The Megunticook River has been an important part of Camden for hundreds of years. It has made the town successful by historically providing power for many industries as well as providing amazing recreational areas, waterfalls and dams along its 142 foot drop to the sea culminating into a spectacular pair of falls plunging into the ocean right beside Camden Harbor Park.
The Megunticook River and falls are still supporting the town by making Camden an amazing destination as a unique place to live or visit. The river and falls are also a living museum of Camden’s history, its people over hundreds of years and their struggles to survive and develop the unique town we have today.
Unfortunately this irreplaceable treasure is currently in peril of being destroyed by our Town government! We cannot let it be torn apart by scores of excavators and dump trucks for an ethnic cleansing, where all we have left are little metal plaques and a few YouTube videos.
The following is the history of the Megunticook River shared with us by our beloved and recently departed Barbara Dyer, Camden’s local historian.
By Barbara Dyer
After studies, discussion, and/or information circling Camden today, we’re all talking about the “Montgomery Dam.” It’s the last dam from Megunticook River, where the water cascades with beautiful falls into Camden Harbor. The Philip Montgomery family gave it to the town in 1992. The selectmen gladly accepted it because the town could then control the flow of the river by opening and closing the Twin Dams where Megunticook Lake joins the river, the Seabright Dam (once owned and cared for by Joseph Sawyer) and the last dam (Montgomery). Kenneth Bailey, one of Camden’s most dedicated residents, spent many days and nights doing the work necessary, so that Camden would not be flooded. Today that work is done by Camden’s Wastewater Department.
The Department of Environmental Protection required registration of all dams by listing the name of the owner; name of the dam; year built; when last inspected; number of gates; height; weight; condition, etc. Guess it really was dam important. The town Dam Committee monitors the use and condition of the dam, advises the Select Board on maintaining a desirable level of water in Lake Megunticook and Megunticook River and inspects at least once a year the three dams that are owned by the town. I believe now instead of the DEP, it is required by The Maine Emergency Group.
The stream, or Megunticook River, as it is called, is three miles long and gradually drops 142 feet from the lake to sea level. It is the only river in Maine that the ocean never enters, even though the fresh and salt water do come together near the falls, at the head of the harbor.
My article today is not to take sides but to give you some of the history of that little river that once had as many as ten dams. It was the lifeblood of Camden because of the many mills that needed only enough water power to operate.
The first dam at the Lake was built on land owned by William Molyneaux, of Boston, when he bought land in 1786. Today, these dams are referred to as the East and West Dams at the intersection of Molyneaux and Beaucaire roads. He built a saw mill and a grist mill, as well as his summer home, about 1794. The land was a high elevation, so divided it from the river. History has it that he was fishing, when his canoe capsized and he drowned. He was a good swimmer but his “unfortunate habit of imbibing” hampered his attempt to save himself. His tight-fitting hat kept him afloat, and his body was easily found.
The Megunticook Woolen Company was organized in 1888 on what was known as the Batchelder Privilege, next below Molyneaux. It manufactured felts, but was not successful and closed in a few years. In 1905, it was purchased by Williams and Paige and operated as the Seabright Woven Felt Company. In 1930, it was the first mill in Camden to have automatic looms. It made tennis ball covers, belts for making soda crackers and pool table covers, among other things. It also was the first Camden peacetime industry to begin work for the World War II effort. It made 360 different types of mechanical woolens for various machines and was, at that time, the only one owned by out-of-state people.
E.H. Barrett and John Swann erected a paper mill on the third privilege in 1828. It manufactured $40 worth of paper a day. In 1841, the mill burned. It was four years later that Charles Davis, Lorenso Swett and John Ricker purchased the old mill lot and water privilege for $350. They bought an adjoining piece of property for $14. They started a gunpowder mill. Before their business had gone a full year they had an explosion. The Camden Herald reported:
“The powder mill at Camden was blown up on Friday evening about 9 o’clock. The accident occurred after the workmen had gone home, so consequently no one was hurt, but considerable glass was broken in the immediate vicinity. This report was heard and the shock felt many miles distant. In Union the flash was seen some seconds before the report was heard. The loss was estimated at $1,000.”
After that the business changed ownership many times and workers were hard to find. Another explosion was reported in The Rockland Gazette in 1853. Houses shook, windows broken and lights on Curtis Island were extinguished by the explosion. Next it was owned by Dr. Deplura Bisbee, of Camden. About 5,000 kegs of gunpowder worth $17,000 were made each year. It required 50 tons of saltpeter, 17 pounds of brimstone and 60 cords of alder wood. The brand name was “Waldo Mills,” and claimed to be the finest quality. He also made blasting powder for the lime quarry industry. There were nine explosions in all and only two to four workmen were employed, although there were 16 buildings on the property. Dr. Bisbee was very successful, but sold the property to a woolen company in 1892. It was called the Mt. Battie Woolen Manufacturing Company. It later was known as the Hughes Mill, later becoming a poultry company. That property was used by the Moss Tents business, which was founded in 1975 and later moved to Belfast.
To continue on with the history of the Megunticook River, I shall begin with the fourth privilege, located where Megunticook Street crosses Washington Street at the foot of Gould Street. Everyone knows where the Megunticook Market is with its wonderful goodies. Well, that is the spot. The river runs down by the left side of the market and the Millville Bridge crosses Washington Street. However, the dam is no longer there. It was at this fourth privilege that Amasa Gould had a plug and wedge mill. A market for these products were shipyards from Eastport to New Orleans, and of course in Camden, as well as all along the rugged coast of Maine. It was in 1855 that David Knowlton invented the machines to do this work.
The Camden Woolen Mill was organized on April 16, 1887, on the left side before the river crossed, before coming to the bridge. Seventy-five incorporators (mostly Camden residents) owned the stock. It manufactured fine woolens for men and women and was so successful that in a few years it built an addition, and had an annual payroll of $50,000. Goods were sold in Boston and New York. I now have the good fortune to read diaries of Fred Packard, who walked there everyday from Chestnut Street to do the payroll and he also traveled much to sell the woolens. He faithfully kept diaries from 1910 through 1989 (when he died). Then about 1910 the owners started a “fine list” to insure against carelessness and imperfect weaving that caused the workers to strike. If you were a good weaver, you could make $2 per day. The Camden Herald announced the company would find replacements. Eight Syrian workers arrived from Massachusetts on the Boston Boat and stayed at the boarding house across the road from the mill. Then other employees went on strike. That Friday, two guns were fired at the windows of the boarding house and later a bomb was thrown through a window. No one was hurt but needless to say, the eight Syrians, plus 14 more who had arrived, boarded the next Boston Boat for home. Nothing else happened except the smokestack fell down in 1915. But according to The Camden Herald, in Feb. 1930, 40 weavers went on strike, because they were asked to run two looms each. Because it was temporary, they all agreed to end their strike.
The Camden Woolen Mill went out and in 1954 Camden Tanning Corporation was started there by by Elvin and Richard Cox. It grew considerably over the years to 60 workers. It was sold to another tanning company and needed quite a bit of ground cleaning by the town of Camden when they left. The lot is vacant again; some want a park and others want a paying business.
Coming down the river on the corner of what is now Knowlton and Mechanic streets was a block factory belonging to Horatio Alden. In 1854 David Knowlton made it a company that made everything for vessels. David had what we call “Yankee ingenuity” and came from Liberty. Since Camden built large vessels, it was convenient to buy locally. He could manufacture just about anything needed. In 1880 his four sons took over and the name was changed to the Knowlton Brothers’ Foundry. It was the only block mill east of Boston. From their group of buildings came power capstans, portable power winches, windlasses, ship head pumps, steering wheels, blocks, deadeyes, as well as brass and iron castings, all made with just 100 employees. They had a reputation for unexcelled workmanship. It was destroyed by fire in 1861, but started up again. Many fires occurred but they built bigger and better buildings. The business was there for 60 years. Orman Goodwin Jr bought it in 1980, remodeled it and several businesses were there. Eastman Kodak, MBNA and now an assisted living home.
A few rods downstream, a saw and grist mill was owned by James Richards. So that one is called the Richards’ privilege. His children sold it to Horatio Alden. He started the endless felt business and in 1870 it became the Knox Woolen Company. It became one of Camden’s largest employers and lasted until 1988.
The Quesada Brothers purchased the building and did a wonderful repair job on it, opening up the Megunticook River and separating parts of the old building. The Sea Dog took over the restaurant and MBNA came to town and took the rest of the building. It is now used for lovely apartments.
Next place going down the river was the Brewster Shirt Factory, where now the Bagel Shop and other businesses reside. We go down Tannery Lane and Moses Parker had a tannery there. Also there have been blacksmith shops and stables. Kenneth Weymouth had a state-of-the-art grocery store where now David Dickey has the wonderful Riverhouse Hotel.
William Minot had the distinction of being the second settler at the “Harbor.” In 1771, he purchased land and water power near the mouth of Meguntcook River, where he built a grist mill. By 1909, the grist mill was located about where 35 Main St. is today. Then a business built at the end of the river was a woolen factory established by Abraham and Lewis Ogier in 1824, which was sold later to Thomas Harback and again in 1850 to Cyrus Alden. The flow of the water was directed into the factory by a flume and was dependent on the above dam.
The well-known anchor factory was later at the site of the woolen mill. William G. and Horatio E. Alden began the business in 1866, known world-wide as the Camden Anchor Works. It became the largest plant of its kind in the country and their anchors went on ships all over the world. Mr. Alden decided to sell his business and it became known as the Camden Anchor-Rockland Machine Company, which built boats and dories, but also manufactured the Knox Gasoline Engines. Major John Bird was there when it was purchased in 1901 and there when it closed in 1925. Bird and his men succeeded in perfecting the four most important parts of the engine. However, in 1925 many makers were flooding the market and this company closed its doors. The State of Maine Museum had two of the Knox Engines. The property was sold at auction and that September Angus Holmes formed the Camden Sardine Company.
There was a big fire about 1935 and through the generosity of Mary Louise Curtis Bok, the wonderful Camden Public Landing was built.
So we end the story of Megunticook River at the falls.
Barbara F. Dyer has lived all her life, so far, in Camden and is the official town historian.
Permission to use this article has graciously been provided by Barbara Dyer.