Getting down to the banks of the Androscoggin River was proving to be more difficult than it looked. The river is only about a ten minute walk from the college campus where I have lived and attended classes daily for nearly a year and a half, but though I have walked or driven across the river on the Maine Street bridge many times, I still have never been down to the water's edge. Me being a native Minnesotan, this seems shameful. I grew up in Minneapolis, the self-proclaimed City of Lakes and the first major city on the Mississippi River. During my childhood, every body of water – lake, river, or creek – was ringed by a walking path, a bike path, a scenic parkway, and elegant, expensive homes or newly-built condos. The paths on a typical summer day are choked with people – retirees strolling and chatting, couples holding hands, scantily-clad runners jogging, kids on scooters racing ahead of their parents. After years of biking, running, rollerblading, or walking around the lake or by the creek nearest my house, I knew every bend, every hill, every point from which I could look out over the water to see the downtown buildings in the distance. In Maine, however, something seemed different. The first morning after moving into my dorm, I went running and headed down towards the river –maybe I wouldn't get lost there, unlike in the town's unfamiliar network of streets. I crossed over the bridge, where the water of the river rolled below, and looked for a path or a sign. There was none. I found an obscure way down to the riverbank, but when I reached the bottom, there was nowhere to go – just a dirt landing. I could see houses on the hillside above, but they weren't exactly the picture of waterfront property that I'd gotten used to back home. I headed back to campus. This was my most recent excursion to the river's edge.
Well, until now. I'm riding my bike alongside Maine Street towards the brown curve of the Androscoggin ahead, determined to get down to the water below the bridge so that I can see the dam and the old mill buildings. The small roadside park adjacent to the river, grandly termed Centennial Park according to a signpost, is deserted, and garbage lies strewn on the grass. I wander through it and come to the crest of the hill above the riverbank. The way down to the water lies ahead – across a steep incline of boulders. I set my bike down on a ragged shock of grass and begin finding my way down, shoes sliding on the rock faces. Trash and remnants of past construction works are everywhere – rusted metal pipes sticking out of the ground, an old foundation of a previous bridge, traces of reddish paint on the rocks.
Once down to the bottom of the boulders and onto a ledge of rock jutting into the river, I squat to look at the water, but don't reach out to touch it – like most people, I've heard the stories by now about the polluted Androscoggin. Sure enough, when the wind dies for a moment, a faint smell drifts to my nostrils – hard to place exactly, but suggestive of garbage or some mixture of chemicals. Below the level of a few inches into the water, plants and rocks recede into a murky brown darkness. I straighten up and look around. The water swirls past at my feet, flowing quickly after its recent plunge over the concrete dam. Seagulls circle and cry overhead, the only animal life in sight. Meanwhile, the constant noise of unseen cars on the bridge overhead provides a background thunder. I hope for a moment that none of them are looking down to see what this odd Minnesotan is up to, but then I realize that from on top of the bridge, you can't see the riverbank where I'm standing anyway – much less detect the smell that is still emanating slowly from the water.
Perhaps I could find the clues to the modern uses of the Androscoggin in the geologic history of the river valley – a product of the vast workings of continental plates and ice sheets. More than 13,000 years ago, the river did not exist, and what is now river valley was at that time ocean floor. During the last ice age, a vast sheet of ice thousands of feet thick bulldozed its way out across the current Maine coast and out to the modern-day fishermen's haven, Georges Bank off of Cape Cod. The retreat of the ice some thousands of years later left an ocean in its wake – the enormous weight of the ice sheet had depressed the continental shelf enough that water covered much of Eastern Maine, including today's Brunswick, Lewiston, and Augusta. Imagine the contours of the land – the curve of the river, the natural cliffs beside it – as the watery depths of the ocean; Pleistocene fish species dart over this exposed bedrock of the ocean floor, scraped clean by the weight of thousands of feet of ice. But geologic processes keep to an inexorable, if slow, pace, and ice sheets shrank as the climate warmed; the weight on the crust having lifted, Brunswick resurfaced. The edge of the sea receded until it reached approximately present-day boundaries, and the remainders of the glacial waters drained from the mountains to form a series of icy lakes in western and central Maine. When ice dams finally broke and the flowing water carved its channel down to the sea, the Androscoggin in its first manifestation had been born.
Though it had changed courses over time, the river still drains from the heights of the White Mountains today and flows through lakes and bottomlands that are the final remainders of the original glacial lakes. It is still subject to seasonal surges of water that leap the banks and overspread these floodplains. The Androscoggin also drops 1200 feet from mountain sources to the tidal outlet – a number that has little meaning until you calculate it out to an average of an 8-foot drop per mile. A chart showing the elevation of the river looks like a series of uneven stairs – the steep slope of the line hints at the dozens of waterfalls, cascades, and rapids scattered over the river's course as it rushes downhill.
The drops and flat sections of the chart make the pattern of human interaction with the river clearer. Early settlers who flocked to the valleys of the Kennebec and Penobscot were slower to make their way into the Androscoggin valley – in the time before railroads, river travel up and down the watery veins of the coast was the only way to get around, and since Brunswick was the farthest a ship could go on the river before running into walls of rock, settlement tended to stop there, at the falls. The falls: it is a historic site of human interaction with the river, and the place where I myself have just been exploring the riverside. Here, human lifestyles and uses of the river have shifted constantly, but the river has remained, flowing onward.
Of the three largest rivers in Maine, the Androscoggin is the smallest; it has historically been the least well known and the least publicized of the three. And I take comfort in the fact that, according to early history, I'm not the only one who's had trouble accessing the river. The Androscoggin has proven itself many times over to be a river that is difficult to find and often overlooked by those who do not know what they are looking for. This is mostly because of the random workings of natural forces that dictated that the two great rivers, the Kennebec and the Androscoggin, meet before either touches salt water. Accordingly, the waters of the two mingle in Merrymeeting Bay and then together sweep out with the tide into the Atlantic. European explorers of the early 17th century who sailed down the coast of Maine saw a single outlet in Casco Bay and assumed that one river, the Kennebec, was the dominant waterway of the area. The famous explorer Samuel de Champlain, a prominent figure in many a history textbook, was in 1605 one of the few to brave the maze of islands and channels and enter Merrymeeting Bay. Upon arriving in the estuary, he described two rivers: one he named as the "Quimbequg" – the Kennebec – and one that he merely described as "another which comes from the northwest". Though he may have sailed upstream on the Kennebec as far north as the present site of Augusta, the other river – the Androscoggin – was left unexplored, and Champlain's brief, enigmatic side note is the only hint of its existence.
A second early figure who is prominent in the history of Brunswick and of the Androscoggin was a man who was described by local Native Americans as "our greatest enemy." It is also the man who, when his widow sold the land deeds, was found to hold title to areas including the modern-day limits of Brunswick, Topsham, Harpswel, Bath, Phippsburg, Bowdoinham, and Lewiston/Auburn. Thomas Purchase moved into the area in 1628 and set up a trading post near the Androscoggin in Brunswick (exactly where in Brunswick is a subject that has engendered much debate among the members of the Pejepscot Historical Society). The early date of his arrival has long motivated Brunswick historians to label their town to be the oldest continuously occupied spot on the Androscoggin. Little is know about Purchase personally, besides the fact that he laid claim to a huge tract of land, and that he was particularly unjust in his dealings with the local Native Americans. In 1928, the historian Charles Starbird published a portentous volume entitled The Indians of the Androscoggin Valley. Throughout the book, he has a habit of labeling Native Americans as violent savages marauding against the innocent colonists, so it is perhaps a measure of Purchase's character that he warrants this description:
"No trader along the coast was more harsh in his maltreatment than was Thomas Purchase. His methods of trade were particularly odious. We are told that it was his custom to serve liquor to the Indians until they became intoxicated, and then to drive the hardest bargains possible with them."
In 1675, on the verge of another outbreak of war, a party of Native Americans staged a raid on Purchase's household. As Charles Starbird tells the story, finding that he was not home, they plundered the post and proceeded to kill, roast, and eat a calf. When Purchase returned in the midst of this and saw what was going on, he fled on horseback and was pursued for some distance. Though the facts are sketchy, the outcome was undeniable: renewed violence along the Androscoggin. History books list the exhaustive series of ongoing, protracted wars of the 17th and 18th centuries between colonists and Native Americans: King William's War, Queen Anne's War, King George's War, King Phillip's War, the French and Indian War. The Androscoggin Valley played host to several of the violent encounters during this period. Little more than a decade after the attack on Purchase's trading post, natives of Maine massed to attack a new target: the newly built fort that had just been christened after the then-Governor of New England Edmund Andros. They occupied the fort for several months – according to Starbird, "death and destruction reigned" – until English forces from Massachusetts arrived and found only "the ruin wrought by the savages." The fort may have been partially destroyed at this point, but it was soon rebuilt to stand for further years.
Today's Fort Andross is one of the most visible buildings in Brunswick, a giant red brick building lined with rows of windows, its back to the river and the hydroelectric power plant. There is a curious connection to the past here – the building is also the former home of the Cabot Manufacturing Company, a large textile mill that at its peak around the turn of the century employed hundreds of workers. After the mill had closed and the building sat dormant for some years, however, it was bought out, intended to be made into retail and office space. The new owners renamed the giant edifice in honor of the original Fort Andros, that lonely colonial outpost of the English at the Brunswick Falls. Here, three different eras of history – colonial times, the age of milling, and the present day – intersect to form a nexus point. It is a natural spot: the building is positioned on the rocky hill above the Androscoggin as it cascades over the once-natural falls and turns the corner to Merrymeeting Bay. The falls that were the original boundary of transportation, and exploited for their bountiful stocks of fish, were in later times harnessed to power the mills that sprang up around the river. In the present, the economy of the town has moved away from direct dependence on the river, but the building still stands.
Today, shoppers flow in and out of the building, many clutching bulging bags of merchandise. They are probably already getting a start on the Christmas season. I, on the other hand, am on another mission, walking my bike and weaving my way through the parking lot around the cars and people. I have never been inside Fort Andross, though I have certainly noticed the giant brick building while biking or driving past. The main entrance is below the tower that serves as the trademark image of the building; at its peak, a flag flies, and the inscription "Cabot Mill 1834-1891" is boldly lettered across the face. I lock my bike to the rack and stop to read the plaque next to the doorway before I go inside. It explains how the building exists on the site of the original Fort Andros and commemorates several men "killed by the Indians" near to here. Recalling what I have read of the history of the fort, I try to imagine the brick building in front of my eyes as a fort built of stone. During the 18th century, the people of Brunswick rushed to gather at the fort with any alarm. I picture a small group of dark-clad colonial frontiersmen and women congregating inside, fearful of Indian attacks, fearful of the wilderness that lay beyond its stone walls. As people bustle by me into the shopping center, however, the image is remote and unreal. I'm from a state where written history extends back no more than a few generations – the colonial history of New England for me has been confined in history textbooks and doesn't just appear at your feet and in front of your face.
I walk inside. On either side of the entryway, neatly framed photos hang on the brick walls, showing black-and-white scenes of posed, smiling mill workers in front of large spinning machines. Old pipes run alongside the wall, but other than this, the building has been attractively renovated, and glass doors and carpeting cover any trace of the milling era. As I wander farther inside, however, further back from shoppers and storefronts, the floor changes to a polished wood, and tall pillars of timber line the hallways - I wonder if these are remnants of Maine's famous "mast trees," the old-growth white pines that had become such a valuable resource in shipbuilding days. Wooden ceilings with a framework of old pipes are high above my head. Here, it is easier to picture the machines from the photos standing on the wooden floor, the mill workers toiling alongside them. As I wander, I am most impressed with the size of the mill – the building is a maze of multiple floors and entranceways. Most of the space has now been converted to shops and offices, though large areas farther back or on higher stories seem to be unoccupied.
By now I have seen enough of the inside. Back outdoors, I bypass the other entrances and make my way to the rear of the building. The space back here is mostly for reserved parking spots, but I can see the Androscoggin over the tops of the cars. On this side, remains of the past and the neglect of the present are more clearly visible. On sections of the wall, the bricks are crumbling away and stained with a dark color, and panels of the large windows are broken, discolored, or missing. A rusty fire escape mounts the side of the blackened brick wall. The contrast with the clean, modern façade of the front is striking.
I turn to face the river. Beyond the parking spaces, it spreads out, rushing its way into the hydroelectric dam. I wonder if there is a reason Fort Andross faces away from the water; I have heard that in Lewiston, the majority of the buildings of the industrial era were built inwards to the town because of the smell produced by the industrial chemicals and sewage in the water. Here, no matter the cause, it seems like a symbol: the people flowing in and out of the building, going about their business; the river on the other side, unseen.
Fort Andross is a remnant of the height of the milling era, when virtually all of the economies of the towns along the Androscoggin were centered around their own particular mills. The era began as early as the late 18th century, when in the falls that most viewed as a source of good fishing or as obstacles to river travel, a select group of entrepreneurs saw potential energy and profits. On all of Maine's major rivers, but primarily the Androscoggin because of its drop from source to mouth, mills and dams were built at an increasing rate beginning in the mid-18th century. Originally, the mills were sawmills with giant water wheels, processing the logs that were floated downriver from Maine's diminishing forests. Following soon after the sawmills were textile and shoe factories, tanneries, and foundries; on the heels of these came ever larger pulp and paper mills. Along with the mills came larger and more permanent dams – the last time that the river at the Brunswick falls flowed unimpeded was 1753, when the first dam across the Androscoggin was built. In most of Maine's towns on the Androscoggin, particularly manufacturing centers like Lewiston and Auburn, mills were the basis of a booming economy up to the middle of the 20th century. A GIS photo of the current Brunswick waterfront with the buildings of 1923 superimposed onto it is evidence of the boom. Marked in red, blocks of color signifying mills or some kind of manufacturing line the river – two mills of the Pejepscot Paper Company in Topsham, the Scribner flour mill, the Scribner machine shop, Central Maine Power. The sprawling blotch of scarlet on the Brunswick side, of course, is the Cabot textile mill, with extensions and outbuildings for waste storage.
The river had been used for fishing, transport, and then the hydropower and flood control provided by dams – but during this period, it became most useful for one simple purpose: when things were dumped in it, they floated away downriver. Since the dams prevented the previous flourishing fisheries on the river from continuing – the last Atlantic salmon at Great Falls in Lewiston was seen in 1816, the year after a new permanent dam was put in place at Brunswick – the sole purpose of the river became to dispose of waste and sewage. Particularly after the new chemical process of sulfite pumping replaced the old mechanical way, industrial waste products and chemicals had to go somewhere, and the river was the easiest place. Already in 1913, ice harvested from the river was too polluted to use as ice cubes. In 1930, the growing pollution of the Androscoggin as well as other rivers prompted the publishing of a "Survey and Report of River and Stream Conditions in the State of Maine" by the pulp and paper mills. The report examines conditions in five rivers, including the Androscoggin, and discusses the process and chemistry of mill discharges in detail. The authors explain in the forward:
"With the progress of time from the original settlement of this country, people came to gather together and domicile their families in larger and larger groups. Communities sprang into being, followed by villages, towns, and finally large cities. Proper sanitation – not difficult in the smaller groups – became an increasingly important problem as the groups increased in size… Similarly, since the very beginning of industrial activity in this country, it has been very common practice for industrial plants to dispose of waste materials and unusable by-products of manufacturing by dumping them into streams and rivers. As the concentration of people and of manufacturing increased, the quantity of these domestic and industrial wastes naturally increased, and obnoxious stream conditions began to appear in some places. While it has long been accepted – and still is today – that our streams and rivers must serve as natural channels for the carrying off and removal of liquid waste material, it came to be recognized that there was a limit to the amount which the individual stream or river could carry without deleterious effect on the natural fish life in the stream itself, or possibly the health of the communities through which it passed."
The rest of the report addresses whether or not the rivers had reached the limit beyond which fish life and humans would be harmed; its warning message is rarely found in the decades before the environmental movement. However, former salmon fishermen on the river may have argued that the better question to ask would be whether the limit might not already have been exceeded.
In a series of articles about the Androscoggin published in the Lewiston Sun Journal in 1985, optimistically titled, "The Androscoggin: A River Rediscovered," one of the articles tells the story of the summer of 1941 in Lewiston. It had been a hot and dry summer, and river flows were low. Sulfite chemical pollution that had been dumped into the river upstream, instead of being absorbed by the river, transformed into poisonous hydrogen sulfide. The towns of Lewiston, Auburn, and Lisbon Falls filled with the sulfuric smell of rotten eggs. Paint on nearby buildings changed color and peeled off of the walls, a phenomenon that was then cited in Ripley's Believe It or Not. Many left home for the summer. For others, however, this was the breaking point. The position of "Rivermaster" was invented to fill the need for someone who could take action on the pollution, and the job description included performing studies on the odor every year.
From this point until the 1970s, the turnaround of the river was impressive by all accounts. Odors, foam, multicolored water – by the late 1970s, they had all disappeared or at least been greatly diminished. The most famous example of the cleanup is the Clean Water Act of 1972. The act was pushed into legislation by the late Maine Senator Edmund Muskie – the same Edmund Muskie who had grown up next to the Androscoggin in Rumford, Maine, a paper mill town.
However, after the initial cleanup and the disappearance of the noxious odors, emphasis on cleaning up remaining pollution lessened, though the need for it did not. Anoxic conditions– the lack of dissolved oxygen in the water, caused by an overabundance of bacteria that break down pulp mill waste products – are still causing lime green algal blooms in areas of the river. Many of the fish have never returned, such as the salmon and the Atlantic sturgeon, though others have taken their places. Even if you do catch a fish, however, signs posted at every public landing to the river warn that due to high mercury concentrations, fishing is catch-and-release only – deeply ironic for a river where the astonishing numbers of fish were long the primary means of subsistence. In what is perhaps the greatest irony, however, the Androscoggin alone among Maine rivers, the river that above all others inspired the Clean Water Act, still does not meet even the lowest standards for water quality under the Act.
I am on the phone with Neil Ward, the program director of the Androscoggin River Alliance and himself a fourth-generation resident of the river area, and in between invectives on the current situation of the river, he tells me about the river's past. His great-grandfather lived along the river and caught wild salmon, but by the time Neil himself crossed the river every day on his way to school, "you couldn't even tell there was a river there." He describes brown foam two and a half feet thick and speckled with dead fish that covered the entire surface of the water. His father grew up in a home beside the Androscoggin, but when Neil questioned him about it years later, he remembered nothing about the river, besides the fact that "it stunk awful".
The Androscoggin River Alliance has one of the main proponents for cleaning up the river in recent years, and so I ask him about the organization's founding. He tells me some of the history of the group, founded in 2004 in response to a specific bill that had nearly been passed by the Maine government allowing standards for the water quality of the Androscoggin alone to be lower than those for the rest of Maine's rivers. The bill, of course, had been pushed by the paper industry that depended on the three remaining big mills along the river – "typical corporate mindset" he declares. The only reason that the bill hadn't been passed was because of a small error in the language, sending it back to the Maine legislature for a second try. The newly formed Androscoggin River Alliance had turned out hundreds of people for the hearing.
"They had to open up extra hearing rooms," Ward says, a note of pride in his voice. He pauses. "But we were soundly defeated still."
When I ask what major problems remain for cleaning up the river, he cites the three big remaining mills as expected, but also criticizes the attitudes of the general population.
"There is no history of the river," he says. "You see it, but it's not part of the vernacular." We talk about the mindset of "jobs versus pickerel," as he puts it, as preventing the cleanup of the river. He tells me that it is still one of the most polluted rivers in the country, and the state is downgrading water quality standards for the Androscoggin even as they put money into high-profile cleanup efforts for the two other major rivers in Maine, the Kennebec and the Penobscot.
Throughout the phone call, his low, calm voice has become more and more heated when we discuss remaining pollution of the river and the mindset of the general population. At times, I notice a striking similarity in his arguments to wording on the Androscoggin River Alliance website. I suppose that he has said all of this many times before.
Towards the end of the call, however, he pauses, and his voice drops in intensity as he admits, "I guess you can tell that I'm pretty passionate about this."
I have asked to meet with Bowdoin professor of ecology John Lichter, and I show up at his office on time. Not finding him there, I hesitantly poke my head around the corner to see into another professor's office. Yes, there he is, holding a coffee cup and chatting with another professor I can't see behind a desk. He sees me and bids goodbye to the unseen professor before coming back to his own office to sit and talk with me about the Androscoggin. Though his office sits on the second floor of Bowdoin's recently built, glass-walled science building, Lichter looks as though he would be more at home out in the woods sifting through soils or on the water taking samples. Indeed, his picture on the Bowdoin faculty website shows him in a bright yellow lifejacket and grinning against a background of choppy water and pine trees, a cap perched above his round glasses and bearded chin. He talks in a soft voice and moves with shoulders slightly stooped as he steps to a bookshelf in his office to shuffle through papers to show me. As he talks, I note the authors of the books on a shelf above us: Rachel Carson, John McPhee, Aldo Leopold.
Our discussion ranges from one topic to another – the history of the pollution on the Androscoggin, the main contributors to pollution, the cleanup of the river. Then I ask about a general pattern I've been noticing - whether the efforts to clean up the river have become stalled after the initial progress of the 1970s – and he sits up a little straighter, eyes brightening. He explains that a recent article that he coauthored, on eutrophication in Merrymeeting Bay, discusses the idea of the "shifting baseline." Within popular memory, he tells me, there is no conception of what the Androscoggin was like before the pollution from the mills, only that the quality of the river has improved considerably since the beginning of the 1970s. Thus, when cleanup reaches a certain point – such as when the noxious odors have declined to a degree such that they are apparent only on the riverbanks – the public is satisfied. It takes only a "quick fix" solution to solve the problem in the public eye – such as the 1940s practice of releasing pollutants in the winter instead of in the summer to prevent summer anoxia. Lichter's work in Merrymeeting Bay, by contrast, seeks to establish the natural baseline for the estuary in order to provide support for more stringent cleanup requirements.
As I thank Professor Lichter and head home, I reflect on the shifting baseline. I think back to my conversation with Neil Ward and what he said: there has been no connection to the river since his grandfather's time; that the population has been completely divorced from it. The image that comes to mind is that of the cars on the Maine Street bridge, crossing the river every day, never looking at it. Or the memory of telling a friend about the research I'm doing on the Androscoggin, the river only a few blocks away, and hearing her reply, "Oh, is that which river it is?"
With the vague notion of finding out more about the history of the Androscoggin, I have walked down to the building of the Pejepscot Historical Society, located in a handsome old house surrounded by a neat fence of black iron. As I open the door, a bell rings with my arrival, and a curator pokes his head out into the hallway.
"Are you here just to browse?" he asks, and so I try to explain my project.
"I know it's kind of a broad topic…" I offer, trailing off. His face suggests a desire to roll his eyes, but instead he shows me into a room full of bookshelves and waves a hand around.
"Well, feel free to look around."
I thank him and he walks back out, leaving me standing in front of the rows of books and file cabinets. I'm not quite sure where to begin. I move to a shelf and see that it contains photo albums labeled with names of events and places. One is entitled "Cabot Mill," and I slide it out from the others, curious.
I sit down at the table and begin to turn the pages, their rustling the only sound audible in the hushed museum. At first, the photos are simply old scenic views of the mills and the falls in the foreground. I note various small changes to the structures at the falls as I keep looking over the photos. Cabot Mill changes ownership and becomes Verney Mill. The older machines fade into newer-looking models.
Towards the end of the album, the photos switch from pictures of the mill building itself to pictures of the employees engaged in various activities. Many of these show the workers poised over their machines, but there are others as well. "Verney Office Xmas Party, 1945" – a group of well-dressed young women sit in a row alongside a table, plates and silverware spread in front of them. A picture of the Cabot-Verney Mill Girl's Bowling Team from 1940, with a group of smiling women in white, collared shirts with large V's on the fronts, posed around an man in a suit and tie, presumably their coach. A series of pictures from the 1950s show an annual picnic for employees and families at Thompson Point Beach – the employees pictured lined up in a "chow line," as the photo is captioned, playing tug-of-war and having sack races, eating box lunches with giant lobsters.
I have picked out another, similar photo album and am paging through this one, completely engrossed, when the curator comes back in.
"I hate to interrupt you, but…" He explains that he has to leave to take care of something and has to lock up the building. I had planned to stay longer, as the museum was scheduled to close later in the afternoon, but I thank the man and gather up my things to leave. I put the photo album away, momentarily regretting spending so much time looking at only one thing. I just hadn't expected to find pictures of social engagements, parties, and picnics in a photo album of the mill, and the window into the world of the mill workers of the 1940s and 50s was fascinating. The mill seemed to have been the backbone of an entire community – hundreds of workers and their families, if I remembered what I had read correctly. Brunswick today shows little sign of the milling era, its economy having moved on to other things such as the Naval Air Station, but I wonder what consequences for the town the eventual closing of the mill had brought. Of course, it would have been good for the Androscoggin, I reflect, remembering back to the GIS photo with the Cabot mill outbuildings for waste storage. Then I realize that none of the photos of the employees in their various recreational activities had shown any part of the river. Whether the cause was the growing pollution or a simple disconnect from the river, the river that powered the mill and the employees of the mill seemed to inhabit separate worlds.
The chill of the coming winter hangs in the November air as I stand on the bridge looking down. This time, I am not at the Maine Street bridge with its traffic and noise, its thick metal and concrete structure. Instead, I have come to the historic swinging footbridge just upstream from Fort Andross. Here, it is relatively quiet, and the main sound audible is the rippling of water over rocks in the river below. There is a small island in the center of the river dotted with pines and bronze-leaved maples. Beyond that, I can just make out the framework of the main bridge downstream, poking up above the smooth concrete of the hydroelectric plant. The light of the sky is fading as the sun makes its final descent into the trees behind me, and lights in the windows of Fort Andross are beginning to wink into sight. The cars on Route 1, visible between the trees lining the riverbanks as they come over the crest of the hill, have their headlights on to illuminate the way home.
I am standing against the railing on the swinging bridge, trying to jot down observations with fingers made slow by the cold air, while the occasional runner or biker passes by and glances curiously at me. The bridge was renovated and dedicated only this fall after decades of disrepair, but it was originally built in 1892 for workers crossing the river to Cabot Mill. The mill tended to recruit French-Canadian workers from Quebec for the bulk of their labor and housed hundreds of French-speaking immigrants in tenements close to the mill. They formed a community largely separated from the rest of Brunswick – until, however, the outbreak of a diptheria and typhoid epidemic in 1886 that took a toll on the French-Canadian children of the tenements. In response to criticism of the unsanitary living conditions in the tenements, housing developers, backed by the Cabot Manufacturing Company, began building the new neighborhood of Topsham Heights across the river. The construction of the footbridge followed. Accordingly, a group of the French Canadians from the tenements moved into the new houses, the first step that ended with their gradual integration into the greater community of the town. I try to imagine the men and women getting up in the morning and making their way across the long footbridge to go to work at the Cabot Mill. After a full day of sitting at a loom, they would head back home across the bridge. I wonder what they thought of the Androscoggin as they crossed back over, perhaps as the sun was setting as it is right now as I stand here. The river was probably wilder in those days, and for the most part still free of pollution. Perhaps they feared the dark water, or perhaps they took relief in its natural beauty – there is no way to know. Maybe they didn't notice it at all.
Eventually, I put away my notebook to simply look around. A bright orange streak in the sky signifies the place where the sun has just gone below the horizon, and everything around me is cast in hues of pink and grey. The light and the relative quiet give human structures a sense of the unreal, the ephemeral; what is real is the sky, the tree-lined banks, the river below. The river flows away from me, winding through town and down to where it will meet the Kennebec and rush into the sea. I think of its descent from the mountains, of its passage through towns where hollow mill buildings still sit on the riverbank and towns like Lewiston where the busy hum of the mills persists. I think of the number of people who have lived their lives around the river, both those who deeply care for it and those who do not know that it exists.
The river flows away. The light of the sky fades, and I turn to cross the bridge and begin the walk home. In my head, I am reciting a part of a poem that I ran across in my research. It is the title poem from Androscoggin, a volume of poetry published in 1940 by Marsden Hartley. One line, "Nothing is changed/nothing is different but ourselves…" is the one whose soft rhythms sound over again in my mind as I leave the riverbank and walk back home under a dimming sky. Perhaps this time will not be the last time that I come here.
It glides over the deepest ledges,
swirling away beyond Lisbon –
makes the beautiful curve at Topsham,
mingling with the salt sweat of
outer-ocean washes at
Nothing is changed,
nothing is different but ourselves…
I owe many thanks to Neil Ward, John Lichter, Dewitt John, and Franklin Burroughs for their patient help and correspondence. Also, Professor Anthony Walton and all of the students of English 213: Telling Environmental Stories were invaluable sources of feedback throughout the writing process.
Much of the information about the geology and early settlement of the river valley comes from Page Helm Jones's Evolution of a Valley. Neil Rolde's The Interrupted Forest was another helpful source that gave a wider perspective on the geology and the interactions between the English and the Native Americans in the region. Charles Starbird's The Indians of the Androscoggin Valley, Wheeler and Wheeler's classic History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, and Canyon Wolf's Alnobak: A Story of the Indigenous People in Androscoggin County were also sources of information about Native Americans and early English settlers. a number of articles given to me by John Lichter by himself, Walter Lawrance, and Charles Walker were useful resources on the cleanup and remaining pollution of the Androscoggin and Merrymeeting Bay. A series in the Lewiston Sun Journal entitled "The Androscoggin: A River Rediscovered" was a helpful source of recent and historic information. Franklin Burrough's Confluence: Merrymeeting Bay provided a writer's perspective on a neighboring body of water that was a helpful model for writing this story. Finally, the excerpt from Marsden Hartley's poem "Androscoggin" was found in Androscoggin Too: the Pejepscot Poems, a book of poetry by Robert M. Chute.