Life on the Androscoggin is a bi-monthly photojournalism blog highlighting the rich history of the county, with a particular focus on Maine’s twin cities, Lewiston and Auburn (L/A). In the 496 square miles that encompass Androscoggin County, there are over 100 buildings, sites or objects listed on the National Register of Historic Places and one National Historic Landmark. That’s a superfluity of history!
L/A’s history is unavoidable: her streets are crowded with the ghosts and relics of her past. This blog will take you on a virtual walking tour using historical documents and, when available, personal diaries and first-hand accounts of the people who lived and worked here. It will also juxtapose old and new photos with contemporary perspectives to show how much has changed… And how much has remained intact.
To kick it off, we’ll start at the iconic Great Falls, one of only 15 major urban waterfalls in the United States. The Falls is at the geographic center of Lewiston and Auburn and was the engine that powered the Industrial Revolution. The County owes its very existence to the natural, terrific power of the falls.
The area has been populated since the end of the Ice Age; the first known inhabitants of Maine were Paleoindians. In 1985, Arthur Spiess and his team from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission discovered one of the oldest archeological sites in Maine near the Auburn Airport. The indigenous people of the area were perhaps the first to comprehend the life-sustaining force of the Falls.
At 164 miles, the Androscoggin River is the third longest in Maine and one of the most treacherous. It descends more than any other river in the state and contains more falls and shallow lengths of whitewater rapids. Most historic urban waterfalls are now extinct; if they were considered obstacles to trade and transportation, they were submerged, flattened, drowned by dams, and locked for navigation and flood control. Great Falls, however, proved prosperous and remains largely intact. The Androscoggin itself, though troublesome to navigate with anything larger than a canoe, or adapt and control with canals and supplements, now contains 24 dams. About 45 percent of its length is compounded within regulated enclosures.
Great Falls was originally named Amitigouponticook and has had several different incantations over the years. If you’re looking for Colonial Era information about the Falls, for example, you might try researching Upper Falls. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, it was referred to as Twenty-Mile Falls (as it was understood to be at the time) and in the 19th Century it became Lewiston Falls. In the 20th Century, it was Great Falls and that name has stuck… Although I love the few remaining Abanaki names throughout the county, so lyrical and elegiac, and I wouldn’t mind going back to Amitigouponticook (credible sources claim no accurate translations are available but please correct me if I’m wrong).
White settlers moved into the area in 1770 and water power was first harnessed at the Falls. Three decades later, in 1808, Michael Little constructed a canal and dam from local timber. The county was originally populated by farmers, widely dispersed and living remotely, until the arrival of Boston entrepreneur Benjamin Bates.
In 1832, Bates started investing in city infrastructure, building mills and personally financed the construction of the canal system through Lewiston. This allowed him to use the Falls to generate hydro-mechanical power and transformed the county, and L/A in particular, from a small farming community into a textile manufacturing juggernaut modeled after Lowell, Massachusetts (the “cradle of the American Industrial Revolution”). Androscoggin County became a political reality in 1854 with Lewiston-Auburn serving as the hub. Today, L/A remains the second most populous area in Maine, after Portland.
Industry may have helped the economy of the region but it threatened the vitality and eco-system of the river itself. When paper mills shifted to using the sulfite pulping process, the already polluted river became dangerously toxic. By 1970, the Androscoggin was considered one of the most polluted rivers in the United States and the largest body of water with toxic sediments in Maine. Local citizens and environmentalists, led by Dr. Walter A. Lawrance, Chair of the Chemistry Department at Bates College, rallied against the industrial run-off. Local pressure and economic realities eventually forced mill owners to switch from sulfite to the kraft pulping process and the dynamics of the river changed dramatically. The successful clean up of the Androscoggin River became a model for the Clean Water Act of 1972.
Waterwheel technology eventually gave way to hydroelectricity; today, the Falls stands as a gorgeous landmark and historical symbol for L/A’s dominant industrial past. The Great Falls Dam, as well as nearly all of the dams in Maine, was built prior to environmental impact studies and subsequent environmental laws. Although hydropower remains a significant source of electricity, 78% has a generating capacity of less than 10 MW and there are many efforts now to remove dams through the state. It will be interesting to see if these environmental efforts eventually succeed in returning Great Falls and the surrounding ecology of the Androscoggin River to its pre-19th Century glory.
Lord, M. C., Stires, W. D., & Lecompte, N. (2003). Androscoggin County, Maine: A pictorial sesquicentennial history, 1854-2004. Auburn, Me.: Androscoggin Historical Society.
Elder, J. G., Young, D. C., & Young, E. K. (1989). A history of Lewiston, Maine: With a genealogical register of early families. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books.
Didisheim, P. (2014). Toward A New Balance in the 21st Century: A Citizens Guide to Dams, Hydropower, and River Restoration in Maine [Pamphlet]. Augusta, Maine: Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Spiess, Arthur E. (1985). “The Michaud Site: A New Major Fluted-Point Paleoindian Site in Auburn Maine.” Maine Archeological Society Bulletin 25, no. 2, 38-41.
Douglas-Lithgow, R. A., M.D., LL.D. (1909). American-Indian Place and Proper Names in New England; with many interpretations, etc. In The Salem Press Co., Salem, Mass. (1st ed.). Retrieved April 21, 2016, from https://archive.org/details/dictionaryofamerOOdoug
The Androscoggin Historical Society. Court Street Door, County Building, Auburn, Maine 04210.
The Center for Land Use Interpretation. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2016, from http://www.clui.org/
- The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. Center of Falls. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-2660-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
- The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. West Pitch. Retrieved fromhttp://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-265e-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
- Center of Great Falls. Photo by Brooke Nasser (2015).
- View of Lewiston-Auburn from behind the Falls. Photo by Brooke Nasser (2016)