, 11 bills that would’ve allowed a tribally-owned casino or gaming expansion at existing tribal facilities were shot down. The Maine legislature’s constant rejection of bills that would expand tribal gaming is a source of frustration for the tribes.

But they aren’t the only ones who’ve met resistance from Maine lawmakers and voters. Commercial companies hoping to open casinos or expand gaming have faced the same fate multiple times.

The key difference? Maine lawmakers and voters granted expanded gaming and a casino to a pair of commercial operators: Hollywood Casino Hotel and Oxford Casino.

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