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.
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.
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.
an excerpt of The Maine Woods, recounting his travels up the Penobscot
river in 1846.
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.)
a break at a sawmill near Sanford, c 1910.
(photo: Fred Libby, courtesy Maine State
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.
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).
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.
1864. On lesser-flowing streams, like the
Little Androscoggin, a series of dams helped
maximize power (photo courtesy Maine Historic
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
powered mills continued
to operate. This
mill in Andover is
on the Ellis River,
a tributary of the
courtesy Maine State
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.