A River's Journey: The Story of the Androscoggin

The following material is excerpted from an exhibit that was on display at the
Bethel Historical Society from June 2, 2007, through September 9, 2011


One of the largest rivers in New England and the third largest in Maine, the Androscoggin drains an area of over 3,400 square miles in Maine and New Hampshire.  The 170-mile waterway begins its journey near Errol, New Hampshire, where the outlet to the Rangeley Lakes and the Magalloway River join, and—punctuated with numerous rapids and impressive waterfalls (including that at Rumford, shown at left)—eventually mingles with the waters of the Kennebec River in Merrymeeting Bay below Brunswick, Maine, before flowing into the Atlantic.  Long used by a variety of industries to power machinery and to carry industrial and municipal waste products downstream, the Androscoggin was one of the ten most polluted rivers in the United States by the 1960s.  However, discharge regulations set by the 1948 Water Pollution Control Act and its subsequent amendments have allowed the River to make a comeback, so that in some sections (notably upriver of Jay, Maine), it is becoming a significant recreational resource for communities along its banks.  

The Androscoggin River has both supported and constrained human activities along its course over a period of many centuries.  Consequently, this exhibit draws attention to the ways the Androscoggin has affected the lives of people on and around it—and how those same people have affected the Androscoggin during the river’s journey through time.  Through the use of selected images, artifacts and text, this display presents a vivid picture of the Androscoggin's past: as a transportation route for Native Americans and, during more recent periods, a watercourse for the movement of logs destined for lumber and paper mills; as a source of nutrients for agricultural production and waterpower for industry; as a conveyor of a variety of pollutants to the cold waters of the Atlantic; and as a popular destination for boaters, fishermen, artists, photographers, and nature enthusiasts.
The Great River and Its Valley

The 3,400 square miles that make up the Androscoggin basin—the river and its surrounding watershed—were formed over millions of years, with the landscape we see today bearing the marks of the closing stages of the last ice age, which ended some 12-15,000 years ago.  The geologic theory behind the formation of the Androscoggin River valley therefore has much to do with the melting and retreat of the great glaciers that once covered northern New England with a mile-thick coating of ice.  According to one theory, the retreating glaciers left a chain of lakes from the Maine coast near Brunswick to the Canadian border where present-day New Hampshire and Maine meet.  Erosion from higher elevations caused many of the smaller lakes to fill up with sediment; eventually, a river channel formed in these formerly wide but shallow water bodies, leaving behind broad areas of rich alluvial soil in the bottom lands—called “intervales” by New Englanders.  Today, many of these low lying intervales along the Androscoggin contain some of the best farmland remaining in western and southern Maine.
A map of the Androscoggin River watershed.  Though one of the largest rivers in Maine, the Androscoggin is unusual because it joins with the Kennebec River at Merrymeeting Bay (below Brunswick), rather than emptying directly into the Atlantic.
A River’s Journey to the Sea
The northernmost sources of the Androscoggin lie nearly 3,500 feet up on the sides of the Border Mountains on the international boundary between the United States and Canada.  However, the Androscoggin, proper, starts at the confluence of the outflow stream from Umbagog Lake—the lowest of several vast bodies of water in the Rangeley Lakes chain—and the Magalloway River, whose several branches extend far to the north.  Here, at an elevation of some 1200 feet above sea level in northeastern New Hampshire, the Androscoggin passes through Errol Dam (one of over twenty flood-control or hydropower dams on the waterway) and then through the famous “Thirteen Mile Woods,” a winding, relatively calm stretch of water whose heavily forested shorelines are now protected by conservation easements.  Entering the Pontook Basin, the river valley broadens, with pastures and cultivated land much in evidence.  After several miles of “fast water,” the River approaches the City of Berlin, where it drops nearly three hundred feet in a distance of about two miles—what many have referred to as the “real upper falls of the Androscoggin River.”  At Gorham, the next town downriver, the Androscoggin turns eastward from its southerly course and runs another twenty miles past some of the highest peaks in the Appalachian Mountains—crossing the state line into Maine—to the town of Bethel.

Near Bethel, the Androscoggin widens and turns northeasterly as several smaller rivers, including the Wild, Sunday, and Bear, add their waters to the mixture.  A very gradual drop in elevation occurs between Bethel and Rumford, where the Androscoggin makes one of the most spectacular leaps along its course, dropping over 170 feet in three falls spread out over a mile.  Making a U-turn and heading southeast again, the River passes between the towns of Dixfield and Peru, where, at an elevation of 416 feet above the sea, the Webb River enters from the north.  Mountains of lower elevation than those at the Maine/New Hampshire border combine with intervales to produce a scene that is now more pastoral than primitive.  At the huge intervale of Canton Point, once one of the largest plots cultivated by Native Americans in New England, the Androscoggin makes a sharp turn and flows through Jay and Livermore Falls, two industrial towns built where the River drops over several major waterfalls.

Below Livermore Falls, the Androscoggin valley widens considerably and the River’s downward flow become more gradual.  Below the towns of Leeds and Turner, the River enters a man-made lake created when Gulf Island Dam—the last major dam built on the Androscoggin—was constructed in the mid-1920s.  For the next dozen miles, the River flows between the twin cities of Auburn and Lewiston.  Just before reaching the “Great Falls,” much of the Androscoggin is diverted by canal through Lewiston, once a bustling center of textile manufacturing.  After receiving the waters of the Little Androscoggin at Auburn, the Androscoggin continues its journey to the next series of rapids at Lisbon Falls.  Four miles beyond the bottom of Lisbon Falls Rapids, the River enters Brunswick, the oldest town in the valley.  After swinging to the east and dropping over a final series of falls, the Androscoggin flows onward for another six miles until it empties into Merrymeeting Bay.  Here, the waters of the Androscoggin (said to average 4.19 billion gallons entering the Bay each day) mix with those of the Kennebec and travel seventeen miles due south, past the City of Bath, until finally flowing into Atlantic where the ill-fated Popham Colony was established as New England’s first English Colony in 1607.

Among the larger rivers in New England, the Androscoggin is by far the most unnavigable by vessels of any size, which explains why it was explored and permanently settled by white people later than other rivers in the region—and, more significantly, why it became so heavily industrialized.  This view of the falls between Lewiston and Auburn is taken from Walter Wells' 1869 volume, The Water Power of Maine.

Between the many waterfalls on the Androscoggin are numerous broad and calm stretches of water, which have become increasingly popular with modern-day canoeists.  This segment flows through the picturesque countryside of North Bethel.
Major Rivers and Streams in the Androscoggin Watershed
Alder River, Bear River, Black Brook, Clear Stream, Concord River, Cupsuptic River, Dead Cambridge River, Dead Diamond River, Dead River, Ellis River, Kennebago River, Little Androscoggin River, Little River, Magalloway River, Martin Stream, Nezinscot River, Peabody River, Pleasant River, Rangeley River, Rapid River, Sabattus River, Sawyer Brook, Seven Mile Stream, Sunday River, Swift River, Swift Cambridge River, Swift Diamond River, Webb River, Wild River
Native Americans and the Amascongan

Native Americans lived alongside, and traveled on, the Androscoggin River centuries before the first Europeans explored the coast of Maine, an effort that may have begun as early as the 1490s.  Moving up the Androscoggin valley after the glaciers retreated over 12,000 years ago, the ancestors of today’s Abenaki Indians—the “dawn land” people—survived by hunting large game, especially caribou.  Termed the “Paleo-Indians” by some scholars, these inhabitants of the valley erected a stone structure for the storage of meat, dated to 11,120 years before the present (and now on display at the Maine State Museum), at the “Vail Site” on the old course of the Magalloway River—a northern tributary to the Androscoggin.  Many other prehistoric Indian encampment sites along the Androscoggin, notably on points of land jutting into the river (for example, “Powwow Point” at Bethel) and on raised elevations not far from the water’s edge, have been identified and documented through archaeological investigations carried out by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and Maine State Museum.  Such investigations have aided in the reconstruction of the lifestyles of the original human inhabitants who occupied the Androscoggin watershed.

Over a period of many centuries, Native Americans established a system of trails and carrying places ("portages") throughout the Androscoggin watershed.  On the subject of trails near the huge waterfalls at Rumford, Dr. William B. Lapham stated in his 1890 History of that town, “It was one of the numerous carrying places on the river, and beaten paths were found along the banks and around the falls by the first English visitors to this region.”  A Jesuit priest accompanies his native allies in this view.

Well before the time of first contact with Europeans, the Abenaki of the Androscoggin valley had developed a culture heavily dependent on agriculture, and at "Rockamecook" (Canton Point), some five hundred acres of corn grown on the Androscoggin intervales were harvested annually.  In this engraving dating from the 1580s, northeastern American Indians are shown boiling sap to make syrup, as well as harrowing hills where corn had been planted.

This early 17th century representation of an East Coast Algonquian village conveys an accurate picture of the type of fortified encampments that once dotted the Androscoggin River valley.  In 1703, an English scouting party traveling through this region stated: "When we came to the fort, we found about an acre of ground, taken in [palisaded] with timber set in the ground . . . with ports [gates].”  At Canton Point, about halfway between the headwaters and mouth of the Androscoggin, a large Abenaki fort with chapel supplied with a French priest, existed well into the 17th century.  Other Indian villages within the watershed (and occupied—along with smaller campsites—on a seasonal basis) existed at Bethel, Auburn (Laurel Hill), Lisbon (Pejepscot), Minot, and Sabattus.  From Willem Janszoon Baeu’s map, Nova Belgica et Anglia Nova, published in Amsterdam in 1635.

Before dams were constructed by white settlers, the Androscoggin teemed with fish, including thousands of Atlantic salmon that battled their way up the river and its tributaries each spring to spawn.  The cold, clear waters of the river were also the year-round home to brook trout, while alewives and shad swam partway up the river each year.  Aware of this abundance, the Abenaki sited fishing camps near the base of falls where fish collected as they made their way upstream.  Native Americans also trapped beaver and otter on the river.
Throughout ancient times, the Androscoggin was a “great water road” to the Abenaki, both in summer and winter.  During the colder months, the smooth ice on the river made travel up and down the valley much easier than over well-worn trails alongside the waterway.  Records exist suggesting some white settlers also waited until the river and its feeder streams froze over before making their way to new homes in the upper reaches of the Androscoggin valley.
European Exploration and Native American Contact

It is difficult to make a reliable estimate of local Abenaki populations around 1600, when Europeans first ventured up the Kennebec into Merrymeeting Bay and then up the “Pejepscot”—a term then used to label the lowest section of the Androscoggin—but at least several hundred native people inhabited the Androscoggin watershed (out of some 100,000 in New England) at that time.  Interrelated through marriage, and sharing a common dialect, these Indians had long participated in an annual cycle of migration that took them to seashore camps in the summer, to deep woods hunting camps in the winter, and back to their riverside villages for late fall feasting and spring fishing and planting.  Known today as the “Amarascoggins,” this Abenaki group has long been erroneously identified by the term “Anasagunticooks,” a name associated with the missionary village of St. Francis (Odanak), near the St. Lawrence River in Canada’s Québec Province, and to those Indians—mainly Abenaki in ethnic origin—who resided there and traveled up and down the Androscoggin valley after 1700.

Throughout the 17th and during the first half of the 18th century, ongoing frontier warfare between French Canadian colonists in the St. Lawrence Valley and Protestant New Englanders moving north up Maine’s river systems placed the Androscoggin valley Abenaki in an awkward (and dangerous) position; forced to choose sides, many of these Indians retreated to mission villages in Canada where they stayed between seasonal hunting and fishing forays in their old territories to the south.  Following the loss of Canada in 1763, English settlements spread further up the valley in relative security.  Some of the Indians who had withdrawn to Canada, including the so-called “Anasagunticooks” (see above), returned to the Androscoggin valley where they interacted with the white settlers in a spirit of accommodation.  Anxious to remain in their ancient homelands, these individuals were tested again during the American Revolution, when they found themselves split in allegiance between the colonists and the English.  Even after that conflict, a number of Abenaki stayed in the region, assuming the role of guides, craftsmen or advisors to the white newcomers, and, in many instances, becoming absorbed into the white way of life through inter-marriage.

Among the earliest English explorers to venture up the Androscoggin was Captain Raleigh Gilbert.  In September 1607 he and his men rowed longboats upriver from Brunswick, perhaps as far as Lisbon Falls.  Upon encountering a group of Indians in canoes, Gilbert was recorded as having said, “Here we found nearly fifty able men, very strong and tall, such as their like before we had not seen.  All were painted and armed with bows and arrows.”  This image of another explorer, Captain John Smith, was originally published soon after he sailed into Merrymeeting Bay in 1614.

In 1628, Thomas Purchase became the first European to permanently reside on the Androscoggin when he was granted land at the present site of Brunswick.  There, he built a fortified trading post and carried out an extensive trade with the Abenaki living in and near the river valley.  In 1683, his descendant—also Thomas Purchase—sold a substantial amount of territory along the Androscoggin to Boston merchant Richard Wharton, another promoter of English settlements.  Ratified by seven local Abenaki Sachems, this deed conveyed lands from the coast to the “uppermost falls in the said Andros Coggin River,” a phrasing that was to cause disputes over land titles for generations.

By the middle of the 17th century, the traditional Indian way of life along the Androscoggin was undergoing drastic change.  An attitude of friendly curiosity turned to distrust and hostility—especially toward the English—as the native population sold off their lands (and, to their surprise, their hunting or fishing rights) for pots, rum, and cheap tools.  Indian intertribal relationships also disintegrated due to the burgeoning fur trade and the introduction of firearms.  The demand for furs, especially, strained the native economy by using up time previously spent in search of large game for food and skins; the fur trade also made natives aware of the importance of territorial boundaries, a concept foreign to the Abenaki before European notions of private land use and ownership were imposed on the region.  The intermingling of cultures was further strained by the effects of the liquor trade, a significant component in English and French efforts to maintain Abenaki allegiances.

By 1673, the English had established a commercial fishing operation at Pejepscot Falls in Brunswick, catching some forty barrels of salmon and ninety kegs of sturgeon in just three weeks.  To protect the lives and livelihoods of the settlers in that vicinity, Governor Andros erected the first fortification on the Androscoggin—“Fort Andross”—at Brunswick in 1688.  It was from here that Colonel Benjamin Church and other Massachusetts soldiers set out upriver in 1690 to “visit the enemy, French and Indians at their headquarters at Ameras-cogen, Pejepscot or any other [place] . . . killing, destroying and utterly rooting out the enemy.”  Church made it as far as the Indian stockade at Laurel Hill (Auburn), where, finding only a few old men and some women, he destroyed the camp along with its stores of grain and fish, and returned to the coast without accomplishing his goal.  Fort Andross was replaced by the more substantially-built Fort George, shown here, in 1715.

In 1714, a prominent group of Massachusetts men obtained a charter to the “Pejepscot Patent,” a huge tract of land on both sides of the lower Androscoggin River.  From the relative safety of Boston, the Pejepscot Proprietors promoted the sale of land in and settlement of Brunswick, Topsham, North Yarmouth and other nearby towns.  Upriver areas took longer to settle.  (Detail from John Mitchell's 1755 Map of the British and French Dominions in North America)
From “Amascongan” to “Androscoggin”
“The river now known as the Androscoggin, and from which the tribe inhabiting its shores received its names, was variously called the Anasagunticook, the Anconganunticook, Amasaquanteg, and Amascongan.  The latter is the original of Androscoggin, as appears by the deposition of the Indian Perepole.  The name has been written in some sixty different forms, as its sound was received by the ancient hunters, owners, and settlers.  There seems to have been a disposition to make it conform to known words in the English usage.  The name “Coggin” is a family appellation in New England; and it was easy to place before it, according to each man’s preference, other familiar names, and to call the stream “Ambrose Coggin,” “Amos Coggin,” “Andrews Coggin,” “Andros Coggin,” and “Andrus Coggin.”  Vetromile says that Coggin means “coming”; and that Ammascoggin means “fish coming in the spring,” and that Androscoggin means “Andros coming,” referring to the visit of a former governor of the province.  But the visit of Governor Andros was not made until 1688, while the river is called Androscoggin in an indenture, made in 1639, between Thomas Purchase and Governor Winthrop.”

— Wheeler, History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, Maine (1878)

A River of Many Names: Perepole’s Testimony
"I Perepole of lawful age testify and say that the Indian Name of the River was Pejepscook from Quabecook what is now called Merrymeeting Bay up as far as amitgonpontook [New Auburn/Laurel Hill] what the English call Harrisses falls [“Great Falls” at Auburn/Lewiston] and all the River from Harrisses falls up was called ammoscongon and the largest falls on the river was above Rockamecook [Canton Point] about twelve miles, and them falls [Rumford Falls] have got three pitches, and there is no other falls on the River like them and the Indians yused to catch the most Salmon at the foot of them falls, and the . . . Indians yused to say when they went down the River from Rockamecook and when they got down over the falls by Harrises they say now come Pejepscook."

— 17th century deposition by Perepole, an Androscoggin valley Abenaki

New Towns Along the Androscoggin

The permanent colonial settlement of the Androscoggin valley began in the 1620s at Brunswick and, not surprisingly, that community became the first incorporated town on the River in 1717.  But it was not until the defeat of French Canada by the British in 1763 that the region upriver of “Pejepscot” was considered safe for the development of new towns.  Thus it was that the first settlers in such places as Durham, Lewiston, Greene, Turner, Livermore, Dixfield, Rumford, Newry, and Bethel did not arrive until the 1760s and 1770s, just before and during the American Revolution.  Although Shelburne, New Hampshire, was settled around 1770, most of the towns between that community and Umbagog Lake were not permanently inhabited by white people until the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

The published histories of these towns indicate that many were granted to people of influence who had little, if any, interest in relocating to the “Androscoggin country,” a term frequently applied to the upper valley in old documents.  These absentee landlords, some of whom received grants as payment for military service during the French and Indian wars, hired surveyors to create town plans divided into grid patterns of roughly 50-acre parcels that virtually ignored the local topography—except when it came to the nutrient-rich intervales along the Androscoggin.  Anxious to take advantage of the agricultural and forest wealth of this newly-opened territory, the hardy settlers (many of whom were from northern Massachusetts and southwestern New Hampshire) purchased farmsteads from the town proprietors or, in some cases, were given land in an effort to meet certain grant stipulations.  It’s worth noting that the migration of people into the middle and upper Androscoggin valley was slowed but not halted by the Revolution, although an August 1781 Indian raid—the last in New England—on the towns of Newry, Bethel, Gilead and Shelburne produced tensions that lasted until the close of the War two years later.

The 1760s and 1770s witnessed the clearing of land and the construction of farmsteads, houses, mills and churches as white people moved up the Androscoggin River to occupy territory long occupied by the Abenaki.
Arranged in a grid-like pattern, with the Androscoggin River on the right, this 1766 “lot and range” map of Royalsborough—incorporated as Durham, Maine, in 1789—clearly shows the narrow “intervale” lots bordering the River’s western bank.  As in other towns throughout the valley, these fertile and oft-flooded parcels were much sought after by the first white settlers.

A series of relatively level uplands running alongside rivers and streams in the Androscoggin watershed were utilized for the location of roads as towns developed and prospered.  The top photo shows a section of present-day Route 2 west of the village of Hanover, as it looked in the winter of 1910-11; the bottom photo was taken in Bethel about 1990 near the junction of Route 2 and the Sunday River Road (the Androscoggin appears on the right).

During the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, inhabitants of valley towns cut ice on the Androscoggin River for use in preserving foods during the hot summer months.  Although ice-harvesting on the Androscoggin did not become of major commercial importance, as it did on the Kennebec, many farmers supplemented their yearly incoming by selling large blocks of ice to their neighbors.  Courtesy of Hugh and Linsley Chapman

During the late 1840s and early 1850s, the Androscoggin River valley from Bethel, Maine, to Berlin, New Hampshire, was chosen as the best route for a railroad linking Portland with Montreal.  This 1880 map (section) of Gilead, the next town west of Bethel, gives an idea of how tightly the railroad and road (now Route 2) were squeezed between the river and the mountains in this district.
Harnessing the River: The Early Years

In his 1851 book, Forest Life and Forest Trees, John S. Springer wrote of the abundant manufacturing opportunities on the Androscoggin: “Respecting the water power and privileges on this river, I doubt whether there is a state in the Union that can show so many as we can on the Androscoggin and its tributaries.  In the distance of half a mile on the river, at this place (Brunswick), we have [a] forty-one feet fall (three dams across the river), [and] consequently the water may be used in this distance three times. . . . The capacity of the Androscoggin is sufficient for carrying two hundred thousand spindles. . . . All that is requisite to make this river the seat of the most extensive factory operations in the world is capital, and from the superior water power here presented, it is fair to presume that the attention of capitalists may ultimately lead to investments in manufacturing on a magnificent scale.”

Springer’s predictions came true, for by the end of the 19th century the Androscoggin valley was the site of some of the largest paper-producing companies in the world.  But even before the Civil War, the Androscoggin was being extensively employed for industrial purposes.  For example, the floating of logs downriver to be converted into lumber had been taking place for decades, with some two to three million board feet “run down” to Brunswick yearly in the decade between 1840 and 1850.  Indeed, Brunswick seems to have dominated the lumber business on the middle and lower Androscoggin at this time (much as Bangor did on the Penobscot) for, according to Springer, “there are about sixty saw-mills on this river [Androscoggin] and its tributaries, thirty-two of which are at Brunswick and Topsham.  However, by 1852, large lumber mills at Berlin, New Hampshire, were beginning to draw business away from Brunswick.  Established by several wealthy Portland businessmen, including John Bundy Brown, J. S. Little, and Hezekiah Wilson, the mills at Berlin had access to a vast source of raw material—as well as the Grand Trunk Railway.  This mill complex (later known as the Brown Company) would also evolve into one of the country's major paper-making facilities, but not before becoming the largest lumber producer east of the Mississippi by 1890, with a production of some 150,000 board feet a day.

Before closing his remarks about the Androscoggin, Springer hinted at another manufacturing industry just then emerging in the river valley when he stated, “At Brunswick, a cotton factory, with four thousand six hundred spindles is already in operation.”  Although he made no mention of the fact, events were even then being set into motion that would create one largest textile manufacturing centers in the Northeast just a short distance upriver at Lewiston.

At the time of first settlement by white people, many towns on the Androscoggin boasted sizeable stands of white pine that thrived in the thin soils along the river’s banks.  Eleazer Twitchell, a prominent Bethel resident, capitalized on this by acquiring large parcels of intervale land and cutting these old-growth trees, which he floated downriver to sawmills in Brunswick.  To assist in his calculation of the timber’s lumber potential, he created and had printed this “Table for measuring Logs” in the 1790s.

Small, water-powered saw- and grist-mills were essential to the founding of towns along the Androscoggin and its tributaries.  In fact, many of these modest structures were the first framed buildings erected in the communities.  Courtesy of Stanley R. Howe

William B. Lapham’s History of Rumford, Oxford County, Maine (1890) contains this image of the “Great Falls” on the Androscoggin.  Only a few months after his book was published, a power plant was erected on the site of several early 19th century mills (on the right, out of the photo) to furnish electricity for paper companies then being built about a mile below the falls.

The first mill to operate on the Androscoggin was a sawmill erected on the upper dam at Brunswick between 1753 and 1761.  (The mill stood near the present site of “Fort Andross,” the former Cabot Manufacturing Company).  Located on the Lewiston side of the Great Falls, the S. R. Bearce sawmill, shown here, was one of several dozen such mills on the Androscoggin when this photo was taken around 1875.  Until the development of steam engines and railroads, sawmills depended on the region’s rivers and streams as sources of power and shipping routes.  Note the piles of waste wood in the river—an early source of pollution on the Androscoggin.  Courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission

This photo of circa 1900 depicts a long log drive on the Androscoggin about ten miles downriver from Bethel Hill village.  Using pick poles, peaveys, and brute strength, river drivers (many of whom could not swim) kept logs apart to prevent jamming.  The high-ended bateaux on the river bank were designed to carry men safely through rough sections of water.  Courtesy of Stanley R. Howe

A frightening jam of long logs at the upper falls in Rumford in 1873.  A newspaper article published a few years before this incident declared that log jams here were “truly a wonderful sight,” and that on one such drive four million feet of logs lay there “in one immovable mass. . . . The falls are not to be seen.”  Those in charge of moving huge masses of timber down the Androscoggin and its tributaries routinely used black powder (and later dynamite) to free-up logs that could not be moved by hand.  The men who set the charge were adept in what they did; nevertheless, many fingers, hands, and lives were lost over the years.

Between 1850 and 1870, Lewiston was transformed into a manufacturing center when granite-sided canals, huge brick textile mills, and rows of brick and wooden workers’ housing were constructed just below the Great Falls.  The Androscoggin River was running high and fast when this circa 1910 view was captured.

The grand plan for diverting water from the Androscoggin through a series of canals at Lewiston is well illustrated in this stereograph photo taken about 1875.  Using the same water to power, a half dozen mill installations were made possible by an influx of workers and a vast amount of capital.  Lewiston and Auburn’s populations soared upon completion of the Bates Manufacturing Company, and others like it (Auburn soon developed shoe-manufacturing as its own industry).  Most of the textile workers were of Scots, Irish or English extraction until some six thousand French Canadians relocated to Lewiston from lower Québec Province between 1870 and 1880.  This picturesque view belies the fact that raw sewage and highly colored textile waste were now pouring into the Androscoggin.  Courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission

The Rangeley Lakes (including the man-made Aziscohos Lake) in northwestern Maine serve as an enormous reservoir for the Androscoggin.  To regulate the flow of water in the river, and to control flooding, dams between the several lakes in this chain were erected, beginning in the 1850s.  Mooselookmeguntic Lake, from the “Height of Land” on Route 17, is pictured here.

This photo, which dates from about 1900, conveys an accurate picture of the back-breaking toil involved in the construction of dams on the Androscoggin before the advent of hydraulic equipment.  A handwritten note on the back of the image reads: “Italians digging for foundation of end of dam."  The site of this dam is thought to be somewhere in the Pontook section of the River, above Berlin, New Hampshire.

This section from Farrar’s Map of the Rangeley Lakes Region and the Sources of the Magalloway & Androscoggin Rivers (1876) has been highlighted to show several of the large dams constructed after 1853 to control the flow of water into the Androscoggin.  For many decades afterward, the Union Water Power Company and the Androscoggin Reservoir Company were in charge of maintaining these dams.

The dams that confine and regulate the flow of water from the many lakes above the source of the Androscoggin River are (top to bottom) Upper Dam, between Mooselookmeguntic and Upper Richardson lakes; Middle Dam, between Lower Richardson lake and Rapid River; Errol Dam, on the Androscoggin a short distance below Umbagog Lake; and Aziscohos Dam, erected on the Magalloway River in 1909-1911, and for a time the world’s largest concrete dam.

Like Lewiston, Lisbon Falls experienced an economic boom when, in 1864, a woolen mill known officially as the “Worumbo Manufacturing Company” was built adjacent to the falls on the Androscoggin.  The town’s largest single employer before it was sold to other interests in 1965, most of the sprawling mill complex was destroyed in a spectacular 1987 fire.  The dark building on the far left was part of the Androscoggin Water Power Company saw mill.

Disputes between sawmill owners and Lewiston’s textile industrialists (who controlled the company that held title to the dams on the Rangeley Lakes and the Magalloway River by 1909) were legion during the second half of the 19th century.  The Lewiston Steam Mill Company was described as a “general lumbering business” in this volume, which details the court proceedings of this 1883 case.

This large sawmill was erected astride the Androscoggin at Berlin, New Hampshire, in 1897 to replace one destroyed by fire earlier that year.  With a capacity of 200,000 board feet a day, the mill was a thriving enterprise until it, too, burned in 1913.  By that time, changes in the demand for lumber in relation to that for pulp and paper had taken place in the region.  Consequently, a much smaller sawmill was constructed on the site.
Controlling the Androscoggin: From the Franklin Company to Florida Light & Power Company
Until the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the “flowage rights” (river bottom lands) on the Androscoggin were privately held by individuals who usually owned the adjacent, or “riparian,” lands along the waterway.  However, with the coming of the great log drives and the development of textile manufacturing at Lewiston, the need to construct large dams to control and divert the river’s waters became essential.  As one might expect, loggers and factory owners were not always in agreement as to when and how much of the Androscoggin’s flow should be released downriver, a problem that continued even after large dams were built specifically for electrical generation.

The following information from the Souvenir Program of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the City of Lewiston (1895) provides background regarding the longstanding control of the Androscoggin’s flowage rights by the Union Water Power Company (a subsidiary of Central Maine Power Company), which recently divested itself of these rights to Florida Light & Power Company, a national, investor-owned utility company.

“The Great Androscoggin Falls, Dams, Locks and Canal Company was incorporated in 1836 with a capital of $100,000.  It was the object of this company to develop the water power at the [Lewiston] ‘Falls.’ . . . In 1837 they procured an engineer who made a survey of the property owned by the company, and executed a plan showing the levels and profiles of different parts of the territory. . . . In 1845, the name was changed to the Lewiston Water Power Company. . . . This company made valuable additions to their real estate, and in 1849 commenced to develop the water power of the place. . . . The stock and property of the company was purchased by the Franklin Company in April, 1857.  The Franklin Company was incorporated April 3, 1854, and was organized November 25, 1856, when it took possession of the property of the Water Power Company. . . . The water power privilege and the canals, together with the control of the [Rangeley] lakes, the headwaters of the Androscoggin River, has passed into the possession of the Union Water Power Company, which was organized September 18, 1878, consisting of the Franklin, Bates, Hill, Continental, Androscoggin, and Bleachery Companies.”

Picturesque and Often Grand: The Androscoggin Valley

The scenery of the Androscoggin River valley, especially upriver of Rumford Falls where the River flows through a section of the Appalachian Chain of mountains, has inspired painters, photographers, writers and poets for some two centuries.
Regarding the importance of the Androscoggin valley as a route through the Appalachian Mountains . . .
“The quickest access to the White Mountain range itself is gained by the valley of the Androscoggin.  This noble river flows by the extreme easterly base of that range, where the forms are the most noble and imposing.  Within a very few miles of the foot of Mount Washington, it receives the Peabody River, which issues from the narrow Pinkham Pass between Mount Carter and the White Mountains [Presidential Range].  This stream is supplied in part from the southeast slopes of the highest mountains of the chain, and is often swollen into a tremendous torrent by the storms, or the heavy and sudden showers that drench their sides.  It is the Androscoggin which has engineered [a place] for the Grand Trunk Railway, that connects Portland and Montreal, the St. Lawrence with the Atlantic.  That Company are indebted to it for service in their behalf that was patiently discharged centuries before Adam.”

— Rev. Thomas Starr King, The White Hills: Their Legends, Landscape, and Poetry (1859)

A stereoview of Imp and North Carter mountains from the Androscoggin at Gorham, New Hampshire

“The Androscoggin is a beautiful river, and the scenery bordering upon it is picturesque and often grand.  Persons born and reared upon its banks have an attachment for it which is never weakened in after years, however distant they may wander and whatever may be the lapse of time.  Its broad intervales, decorated here and there with drooping elms, rising into table lands with sunny slopes and backed by wooded hills or craggy mountains, make up a succession of vistas which become indelibly stamped upon the memory.”

— William B. Lapham, History of Rumford, Oxford County, Maine (1890)

The Ferry (On the Androscoggin); Engraving, n.d. (1870s?).  Though the Androscoggin was an excellent waterway for logging, its lack of shallow fords made river ferries imperative for travel and commerce.  This engraving was done by William Wellstood, after a painting by Albert Fitch Bellows.

This reproduction of a print originally published by Currier & Ives about 1870, as part of the "American River Scenery" series, is identified as "View on the Androscoggin Me.," though it actually depicts a mid-nineteenth century vista looking west from the Lead Mine Bridge at Shelburne, New Hampshire.  Of this famous view, a writer in the Boston Traveller in 1897 stated, "It is one of the loveliest pictures not only in the White Mountain region, but anywhere in the world, so impressive is the beauty of the river and the island and the bold symmetry of the mountains."  The construction of a power plant and water control dam by the Brown Company early in the last century submerged the islands and changed the view, though the bare peaks of Mts. Madison, Jefferson and Washington still tower grandly in the background.

Lewiston Falls, from an 1833 painting made from the Auburn side of the Androscoggin. The open-truss bridge was erected in 1823.  Following the dedicatory oration, tables were spread and a meal for the large crowd was enjoyed on the bridge.
Navigating the River: Cataracts, Rapids and Tranquil Waters

Notwithstanding its many rapids and waterfalls, much of the Androscoggin is navigable, especially by small boats or those with a shallow draft.  Canoeing, of course, has been taking place on the river and its tributaries for many centuries, but a handful of steamboats have also plied these waters (for information on some of these steamers, please visit the Courier page on our website at www.bethelhistorical.org).  Besides the local vessels featured on this panel, several other steamers have traveled over the surface of the Androscoggin—including ones used solely on the lower river as early as 1819 and as late as 1855 (the eighty-foot long “Victor” was launched that year at Topsham).  On rare occasions, even larger craft have been seen on the river; according to a 1970 history of Lisbon, Maine, “About the year 1802, a vessel of sixty-three tons was built at Lisbon by a Captain Woodward and launched into the river during high water, and brought down the river as far as the booms above the upper dam in Brunswick.  Here she was taken out of the water and hauled on rollers through the woods to what is now McKeen Street, then down Main Street to the Cove where she was again launched into the river and remained in service for about twenty-five years. . . . One-hundred oxen were employed in hauling the vessel over land.”
No “Surprise”?
According to the Oxford Democrat, a 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.

Like other Native Americans inhabiting northern New England, the Indians of the Androscoggin valley were a semi-nomadic people, moving easily up and down river in light birchbark canoes.   Today, canoe trips and races on the river carry on this ancient tradition.  Painting by Danna B. Nickerson

The stern-paddlewheel steamer "Union,” launched onto Umbagog Lake at Upton, Maine, in 1861, was the first vessel of its type to operate on the uppermost section of the Androscoggin above Errol Dam.  It was also the first in a succession of steamboats that transported sportsmen and pleasure parties to and from the Umbagog region's renowned fishing and hunting grounds.

Nearly fifty feet long and capable of carrying fifty passengers, the "North Star," was launched from the Hanover ferry landing in March of 1889, and on its trial trip made it to the docking site at Alder River in Bethel.  The steamboat is reported to have made trips daily from Bethel Hill to Hastings' Ferry (near the present Route 2 "Androscoggin" rest area), but the hazard of annual log drives on the Androscoggin, 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.  By May of 1894 this steamboat had been "dry-docked 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.  Artist's concept, from A History of Hanover, Maine, by Alfred Howard (1980)
Androscoggin Canal Schemes
“In its total length of about 175 miles, the river descends 1,245 feet—more than any other Maine river.  The Androscoggin, as Walter Wells said in 1869, “is a water-power river its whole length, especially from Rumford Falls to Brunswick.  It is navigable only from Merrymeeting Bay to the foot of Brunswick Falls, and there only for small craft.  When President Timothy Dwight of Yale visited Maine in 1807, he wrote that the commerce of Brunswick was connected to the Kennebec River by means of the Androscoggin, which was navigable for small vessels to within two miles of the falls. . . .  Some years later, Dr. Ezekiel Holmes noted that the Androscoggin had a difficult and troubled pathway, and had more rapids, falls, and cataracts than any other river of its size in Maine.  Yet Androscoggin valley men struggled, vainly as it turned out, for the first fifty years of the nineteenth century to make a waterway of their river.
   These men included Robert H. Gardiner of Gardiner, Edward Little of Auburn, and F. O. J. Smith of Portland.  They and others had surveys made of their favorite schemes by such experienced civil engineers as Colonel Loammi Baldwin and his son Benjamin, both of Middlesex Canal fame; Colonel J. J. Abert of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Captain James Hall of the Board of Internal Improvements; and Land Agent Noah Barker.
   The earliest planning involved the lower river and the challenge posed by the high falls at Brunswick.  Two later schemes related to the middle river and involved bypassing the falls at both Lewiston and Brunswick.  The upper river inspired three amazing proposals: one to connect the Androscoggin and Connecticut rivers, another to connect the Androscoggin [at Bethel] with Portland by way of the Cumberland and Oxford Canal, and one to make an artificial outlet in [Lower] Richardson Lake to connect it directly with the Androscoggin—bypassing the river’s sixty-five-mile loop through New Hampshire.
   None of these schemes matured into construction [and] all attempts to canal, supplement or otherwise adapt the Androscoggin for transportation failed.  In general, the failures must be charged to the number, height, and length of the falls, which were excellent for waterpower and industry but impossible for boating.”

— Hayden L. V. Anderson, Canals and Inland Waterways of Maine (1982)

River Ferries on the Androscoggin
This privately-owned ferry was used for many years by the Roberts family of Hanover to access their large island in the middle of the Androscoggin.
Dating from 1873, the Hanover Ferry was one-third owned by the town of Bethel, and two-thirds by Hanover.  It operated on the Androscoggin River between Hanover village and East Bethel until 1934.  During the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, similarly constructed ferries provided an important means of crossing the unpredictable waters of many Maine rivers.  This highly detailed model of the Hanover Ferry was prepared by Frank Worcester, Lisa Ramsay, Pam Morton, and Martha Stearns, and presented to the Bethel Historical Society in 1975.
Established in 1809, the ferry between Rumford Point and Rumford Corner was the last to operate on the Androscoggin, ending service when a steel bridge was erected at that location in 1955.
Bridging the Androscoggin

Whether built of wood, stone, metal or concrete, bridges over the Androscoggin have long served as vital links between communities separated by the river, or, in the case of Bethel and other towns, connectors between small villages and neighborhoods.  The images offered here give an idea of the various types of bridges erected over the Androscoggin since the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Its open trusses and laminated arches protected from the elements by wooden shingles, this primitive bridge provided access over the Androscoggin at Jay, Maine, for nearly a century.  By the time this circa 1905 postcard was issued, the bridge had become a much-photographed local landmark.
Completed in 1869, this three-span, double-lane covered bridge spanned the Androscoggin River at Bethel until it was razed in 1927.  Note that the closest span was built at an angle, due to the different heights of the riverbanks.

The "Swinging Bridge" was originally built in 1892 for workers walking over the Androscoggin River from the Topsham Heights neighborhood to Cabot Mill in Brunswick, Maine.  The bridge was constructed in 1892 by John A. Roebling's Sons Company, the engineering firm that designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge, among others. In the early 20th century, the present steel towers replaced the original timber-framed towers.  A flood destroyed the superstructure of the bridge in 1936, and it was rebuilt in 1938 by the WPA, although the suspension cables date back to 1892 when the bridge was first built.  The Towns of Brunswick and Topsham created a joint committee to repair the bridge in 2000 and this renovation was completed in early 2007.  Courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission

This four-span iron toll bridge opened in 1895 between the towns of Mexico and Peru, Maine, and replaced a ferry that had long operated at this location.  The West Peru railroad station (1892) was located just out of the picture on the right.

The massive stone piers supporting this bridge below Lisbon Falls were designed to withstand the Androscoggin's strong currents and the pounding of huge chunks of ice during the winter.  Nevertheless, extremely high water during the flood of March 1936 destroyed this crossing, which was just below the Worumbo Manufacturing Company (see above).
The Paper-Making Era: Power and Pollution

The development of paper manufacturing on the Androscoggin, and the earliest contamination of the river caused by that type of industry, occurred at the Topsham-Brunswick end of the river only a short time after the Civil War.  There, in 1868, the Pejepscot Paper Company was established in an imposing Italianate brick structure built high atop a granite ledge on the Topsham side, just below the bridge connecting the two towns.  Speaking of this period in the history of the valley, Page Helm Jones wrote the following in his 1975 work, Evolution of a Valley: The Androscoggin Story:

“In 1870 the manufacture of paper was done almost entirely with rags, with some admixture of straw and mechanically ground wood. . . . The industry was seeking improvements in pulp, particularly the desired uniformity and possible lower cost which was improbable with rags.  By 1881, a few groundwood plants had been started in the East, and in that year the first one was built by the Umbagog Paper Company at Livermore Falls . . . of which Hugh J. Chisholm of Portland was the moving spirit.  This man was to become, with W. W. Brown [of Berlin], the second of the two most influential figures in the economic development of the Upper Androscoggin Valley. . . . This was not only the beginning of a new era in the economy of the valley, but the start of serious industrial river pollution which increased yearly for half a century before public outcry against its continual worsening caused . . . action for the recovery of the river to its former usefulness as a thing of beauty and utility, rather than the vile, lifeless, stinking sewer which it became in the 1940s.  Unfortunately, the sulfite process of pulping, which was a godsend to the paper industry, created useless waste liquors laden with oxygen-devouring chemicals and insoluble sediment which gradually covered the river bottom, destroying the water vegetation which is so necessary to water life and to the natural ‘self purification’ which the mill operators said would take care of their sewage.”

Power to Spare
“If the mean volume of water that can, in the present state of its reservoirs, be commanded on the river, in the low run of summer, from Rumford falls to the tide, be assumed to be 75,000 cubic feet per minute, for eleven hours a day, the total power of this section of the river is 85,200 horse-power, gross measurement, for the hours specified, or 3,747,600 spindles.  What proportion of this power can be economically appropriated, it is not possible now to determine; the proportion is, however, unquestionably unusually large, owing to the favorable conditions of the bottom and banks, and the advantageous character of the falls and rapids with reference to improvement.  Not an eighth part of it is now used.

The water-power of this river from the tide to Jay inclusive, is already furnished with excellent railroad communication close at hand, and from Bethel to the State line the Grand Trunk follows the immediate bank of the river.  Indeed, no portion of the river below the State line is far removed from railroads.  It is navigable to the foot of the lowest falls, for small craft, for about two-thirds the year.”

— Walter Wells, The Water-Power of Maine (1869)

Constructed in 1868 and still standing on the Topsham side of the Androscoggin, the Pejepscot Paper Company is the earliest surviving example in Maine of a wood-pulp mill in the river valley.  Courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission

The earliest paper mills at Berlin, New Hampshire, relied on the soda process to making wood pulp—a process that was never completely satisfactory.  With the perfection in the mid-1880s of the sulfite process for breaking down wood fibers, this large plant was built on the east side of the Androscoggin River.  In a matter of only a few years, the Berlin paper mill (which recently closed) was to become the largest employer in northern New Hampshire.

Ambitious and imaginative, Canadian-born industrial giant Hugh J. Chisholm moved to Portland in the 1870s, where he established a successful publishing business.  Fascinated by the undeveloped areas of the Androscoggin valley, including those bypassed by railroads, Chisholm organized a paper-manufacturing firm at Livermore Falls in 1881 and another—the Otis Falls Paper Company—in the town of Jay in 1887.  Five years earlier, however, he had visited the Great Falls at Rumford and soon became determined to create a “City in the Wilderness” at that location.

Hugh Chisholm’s Umbagog Paper Mill, in the foreground, was being expanded when this 1885 photo of Livermore Falls was taken.  The smaller mills on the opposite side of the Androscoggin included a sawmill, pulp mill, leatherboard mill, gristmill, and a “novelty” (dowel) mill—whose power came from a canal that ran beside and beneath these structures. (With few exceptions, 18th and 19th century mills on the Androscoggin were powered by water channeled through canals that paralleled the main river—an arrangement that helped prevent the structures from being washed away during spring floods.)

A view of the Otis Falls Paper Company in Jay, Maine, after it became part of Hugh Chisholm’s larger International Paper Company conglomerate.  On the left a power plant captures energy from the Androscoggin, while at the right is the village of “Chisholm."

The construction of canals to furnish Androscoggin water to the several mills at Rumford Falls was of paramount importance in the early 1890s.  Hugh Chisholm also purchased controlling stock in the Rumford Falls and Buckfield Railway Company, which had reached only as far as Canton in the 1880s—some seventeen miles downriver from Rumford.  Chisholm completed the line and eventually connected it to the Grand Trunk and Maine Central railroads.

Two views of the Great Falls at Rumford illustrate the dramatic changes that took place there between the 1890s (top photo) and the 1930s (bottom photo) as the cataract was harnessed to produce electricity.  During times of drought, most of the river water is channeled through the power station, leaving the falls nearly dry.

The mills of the International Paper Company at Rumford and a broad stone-walled canal are shown in this view dating from about 1910.  In the center distance may be seen the power station atop the Great Falls.

Rumford’s Oxford Paper Company, as it looked when paper production started on November 9, 1901.  In the foreground is the Androscoggin River, with the “Strathglass Park” housing development on the hillside in the near distance.  Some of the chemical and paper wastes entered the river from the granite-lined channel beneath the mill.

The cutting room at Rumford’s Oxford Paper Company as it appeared around 1910.  To reach this stage in papermaking, many unwanted substances from wood were extracted and discharged directly into the Androscoggin.  Industrialists, like Hugh Chisholm, mistakenly believed that the river would somehow repurify itself, despite the tremendous tonnage of waste sulfite liquors dumped into it.

Pulp wood fills the Androscoggin from bank to bank in this photograph.  As with earlier drives of long logs, bark and resinous sap from the pulp wood discolored the water and deposited solids on the bottom, adding to the already severe pollution problems on the river.
Freshets of Consequence: Androscoggin River Floods

Numerous floods on the Androscoggin have been commonplace over the centuries.  In more recent times, the construction of dams to control the river’s flow during periods of high water has been of tremendous aid to those residing or working near the waterway.  Nevertheless, the 1987 freshet caused much damage in parts of the river valley, notably in the town of Canton, which, after a detailed study by FEMA, has decided to relocate a number of structures in its main village to higher ground.

“The watershed of the Androscoggin, consisting largely of steep and barren mountains, including the easterly slopes of some of the White Hills, is such as to cause the volume of water in the river to increase very rapidly during severe rainstorms and spring freshets, the rise often amounting to one foot per hour for several successive hours, the banks soon becoming overflowed and the broad intervales presenting the appearance of a raging flood.”

— William B. Lapham, History of Bethel, Formerly Sudbury Canada, Oxford County, Maine (1891)

Flooding in the nearby town of Hanover was severe in March of 1896.  The Hanover Dowel Mill is shown in this photo, with the Androscoggin in the background.

The main “highway” leading from Hanover village to Rumford Point (now Route 2) was blocked by chunks of ice after the flood of 1896.  Much hand labor was needed to re-open this section of the road.

During the famous 1936 flood, the Maine Central Railroad placed cars full of gravel on its bridge above the Great Falls at Lewiston-Auburn to prevent the span from being washed downstream.  The scheme worked and the bridge is still there today!
Major Floods on the Androscoggin River
1723 — The earliest recorded “freshet” on the Androscoggin occurred in February.  The river was “open not only below but even to the falls thirty miles above Pejepscot” (Brunswick/Topsham).
1784 — In the autumn of this year, high water lifted the barn of Andrew and John Dunning, of Brunswick, off its site on the intervale and carried it intact until it reached the falls.
1785 — In October, “the greatest freshet ever yet recorded on the Androscoggin River” damaged or destroyed many low-lying houses and farmstead from Bethel to Brunswick.
1826 — On August 30, “the most unexpected and rapid rise of water in the Androscoggin occurred that had ever been known.  In Livermore and Jay the water rose eight feet in one night.”  A number of mills were damaged and ferries swept downstream.
1839 — A February “ice freshet” carried away dams, log booms and mills on the river.  The open-truss pier bridges at Bethel and Rumford Point were also destroyed and replaced with ferries the following year.
1869 — In the “Pumpkin Freshet” of October 5, thousands of pumpkins were carried into the Androscoggin River via its tributaries, creating a sight long remembered by valley residents.
1896 — A March flood forced thick cakes of river ice over roads and against bridges, causing much damage.  Railroad tracks near the river were undermined and telephone lines in the Bethel area brought down.
1927 — Several days of torrential rain during November resulted in high water along major waterways in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.  Damage and loss of life was greatest in the latter state.
1936 — Heavy rains in mid-March combined with spring snow melt to produce what has been called “Maine’s greatest flood.”  Considerable property damage occurred throughout the Androscoggin valley.
1953 — Despite record runoff, the late March 1953 flood caused less damage than in 1936 due to the absence of ice jams and moving ice.  “The discharge of the Androscoggin at Auburn was the second largest since 1850 and probably since 1785.”
1981 — Rains lasting several days in February caused the Androscoggin to overflow its banks, resulting in numerous ice jams on the narrower sections of the upper river.
1987 — On April 1, the worst flooding in Maine in half a century was brought about by melting snows and driving rain.  Entire sections of communities along the Androscoggin were cut off as bridges washed out and roads were submerged.

Cleaning Up the River: Challenges, Opportunities and Achievements

By 1940, many of the mills along the Androscoggin had recovered from the effects of the Depression and were actually increasing production in response to war-time needs. Not surprisingly, these same mills were discharging an extraordinary amount of toxic pollution into the river—as were all of the municipalities along its course.  The construction in the late 1920s of the Gulf Island Dam several miles above the Great Falls at Lewiston/Auburn created “Gulf Island Pond,” which backed up the river nearly to Livermore Falls, and worsened the effects of the toxic wastes by drowning the rapids that had naturally provided oxygen to the water.  Extremely low water in the river during the winter of 1940-41 brought these appalling conditions to a head, and Lewiston and Auburn residents made an official appeal to the Maine Sanitary Water Board for help.  Soon afterward, the firm of Metcalf & Eddy, Engineers, of Boston, was hired to conduct a survey of the Androscoggin, and in February of 1942, they submitted a detailed report that included suggestions for remedial measures to clean up the river.  One highly significant outcome of this investigation was the hiring, in 1947, of Dr. Walter Lawrance, Chair of the Chemistry Department at Bates College, as “River Master.”  Under his direction, weekly discharge limits were set, and pressure was placed on the paper mills to find a substitute for the sulfite method of pulverizing wood.  With the introduction of the kraft pulping process, the tide began to turn, and conditions on the river slowly started to improve.

Although great strides have been made in cleaning up the Androscoggin since the studies of the 1940s were carried out, the middle and lower sections of the river remain seriously impaired when judged against Maine’s other large rivers, including the Saco, Kennebec and Penobscot.  As those who cast a line in the Androscoggin today understand only too well, the presence of dioxins and high mercury levels in fish inhabiting these waters is a reminder that more work remains to be done before this great waterway returns to anything resembling its pre-industrial condition.

This 1934 view of Rumford was taken from “Falls Hill,” where Route 2 climbs to the top of the now-harnessed Great Falls.  A good deal of the foam floating in the pool below the Falls was due to the dumping of tons of industrial and municipal wastes into the Androscoggin above Rumford.

Before the introduction of treatment plants along the Androscoggin, low water levels turned this once proud waterway into a slow-moving sewer.

Over twenty dams, including this impressive structure at Lewiston, now exist on the Androscoggin.  The view of those trying to clean up the river is that such dams have eliminated the aerating function of the falls on which they are located, hold back vast quantities of water already low in dissolved oxygen content, and allow the river water temperature to increase by exposing more of it to the summer sun.

A thick layer of waste material coats the Androscoggin River in this aerial photo taken just below the Great Falls at Lewiston-Auburn around 1930.  By the early 1960s, the Androscoggin had become one of the most severely polluted rivers in the United States.   Dissolved oxygen levels from Berlin to Brunswick frequently reached zero during the summer, resulting in the death of virtually all fish and other aquatic life in the river.  Courtesy of the Androscoggin Historical Society
The Turning Point
“New Year’s Day, 1941, ushered in a year which not only would plunge the country into World War II, but would bring to a climax the terrible contamination of one of America’s loveliest rivers.  The winter of ’41 began with an unusually scanty snowfall. . . . Snowfall was light and, in addition, there were no less than three winter thaws which took off the scarce snow unseasonably early.  When spring came, by the calendar, there was no freshet, no great mass of water rushing down to the sea.  The result was that the river was at the lowest level it had been for many a season.  Now came the culminating factor: an unusually hot June and July, with little rain.  From a faint whiff of hydrogen sulfite which rose from the river in May, the appalling stench of rotten eggs became progressively worse all up and down the river, and reached its climax in the most heavily populated section of Lewiston and Auburn, where roughly sixty thousand indignantly aroused citizens became vocally and politically vehement.  It was a community disaster which was not only the topic of all conversation, but caused the slowdown of industry and business in general.  Retail stores were deserted and some suffered physically from the effluvia.  Jewelers, for example, nearly went berserk keeping their stocks of silverware saleable because the sulfite-laden air turned silver and other metals black overnight.  If you were driving from Augusta to Lewiston, you began to smell it at North Monmouth, twenty miles from the city, and it increased in intensity as the road approached the river.  Houses painted white turned black and blistered in great ugly patches, and by the time you had reached the city limits, you had to put up your car windows despite the heat and try not to breathe through your nose.  It was revolting, and the exodus of families who could afford it became a locust-like invasion of the seashore and the mountain and lakeside camps—provided they were located far from the foul river.  The wage earners must of necessity remain, and their outcries reached such a volume that the matter was brought before the newly created Maine Sanitary Water Board.  Late in August, that body employed the same firm of Metcalf and Eddy of Boston [who had surveyed the Androscoggin in 1940 for Central Maine Power Company] to conduct a survey of the river and to recommend remedial measures.  Thus, out of the despair and suffering of the populace was born the infant movement to recover the river.”

— Page Helm Jones, Evolution of a Valley: The Androscoggin Story (1975)

The published findings of the 1941 survey carried out by Metcalf & Eddy included recommendations for the construction of sewage treatment plants in most of the larger communities on the Maine portion of the Androscoggin.  A recently taken photo of the treatment plant here in Bethel appears below.

Growing public concern for controlling water pollution led to a 1977 amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, commonly known as the “Clean Water Act.”  Maine Senator (and later, Secretary of State) Edmund Muskie—a Rumford native—was a strong force behind this legislation, which established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and gave the EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry. It also funded the construction of sewage treatment plants.

Opened in 1966, the former International Paper Company kraft mill at Jay was built at a cost of $54 million dollars.  The operation’s primary treatment facility (part of which shows at upper right), installed in 1968-69, has been expanded over the years, as has the mill itself.  A section of the Androscoggin River, including the falls at “Jay Bridge,” appears at left.
The River’s Journey and Story Continue…

Photo by Danna B. Nickerson

Photo by Danna B. Nickerson

Photo by Nathan N. Wight

Photo by Nathan N. Wight
The Bethel Historical Society extends its appreciation to the following individuals and organizations for their assistance in making this exhibition possible: Androscoggin Historical Society, Androscoggin River Alliance, Androscoggin River Watershed Council, Jay Boschetti, Arlene Greenleaf Brown, Hugh and Linsley Chapman, Tom Fallon, Stanley R. Howe, Robert and Virginia Keniston, Mahoosuc Land Trust, Maine Historic Preservation Commission, George A. Nickerson, Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., Mary E. Valentine, Nathan N. Wight, John and Susan Wight.

Text and images contained in this online exhibit are intended for research purposes only,

and are not to be otherwise reproduced without permission from the Bethel Historical Society.

Randall H. Bennett, Curator of Collections
Danna B. Nickerson, Curatorial Assistant

Learn more about the history of the Bethel area by browsing through
online articles from the Society's print publication, The Courier,
or visit The Bethel Journals,
a website devoted to Bethel's past created by Society past president Donald G. Bennett.

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