Nickels-Sortwell House (1807)

A home becomes a hotel (Wiscasset, Maine)

Shipping magnate William Nickels had this impressive mansion built in 1807 as a symbol of his wealth and status. His ships traveled to Europe and the West Indies, bringing back fine imported goods for wealthy Wiscasset households. William and Jane Nickels’ lavish lifestyle came to an abrupt end when Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 devastated the East Coast economy by prohibiting international trade. By the time of his death in 1815, William Nickels was bankrupt, Jane had died, and their children were left with nothing but debt.

The Nickels’ house became a hotel managed by innkeeper Mary Turner for forty-four years. Known as Turner’s Tavern, it served working and professional guests while Mary also raised her family of nine children. After her death, a series of owners ran the hotel until 1899 when it was purchased by industrialist Alvin Sortwell as a summer home for his family. The Sortwells lovingly restored the house over a period of years and decorated it in the Colonial Revival style with fine antique furnishings.

A National Historic Landmark and one of New England’s finest Federal-style houses, Nickels-Sortwell House is the only Historic New England property available for vacation rentals.

Plan Your Visit


121 Main Street (Route 1)
Wiscasset, Maine 04578

Days & Hours

Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays
June  – October 15

Tours on the hour
11 AM – 3 PM


$15 adults
$13 seniors
$7 students

Free for Historic New England members


Tour involves standing, walking, and stairs. Visitors with limited mobility may be able to enjoy a first floor tour of the house and grounds. Visitors can access a virtual tour of the museum from their own digital device onsite. Folding chairs are provided for visitors who would like to use them while on tour. The site is not equipped with ramps, elevators, or lifts. Service animals are welcome. We are happy to work with you to make your visit an enjoyable one and we encourage visitors with questions or requests to call ahead.


Take I-295 to Exit 28, Route 1 North, Brunswick. Follow Route 1 to Wiscasset. Follow Route 1 to the junction with Route 218 at Wiscasset. Nickels-Sortwell House is on the corner.


Public parking is available on Main Street. There is also a public lot behind the shops on Main Street.

Contact Information

Nickels-Sortwell House Exterior

In 1807 Captain William Nickels built a grand, high Federal-style mansion on Main Street in Wiscasset. Sited at the top of the hill overlooking the river, William and Jane Nickels' home proclaimed wealth and status to all passersby.

  • Nickels-Sortwell House Exterior

    In 1807 Captain William Nickels built a grand, high Federal-style mansion on Main Street in Wiscasset. Sited at the top of the hill overlooking the river, William and Jane Nickels' home proclaimed wealth and status to all passersby.

  • Parlor

    The Sortwells restored and redecorated the house in the Colonial Revival style, creating a treasured summer home for their large family who enjoyed more than five decades of parties, family visits, and summer relaxation.

  • Staircase

    The striking staircase is lit from above by a conical skylight.

  • Third-Floor Lunette Window

    The quintessentially Federal-era lunette window on the third floor landing has delighted family members, servants, hotel guests, and museum visitors for more than 200 years, and still bears the etched signature of a mischievous family guest.

Hidden Outlet

The Wabanaki word Wiscasset means “Hidden Outlet,” referring to the bend in the Sheepscot River that conceals the outlet of the harbor from the view of someone traveling upriver. This is an example of the centrality of the natural world to the Wabanaki – the place is named for one perspective from the river. Alternative spellings for Wiscasset include Witchcasset, Whiscasset, Whichacasecke, and Wichigaskitaywick. Wiscasset Bay is Abonnesig, or “small resting place.”  The Cowseagan/Cowsigan Narrows (where the Sheepscot River separates Wiscasset from Westport Island) means “Rough Rocks”. Aponeg is the part of the river “Where it Widens Out.” Chewonki Neck (down the river from Cowseagan) is the “Big Ridge” and  Nekragen/Nekrangen (the mouth of the Sheepscot River) is “The Opening.”

The land, rivers and other waterways have always been integral parts of the Wabanaki identity and culture. They connected, fed and sustained the people’s communities. The natural world and its creation are part of Wabanaki celebrations, their rituals, their art and their music, and are at the core of their belief systems. The Sheepscot River, called Pashipscot by the Wabanaki meaning “channels split by rocks,” was a transportation corridor. The shores of today’s Sagadahoc, Lincoln, and Knox counties are named Wawenock, meaning”inlet places,” and were places of seasonal fishing, hunting and trading.

The Wabanaki, “the People of the First Light,” are the Indigenous Peoples of Wabanakiak, “The Dawnland,” which consists of the places we call Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island, Anticosti, Newfoundland, and the southern region of Quebec south of Saint Lawrence River. By archeologists’ accounts, the Wabanaki have been in this region for 13,000 years; oral history tells us that the Wabanaki have been of these lands since creation. Due to disease, war, dispossession, and the genocidal policies enacted by the United States government, the Wabanaki suffered a population decrease of 96% since Europeans’ first contact with Turtle Island (North America.) The many diverse tribes and bands across Wabanakiak have amalgamated into five principal Nations: the Mi’kmaq (derived from the word “Ni’kmaq” meaning “my kin friends,”) Abenaki (derived from “Wabanaki,”) Wolastoqiyik “People of the Beautiful River” (Maliseet), Panawáhpskek “Where the Rocks Widen” (Penobscot,) and Peskotomuhkati “Pollock-Searing People” (Passamaquoddy.) The Walina’kiak, or “People of the Bay,” were the tribe most associated with Wiscasset.

Conflict and Survival

First continuous contact with Europeans in Maine came in the mid-17th century with French explorers, trappers and traders interested in commerce with the Wabanaki rather than colonization. Merchant ships soon followed carrying Catholic missionaries as well as traders. English colonists began to arrive in increasing numbers in the later 17th and 18th centuries with expectations of sovereignty over all, whatever means necessary. One of these was Alexander Nickels, William Nickels’ grandfather, who emigrated from Londonderry, Ireland to Massachusetts.

In 1662, the Wabanaki Sagamore Robinhaud signed an agreement confirming the right of English Massachusetts settlers George and John Davies to possess a tract of land on the west side of the Sheepscot River (now Wiscasset). The Wabanaki saw this as a reciprocal agreement, believing that the settlers would peacefully respect and care for the landscape. The English saw it as their purchase of sole ownership. Colonists dammed rivers and violently drove the Wabanaki from the surrounding land. Within ten years, the resulting series of conflicts swept the Wabanaki into the global conflicts of the French and British empires. Wars between the Wabanaki and British colonists caused most of the latter to flee to southern Maine and Massachusetts where they remained for decades.

Following opportunities for economic success, Alexander Nickels moved to Londonderry, New Hampshire in 1719. He married Hannah Cochran in 1724 before moving to Maine where he joined the militia, rising to become a captain. Hannah gave birth to twelve children over the next fourteen years, ten of whom lived beyond infancy.

Alexander was an active participant and leader of the militia in the wars against the Wabanaki. The violence came home when Nickels’ young son Thomas was killed near their home. Alexander was a defender of Fort Frederick in Pemaquid during the last Wabanaki assault in 1747. That same year, the Nickels’ son James returned from Canada where he had been taken after capture by the Wabanaki, who had turned him over to the French.

On December 2, 1749, a brutal murder occurred which became known as “the Wiscasset Incident”. Sailors from Massachusetts attacked a group of peaceful Wabanaki as they returned from peace negotiations. They killed Saccary Harry and wounded Job and Andrew. Two women traveling with them, including Harry’s wife, reported the unprovoked murder to the local justice of the peace but the attackers fled. Because the victims were from different tribes and related to prominent leaders of the tribes, the Massachusetts government feared widespread reprisals, so they sanctioned prosecution of the attackers. Two were arrested in York, Maine where a mob freed them from jail. The ringleader fled to Massachusetts, was re-arrested, returned for trial but ultimately released. The event triggered the final series of violent attacks that continued until about 1760.

The Wabanaki survived and overcame centuries of repression and disenfranchisement. Today, four Maine tribes comprise the Wabanaki– the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy. The people live on tribal lands and in towns and cities across the State. Each community has its own tribal government, community schools and cultural center. Each manages its respective lands and natural resources. The Wabanaki culture is alive and well. The People of the First Light will always be an integral part of Maine.

Shipping Center

In 1729, Massachusetts colonist Robert Hooper began the resettlement of the Wiscasset area by building a garrison fort at Wiscasset point. More white colonists followed, gradually building up what is now the village area.  Over the next five decades, the town became a major shipping center with a deep-water harbor that rarely froze over. Wiscasset’s wealth came from international shipping, – owning and building ships, investing in ships and cargoes, trading goods or servicing the shipping business. Maine wood and fish were sent to the Caribbean to feed and build housing for enslaved people on British plantations. The money made there bought fine goods and foodstuffs in Europe that were then imported to New England. Many of those goods and foodstuffs were made and their material grown by enslaved labor.

In 1760, Lincoln County (which extended from Casco Bay to Nova Scotia) and the town of Pownalborough  (including Wiscasset, Alna and Dresden) were officially established. With its close ties to Boston, Wiscasset grew into a busy, prosperous and thriving legal and commercial center.

William Nickels was born in 1766 in Sheepscot, then part of Pownalborough. William’s father Samuel was an innkeeper in Sheepscot. Samuel was Town Clerk, a leader in the local church and the creation of what became Lincoln Academy. According to censuses, Alexander (William’s grandfather), his uncles and his father Samuel had enslaved people in their households.

William probably first went to sea before 1780, working his way up on ships traveling from Pownalborough to and from the Caribbean and Europe. By 1786, he was part owner (with his father and another partner) of the brig Dolphin, built in Wiscasset. In 1796, the year that he married Jane McCobb, William and his cousin and partner Samuel Miller built their own wharf in Wiscasset, complete with stores and buildings. By 1806 when he bought the house that formerly stood where Nickels-Sortwell House now stands and had that house moved to build his new mansion, William Nickels owned or had owned all or part of twenty-one ships built in Wiscasset, Newcastle, Bristol and Pownalborough. Nickels ships sailed to St. Croix, St. Barts, Martinique, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Liverpool, Limerick, Greenock, Newfoundland, Amsterdam, Savannah, Charleston, New York and Boston. He and his wife Jane had five children, one of whom, Mary, only lived 15 months.

1-nickels-sortwellhouse-1The Nickels’ Mansion

In 1807 William and Jane Nickels built a grand, Federal-style mansion on Main Street in Wiscasset as a public trophy proclaiming their prosperity. A successful ship captain and owner originally from nearby Bristol, Maine, Nickels built at a time when Wiscasset was a busy, wealthy, and sophisticated shipping town.

The wood exterior was designed to look like stone from both the water and the street. The interior decoration and furnishings proclaimed the owners to be people of style, taste, and money. William and Jane Nickels were known for their fashionable dress and lavish entertaining. A large staff of servants, including Catherine Light, Hannah McLean, the children’s nurse, four seamstresses, maids, and housekeepers enabled Jane Nickels to run the house, maintain her fashionable standards, entertain, and care for their six children.

The New England maritime economy was inextricably linked to the global slave trade either by directly profiting from transporting people in bondage or by the trade and consumption of goods grown and produced by the hands of slave labor. Wiscasset ship owners and captains were part of this global trade. Nickels’ partner captained ships that travelled to Europe and the West Indies, bringing back fine imported goods for wealthy Wiscasset households, many of which included enslaved people. The one Black occupant we know who lived in the Nickels’ house was called Sam. We do not know if he was a paid servant or if he was enslaved.

Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 ruined Captain Nickels financially, along with most of Wiscasset. In 1812 both Jane and their eldest daughter Hannah died. In 1814, in an attempt to recoup some of his losses, Nickels deeded the house to his business partner, Samuel Miller, who allowed the family to remain there. In 1815 Nickels himself died of consumption. The estate was consumed by debt. After the estate was settled, there was nothing left for the children to inherit.

Tavern and Hotel

After Nickels’ death, the house was rented by the Turner family, Cornelius, a harness and saddle-maker, and his wife Mary, who opened the house as an inn. Mary ran Turner’s Tavern for forty-four years while raising nine children in the house. In 1827, it became the stage coach stop. In 1830, when her brother purchased the house for her, Mary renamed the hotel The Mansion House. The Turners kept the business going despite Wiscasset’s economic woes. After Mary’s death in 1861 and the unexpected deaths of two of her sons, the house was purchased by William Wilcockson who renovated and updated the house. Like William Nickels, he spent more money than he had and was forced to sell the hotel.

Renamed the Belle Haven, the hotel catered to a new wave of guests from home and abroad. The tourism trade began in earnest by the end of the Civil War with the rusticators, followed by people escaping from the heat and dirt of industrial cities. The Belle Haven catered to legal visitors drawn by the courthouse and served as a comfortable convenient place to stay for Mainers and their families, including women traveling on their own. Its prime location on Main Street made it a perfect place for townspeople and visitors to watch holiday and the annual circus parades that passed through town delighting all who saw them.

In 1897, the hotel was sold to William Hubbard, owner of the Hilton House Hotel next door. Hubbard sold the house to Alvin Sortwell in 1899.

Sortwell Family Summer House

Wealthy industrialist and former mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Alvin Sortwell and his wife Gertrude purchased the Belle Haven as a summer house for their family. Sortwell’s mother’s family had first settled in Wiscasset in 1734. In 1895, escaping the heat and dirt of the city, the Sortwells stayed at the Belle Haven Inn, renting the top two floors. They fell in love with the house and area which was perfect for summer recreation with friends and their family of six active children, ages 8 -17.

Gertrude Sortwell had ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War and both she and her husband were very proud of their American eighteenth-century roots. They dedicated themselves to restoring the house to its former grandeur. They painted it white, discreetly added indoor plumbing and over time decorated it in the Colonial Revival style. By 1916, the Sortwells had lost both Alvin and middle son Edward. In 1917, Gertrude and her daughter Frances, already an enthusiastic historic preservationist, had the veranda removed and the exterior of the house restored to its original profile. To unite house and garden, they added a solarium at the rear of the house that is one of visitors’ favorite rooms today.

The elegant and genteel lifestyle of late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrialist wealth required a large staffs of servants. The Sortwell staff included Maine native Ross Elwell, who met the family while working as a seaman on a yacht. Ross was hired to be butler to the Sortwell’s eldest son, then transferred his services to Frances Sortwell. He became an invaluable part of the family’s life in Wiscasset. Ross owned his own home and also invested in local real estate.

Irish immigrants Margaret O’Hanlon and Josephine Dodge served as cook and waitress to Gertrude Sortwell and the family. Well-remembered by the Sortwell granddaughters, Margaret emigrated from Kildorrerry, Cork at the age of 26 and was working for the Sortwells by the time she was 30. Josephine, emigrated from Killenavarra, Galway at age 14 to join her sister who was already a domestic living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She started working for Gertrude Sortwell almost immediately. Both women travelled with Gertrude between the Sortwell main home in Cambridge to their summer and holiday home in Wiscasset. Josephine met and married a Wiscasset man, Walter Dodge, the Sortwell’s gardener and the couple settled in Maine.

Family and staff saw each other through the wars, the Great Depression, family tragediesand  and drama. Ross, Margaret and Josephine stayed with the family until Gertrude’s death in 1956 and Frances’ death in 1957.

Becoming a Museum

Wishing that the house be preserved and shared with the public, Frances Sortwell bequeathed the house to Historic New England. Today, the house is furnished with Sortwell antiques and high quality reproductions, as well as treasured family objects. The house was opened to the public as a museum in 1958.

Property FAQs

Find out about group tours, restrooms, photography policy, and more.

Learn More
  • Can I park at the museum? Is there street parking?

    You can either park at the Nickels-Sortwell House barn on Federal Street, on Main Street in front of the shops, or in the parking lot behind the house on Water Street.

  • Are there restrooms at Nickels-Sortwell House?

    Yes, there is a restroom available to visitors.

  • Can I take photographs at Nickels-Sortwell House?

    Interior and exterior photography for personal use is allowed at Historic New England properties. For the safety and comfort of our visitors and the protection of our collections and house museums, we ask that you be aware of your surroundings and stay with your guide. Video, camera bags, tripods, and selfie sticks are not permitted. Professional/commercial photographers and members of the media should visit the press room for more information.

  • How can I book a group tour? What is the cost?

    The cost for a group tour of ten or more is $1 off the regular admission price. Call 207-882-7169 or visit our group tours page.

  • Do we need to take a tour or can we just look around?

    All visitors to the house receive a guided tour.

  • How do I become a member of Historic New England and get more involved?

    Join Historic New England now and help preserve the region’s heritage. Call the Membership Office at 617-994-5910 or join online.

  • When was the house built?


  • Who built it?

    Captain William Nickels had the house built. The identity of the architect or even if there was an architect is unknown.

  • How much did it cost to build?

    The mansion cost over $14,000 to build when labor was $1 a day.

  • How many rooms are in the house?

    The house has twenty-one rooms.

  • Do you provide admission discounts for EBT cardholders?

    EBT cardholders from all fifty states can show their card for $2 admission to house tours for up to four guests per card.

Related to this Property

Visit nearby Castle Tucker in Wiscasset.

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Become a member and tour for free.

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