Bethel's Elusive Androscoggin Steamboat


Bethel's Elusive Androscoggin Steamboat


Bethel Historical Society


Spring 1982



This article has been edited and updated by the author for inclusion on this website.



Full Text

Bethel's Elusive Androscoggin Steamboat

by Randall H. Bennett

Steamboat landing site on Androscoggin River at Bethel, circa 1910

"I know of no place in the United States where as varied and rich scenery can be witnessed as when on the Androscoggin . . . every fifty rods for the whole distance will exhibit a different landscape worthy the attention of the painter. Its appearance is very different when on the water, as it meanders along its broad intervales, from what it is on its banks." Thus spoke one writer in a January 1859 edition of the Bethel Courier (1858-1861), Bethel's first newspaper. The unsigned article in which this appeared was undoubtedly written by the Courier's editor, Dr. Nathaniel Tuckerman True, one of the most enthusiastic promoter's of Bethel's scenic grandeur during the nineteenth century.

The reemergence of canoeing on the Androscoggin of late, especially over the relatively calm stretch of river between Gilead and Rumford Falls, allows modern day boaters to see for themselves how attractive is the scenery along the river; they can also experience for themselves how various aspects of the countryside appear strikingly different from the water than when viewed from U.S. Route 2 or the Intervale and South Rumford roads. Since the mountainous landscape surrounding Bethel had become a popular tourist attraction by the the late 1850s, it may not come as a surprise that the idea of river travel by steamer was not lost to local entrepreneurs residing here over a century ago.

Although clear evidence survives to substantiate the existence of a Bethel-to-Rumford steamboat on the Androscoggin between 1888 and 1894, oral tradition, nineteenth century newspapers, and twentieth century secondary sources suggest that steamboats may have plied other sections of the river before this time. This article is an attempt to summarize what is known on the subject. As a starting point for further research, it also is hoped this information will provide useful to those interested in the commercial and transportation history of the Bethel area.

A few years previous to Dr. N. T. True's writings in the Bethel Courier, the Oxford Democrat published several articles about what may have been the earliest attempt at travel by steam on the waters of the Androscoggin. According to this weekly western Maine newspaper, the "Androscoggin Steam Navigation Company" was incorporated in 1853 and was to have exclusive navigation rights from Canton Point to Rumford Falls for a twenty-five year period. The Company issued a capital of $50,000 and secured Hiram Ricker of Poland Spring to support construction of the side-wheeler "The Surprise." As the paper reported it, on its maiden voyage, the vessel nearly capsized when its machinery failed. Living up to its name, the steamer was soon thereafter taken apart and its engine used to power a nearby mill. Needless to say, the company's stockholders must have suffered greatly.

Beginning in January of 1859, Dr. Nathaniel True began writing and publishing a lengthy series of articles in the Bethel Courier not only promoting the construction of a steamboat, but eventually describing such an event and the hoopla surrounding numerous excursions from "Alder River Wharf" at Bethel to downstream landings at Newry Corner, Hanover, Andover (via the Ellis River), and Rumford Falls. As True pointed out, the ever-present hazard of logs and rocks along the river's course would not prevent travel between Bethel and Rumford during certain periods. True wrote in one of his early articles, "Suppose the cars arrive in the morning either way at Bethel, let passengers step on board the little sternwheel steamer, proceed down to Rumford Falls where are the highest [waterfalls] in New England, and well worth the visit, because the traveler would have something to see all the way along." He continued, "I have been told that there is nothing in the whole distance to obstruct the passage of a boat, but that might be removed at a trifling expense. Such a boat should be small and expressly designed for travelers whose object is pleasure; and there is no question but that it would pay good interest to the owners."

In these first articles, True was quick to point out the advantages to Bethel Hill on account of its recently opened station on the Grand Trunk Railway, and he went so far as to advise the construction of a new hotel somewhere near the village Common. In fact, so detailed are True's writings on the subject of an Androscoggin steamboat that the modern reader has few reasons not to accept them verbatim. Take, for example, the following piece which appeared in the Bethel Courier late in July of 1859:

"A Trip Down the Androscoggin. Receiving an invitation from Captain Sampson of the new steamboat, 'Pioneer,' we went on board at her station in Bethel, at the mouth of Alder River, about a hundred rods from the Depot. We were surprised to find that a wharf and warehouse had been built for her accommodation. As soon as the cars arrived from Portland in the morning, the boat got underway. We had on board a party from Boston, who, with their friends in Portland, numbering about 40 persons, made up the company.

"It was a lovely morning; the shadows fell thick on the mountains, giving them a dark, rich hue. As the boat swung out into the river, the scene was most enchanting. Exclamations of delight came from every soul on board as one after another contemplated the scene. The beautiful and well-cultivated intervales, the little village across the river, the distant mountains, all combined to furnish a charming prospect.

"Passing down the Narrows, Capt. Sampson pointed out to us Powow Point, where the Indians formerly held their councils. The Captain has many legends connected with this spot, with which he entertains the passengers during the trip. Here the river runs slowly for a mile directly north, then turns at right angles to the east, a beautiful prospect from the boat.

"Soon the boat arrived at the rapids at the mouth of Bear River, over which she glided in the most graceful manner possible. A few, large rocks have been removed, which renders the navigation perfectly safe. The boat, having landed some passengers on their way to the [Rangeley] Lakes, started again on her course. Soon the splendid intervales of Hanover and Bethel, at Middle Intervale [sic], appeared in view. They present a more beautiful aspect from a boat than from the land.

"The scenery along here is wild, various and rich beyond description. Having arrived at Rumford [Point], the Captain had a little difficulty getting the boat beneath the rope of the Ferry in consequence of some neglect on the part of the Ferry Company.

"Having landed some freight at Rumford and Andover and taking on some passengers, we went on down the current at a delightful rate, the boat being under the control of Mr. Newbegin, a skillful pilot, who knows every rod of the river. Arriving at Rumford Falls, we received a national salute for each state in the Union, under the direction of Gen. [Alvan] Bolster. A collation was served up by the ladies in the village. The party examined the Falls which are the largest in New England, tumbling over a precipice 80 feet.

"The boat having taken her freight, started on her return. The current in the river is quite strong in some places, but skillful piloting carried her along with perfect ease. Fears were entertained that she would not ascend the rips at Bear River, but she glided over them like a swan."

Later pieces in the Courier mention the steamer visiting the Anasagunticook House in Northwest Bethel and landing in Shelburne and Gorham, New Hampshire, to take on passengers and freight. However, after mentioning in one article that the Grand Trunk Railway had agreed to purchase one-half the stock in the steamboat company, Dr. True went on to say, "At least so we dreamed yesterday after lunch." (emphasis added) A list of vessels docked on the river at Bethel Hill, printed in December 1859, confirms that Dr. True's writings about the Androscoggin steamboat were indeed fictitious: "One Bateaux, One Punt, One ferryboat and NO Steamboat!"

Further evidence disproving the existence of a steamboat operating from Bethel in 1859 is supplied by Gilead resident George Whitefield Chapman, son of the Reverend Eliphaz Chapman (who gave the name of "Bethel" to the town at the time of its incorporation in 1796) and author of Brief History of Gilead, and Prose and Poetic Writings, published in 1867. On page 74 of this small book, which consists mostly of acrostic poetry, appeared the following:

The Great Eastern

Doctor, I've just review'd your trip,—
From Alder wharf, to Rumford Ripps,
And back, with Sampson for your guide,
To Berlin Falls, the height of tide.

But what of this, will e'er be said,—
Compared with mine from Holy Head?
Board the Great Eastern, on her race,
With forty rods of deck to pace!

With strength and grace she plumes along,
With passengers five thousand strong;
Grand Dukes and Lords, the very best,
And "Deacon George" among the rest!

She cuts her way with strength and pride,
All lesser crafts with ease outrides;
She gains the city, Portland fair,
Long side its wharf, and anchors there.

Grand engine, boiler, masts, and sails;
Grand flag inscribed, "direct from Wales!"
To rouse the city, taps her steam,
And mine, as yours, was all a dream!

In a footnote below this poem, Chapman inserted a paragraph of explanation: "Written after I was blind, and hearing read an article in the Bethel Courier, by Dr. N. T. True, describing an imaginary trip in a visionary steamer, from Alder Wharf, Bethel to Rumford Ripps, and back again, up the river to Berlin Falls, on the bosom of the Androscoggin River; and his assertion, in the same paper, that 'Deacon George' had 'gone to Portland to see the Great Eastern.'"

In contrast to Dr. True's 1859 writings on the subject of an Androscoggin steamboat, both newspaper accounts and an important manuscript dated 1861 and now in the collections of the Bangor Public Library substantiate the existence of a steamer on the upper reaches of the Androscoggin, as well as on the Magalloway River, during the 1860s. Interspersed throughout the 1861 manuscript by Marshall M. Tidd (reprinted in part in the December 1957 and June 1958 issues of Appalachia, the journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club) are many hand-colored drawings of sites visited by Tidd during a trip from Bethel to the "Androscoggin [now "Rangeley"] Lakes" region of western Maine. Among these fascinating sketches are choice views of Poplar Tavern at North Newry, the mill at Screw Auger Falls, and, most importantly for this study, the stern-paddlewheel steamer "Union." Launched onto Umbagog Lake at Upton, Maine, in 1861, the "Union" was to be the first in a succession of steamboats that would transport sportsmen and pleasure parties to and from the Umbagog region's renowned fishing and hunting grounds. (On August 4, 1891, the Oxford Democrat reported the arrival in Bethel by train of a another small steamboat from Portland destined for Umbagog Lake.)

Although pictorial record is surprisingly absent, the high point of steamboat travel on the upper Androscoggin probably came in the late 1880s and early 1890s when two steam-powered boats operated on the river. According to a record at the Oxford County Courthouse at South Paris, Maine, the "Androscoggin Steamboat Company" was organized in 1888 as "common carriers of passengers and freight on the Androscoggin River from Bethel to Rumford Falls." The late Eva M. Bean, in her 1959 book, East Bethel Road, wrote of this venture, "Algernon S. Chapman in his diary dated Oct. 8, 1888, said, 'A steamer came from Rumford today and turned about at Dr. Gordon's intervale (Alder River Bridge) and then returned. It was built by a Rumford and Hanover company of citizens.'" Indeed, according to newspaper reports, a company of men led by several from the two aforementioned towns—namely Charles A. Kimball, Joshua B. Roberts and Charles W. Kimball—organized capital enough to cover the construction cost of the "Pioneer" (not to be confused with Dr. N. T. True's fictitious vessel of the same name), a steamer built by James C. Elliott and launched onto the Androscoggin in August of 1888. In another article, this steamboat was described as being twenty feet long, over seven feet wide, with a flat bottom and a stern wheel. When "properly fixed," the boat would provide eighty pounds of steam pressure from a six horse-power engine, would be capable of reaching a speed of five miles per hour, and could safely carry up to twenty passengers in less than two feet of water. From this description, it seems plausible that the "Union," which operated near the Androscoggin's headwaters, may have served as a model for the "Pioneer." Whether the name of the newer vessel was derived from Dr. True's earlier writings is uncertain.

So successful was the 1888 operation that by March of 1889 the construction of another, even larger, steamer was proposed. This boat, named the "North Star," was nearly fifty feet long and capable of carrying fifty passengers. The "North Star" was launched from the Hanover ferry landing that summer and on its trial trip made it to the docking site at Alder River in Bethel. Researchers will find many gaps in the record at this point, with some accounts stating that the company was turned over completely to three of the original investors, while the engine from the "Pioneer" was said to have been transferred to the newer vessel. In addition, some sources suggest that two separate steamboat companies existed in the Hanover area at this time. However, contrary to secondary sources that claim that the "Pioneer" caught fire in 1890 while being fired up, the Norway Advertiser of May 23, 1890, states, in part, "The steamer . . . was burned at Rumford Point last Sunday. . . . the man who burned the boat crossed the ferry and went up to the steamer . . . and set a piece of canvas on fire . . . another fellow was with him and said, 'Stop, you will have the boat all on fire.' 'I don't care if I do,' was the reply. 'I own as much as anybody in this boat.' Mun Wormell of Bethel, was put on his track and found him out very quickly; probably a dear fire for him."

The burning of the "Pioneer" initiated a series of events that soon brought the local steamboat company heavily in debt. Though the "North Star," under Captain A. G. Howe, is reported to have made trips daily from Bethel Hill to Hastings' Ferry (also known as "Kendall's Ferry," located just down river of the present Route 2 "Androscoggin" rest area), the continual hazard of annual log drives on the Ellis and Androscoggin rivers, coupled with severe droughts in the summers of 1892 and '93, greatly hindered its use. Added to these obstacles was the fact that the "Rips" at Newry Corner could only be negotiated at high water. Perhaps few were surprised to read, then, in a May 1894 paper that the steamboat had been "drydocked for an unlimited time." Though several of our oldest residents claim to have seen the "North Star" on the river after this time, the fate of the vessel remains unclear.[1]

Today, the expanse of mountain and intervale scenery once enjoyed from the deck of Bethel's steamboat has changed little. Perhaps that is why we can so easily imagine, with only the smallest amount of effort, this romantic yet nearly forgotten chapter in the history of the upper Androscoggin River valley.

[1] From a December 1894 issue of the Oxford Democrat, under "Newry," comes the following: "Charles Douglass is moving the steamer North Star lately purchased at Hanover, to the lakes [probably Umbagog]. It takes a strong team and lots of time." And from the Oxford County Advertiser of January 18, 1895, under "Newry": "J. F. Coolidge hauled the remainder of the steamer to Upton last week. The large wheel had been at E. R. Lane's since the boat was taken up." Thanks to Donald G. Bennett for locating these items.