river culture

Maine River Culture
The lives of people in Maine have always been intimately intertwined with the region's waterways. This page offers glimpses of that relationship through history, literature, and art.

Sarah Orne Jewett

the celebrated author of The Country of the Pointed Firs, was a native of South Berwick. She lived all her life in her father's house by the Great Works River, a tributary of the Salmon Falls River. In this excerpt from an 1881 essay recounting her excursions on horseback, she laments the degradation of the river she knew so well growing up.

Once, as you came close to the river, you were sure to find fishermen scattered along,--sometimes I myself have been discovered; but it is not much use to go fishing anymore. If some public-spirited person would kindly be the Frank Buckland of New England, and try to have the laws enforced that protect the inland fisheries, he would do his country great service. Years ago, there were so many salmon that, as an enthusiastic friend once assured me, ‘you could walk across on them below the falls;’ but now they are unknown, simply because certain substances which would enrich the farms are thrown from factories and tanneries into our clear New England streams. Good river fish are growing very scarce. The smelts, and bass, and shad have all left this upper branch of the Piscataqua, as the salmon left it long ago, and the supply of one necessary sort of good cheap food is lost to a growing community, for the lack of a little thought and care in the factory companies and saw-mills, and the building in some cases of fish-ways over the dams. I think that the need of preaching against this bad economy is very great. The sight of a proud lad with a string of undersized trout will scatter half the idlers in town into the pastures next day, but everybody patiently accepts the depopulation of a fine clear river, where the tide comes fresh from the sea to be tainted by the spoiled stream, which started from its mountain sources as pure as heart could wish. Man has done his best to ruin the world he lives in, one is tempted to say at impulsive first thought; but after all, as I mounted the last hill before reaching the village, the houses took on a new look of comfort and pleasantness; the fields that I knew so well were a fresher green than before, the sun was down, and the provocations of the day seemed very slight compared to the satisfaction. I believed that with a little more time we should grow wiser about our fish and other things beside (277-78).

Sarah Orne Jewett. "The White Rose Road." Country By-Ways. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1881.

Henry David Thoreau
an excerpt of The Maine Woods, recounting his travels up the Penobscot river in 1846.

We have advanced by leaps to the Pacific, and left many a lesser Oregon and California unexplored behind us. Though the railroad and the telegraph have been established on the shores of Maine, the Indian still looks out from her interior mountains over all these to the sea. There stands the city of Bangor, fifty miles up the Penobscot, at the head of navigation for vessels of the largest class, the principal lumber depot on this continent, with a population of twelve thousand, like a star on the edge of night, still hewing at the forests of which it is built, already overflowing with the luxuries and refinement of Europe, and sending its vessels to Spain, to England, and to the West Indies for its groceries,--and yet only a few axe-men have gone "up river" into the howling wilderness which feeds it. The bear and deer are still found within its limits; and the moose, as he swims the Penobscot, is entangled amid its shipping and taken by foreign sailors in its harbor. Twelve miles in the rear, twelve miles of railroad, are Orono and the Indian Island, the home of the Penobscot tribe, and then commences the batteau and the canoe, and the military road; and, sixty miles above, the country is virtually unmapped and unexplored, and there still waves the virgin forest of the New World.

(Original map drawing by Tom Funk, published in
William Howarth, Thoreau in the Mountains
(New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982).
Copyright © 1982 by William Howarth. All rights reserved.
Used by permission from the author.
Please do not copy without his permission.)


The Sawmills

A mill crew takes a break at a sawmill near Sanford, c 1910. (photo: Fred Libby, courtesy Maine State Museum)

In the eighteenth century, when Europeans first began settling in Maine, the region's seemingly limitless forests were seen as a vast emporium of wealth. Rivers offered a means of powering the mills which could convert the logs to marketable lumber. In many Maine towns, the first frame structures to be built were sawmills.
A double sawmill
in Buxton on the Saco River, looking toward the eastern side of Bonny Eagle Falls around 1880. In its heyday this mill could churn out 2,000,000 board feet annually (photo courtesy Maine Historic Preservation Commission).

At first the mills were built on rivers near the coast, but as forests were cleared in coastal areas the mills were moved further inland. In and around Bangor, the epicenter of Maine's exploding timber industry by the mid-nineteenth century, there were at one time over 200 sawmills in operation, sawing over a million and a half board-feet daily.

Lower dam in Norway, December 1864. On lesser-flowing streams, like the Little Androscoggin, a series of dams helped maximize power (photo courtesy Maine Historic Preservation Commission).

But while the scale of sawmill operations in Bangor was staggering, there were over 1000 other active sawmills in the state by 1870, and the majority were relatively small (after the mid-nineteenth century some of these were powered by steam rather than water).
As late as the 1930s, water powered mills continued to operate. This mill in Andover is on the Ellis River, a tributary of the Androscoggin (photo courtesy Maine State Archives, George French Collection).

When the timber industry exhausted the resource, most of Maine's sawmills were abandoned. Although many dams remain on Maine rivers, the flowing waters are no longer a significant source of power--many of these dams may be removed in coming years as people realize the benefits of free-flowing rivers to fish and river ecosystems in general.


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