A “Long” Journey

Bridgton, Maine, was once a thriving mill town and Stevens Brook its source of power. My guy and I decided to once again visit the former mill sites of the Lakes Environmental Association’s Stevens Brook Trail, which meanders on and off road from the base of Highland Lake to Long Lake.

Jacob Stevens, for whom the brook was named, was a ranking member of the survey crew that came to what is now called Bridgton in 1766 from Andover, Massachusetts. He returned in 1768 under contract with the Proprietors to develop water power and make it serve the early settlers by creating mills that provided building materials and grain for food. He identified twelve power sites along the almost two-mile brook with a drop of 156 feet from its source at Highland Lake (known originally as Crotched Pond) to its outlet at Long Lake (Long Pond). The first mills were used to provide building materials and grains for food. And the first dams were made of boulders and gravel with heavy timbers. Bridgton was all forest land when Stevens arrived.

Of course, Highland Road did not exist in Stevens’ day. Nor did any of these structures. In fact, the water extended across where the current road is located. And it wasn’t as big a lake as it is now for the dam, built in 1849-50, changed everything. It had a different configuration and lower depth as it was mainly a pasture and wetland. This photo was taken from the bridge. The first bridge was built in 1808.

Across Highland Road, which had been called Water Street when it was first built, is where the pond extended to previously. 

His first mill was about where Power Site #10 is located near the mouth of the brook closer to Long Lake.

But, the market was limited. There were many obstacles including a lack of roads. Sawn lumber rotted before he could transport it to remote areas of town. Eventually he moved it north to the outlet of Highland Lake.

He was also required to keep a grist mill operating for 20 years, which he did near the 11th power site. That did much better. 

In exchange, Stevens received land and the rights to the waterway.

Eventually, his term passed and others purchased water rights. 

Power Site #1 next served as Asa Kimball’s saw mill, which he built in 1788. This is the mill pond as we see it today, but just imagine what it may have looked like before the road was built. Crotched Pond served as Mr. Kimball’s mill pond, where he floated logs from Sweden (Sweden, Maine, that is). Presumably he built some sort of dam where the present one is by the beach to create a more definitive mill pond.

The split stone dam was erected in 1858 by Rufus Gibbs and others, thus providing power for the first big mill in the village that stood four stories tall, employed 50 workers, ran 20 looms and made blankets for the Civil War. By 1941, is was demolished.

The mill had various names over the years including Gibbs Mill, Upper Mill, Little Mill, Little Pondicherry Mill, and Cumberland Mill.

Though my guy and I looked at and talked about Power Site #2, I neglected to photograph it. Anyway, it served as a grist mill in 1798.

Between 1835-1845, Rufus Gibbs established Window Sashes and Blinds Mill. In 1871, Jesse Murphy purchased it and continued to manufacture the same. The machinery was run by a mill whell, but the demands for power were such that it was eventually electrified.

In 1912, the Saunders Mill was constructed in this place, the remains of which still stand.

Traveling downstream, Power Site #3 sits between what is now Oberg Insurance (built as a bank and then served as courthouse and police station) and the Hayeses’ buildings, that currently house the Bridgton News and Gallery 302. 

There was once a large mill pond here.

Power Site #3 had a storied past: 1813-fulling mill (put weaving on hot water and beat it to close fibers); 1822-saw and grist mill; 1830-saw, grist and plaster mill; 1845-mill burned; 1857-rebuilt two stories; 1877-never rebuilt. Yet this was long known as the Dam Site and a Dam Site Restaurant stood here for years. Across the street was a tannery, which didn’t need water for power, but did need water to fill the 140 vats. Using hemlock bark, 10,000 hides were tanned each year.

As I mentioned, the trail winds through the woods and over roadways, but also under the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge, the gateway to Pondicherry Park. If you are following the Stevens Brook Trail, however, you’ll pass under the bridge and it’s worth a look upward–for you just might spot three American Robin nests all in a row.

It’s in this area that hikers follow a boardwalk through an area that can be quite wet at times.

It is here that Willet Brook joins forces with Stevens Brook, thus increasing the power of the water.

The power of others who grow beside the brook is displayed like daylight fireworks, that being the male Red Maple flowers–their anthers yellow with pollen awaiting dispersal.

And close by, the female counterpart, her pistils divided like vees perhaps signaling victories to come.

A zig and a zag, and a stopped truck allowing us to cross the main drag (thanks Brian Fox), and soon we found our way along the former route of the Narrow Gauge train track. It’s located by Power Site #4.

In 1822, this area of town wasn’t part of the main village–that was confined to Main Hill. A water-powered carding mill equipped to prepare wool for spinning, thus replacing the tedious hand work of disentangling, cleaning and intermixing the fibers was in operation just across the brook at the time, now the home of Food City Grocery Store.

By 1825, James Flint and Aaron Littlefield built a sawmill, which they operated for 15 years. In 1840, this was the site of the Walker Saw Mill and Grist Mill. And then things changed.

The Pondicherry Mill was built in 1865 to manufacture woolen goods. It was one of the most extensive manufacturing plants in Maine at that time and employed 50 operators.

In 1898, the neighboring town of Harrison wanted to be joined to the railroad and the railroad owners obliged. From this spur, a trestle was built that carried coal in dump carts to the Pondicherry Mill. It appears that the trestle came in backwards off the rail track and perhaps the coal was located in the back cars, ready to be unloaded into the carts. The trestle structure, as you see it here, has deteriorated immensely, but still stands as a monument to this moment in history.

So wait, think about this coal situation. The mill had grown to employ 225 people and water power from the brook was no longer dependable. An immense coal-burning chimney about 100 feet in height had been added to the mill. Sixty looms produced 18,000 yards of cloth weekly. Though the building stood until the mid-sixties, the industry moved south long before that. The stones by the brook and trestle are all that are left to tell the story. A now-deceased resident, Reg Fadden, used to tell the story of knowing what color they were dying the wool on any particular day–he’d see the color in the water as he walked to school.

The first mill to be located here was a sawmill built in 1868. By 1871, a shovel factory was built on the west side, which was the side we stood upon. By 1899, the Bridgton Lumber Company had located to this power site, with two mills operating–one for boxes and house furnishings; the other for lumber. Boxes were needed for the corn industry, as a Corn Shop flourished on nearby Depot Street, close to the train terminal.

This apparently was a successful site because in 1911 it became the Burnham and Newcomb Sawmill, which was purchased by Harry Bisbee in 1920. He used a turbine since the water power wasn’t dependable. Though it gushed over the rocks today, in the summertime, this is the perfect place to sit on the flat rocks and dangle ones feet.

Apparently there was a treacherous footwalk that crossed the brook in this area and even at age 90, Mr Bisbee would walk across. The sawmill eventually burned, with only the office remaining. This time, using a diesel engine, Mr. Bisbee started a smaller sawmill. In 1953, the dam washed out with a flood and local lore has it that Mr. Bisbee walked out one day, leaving it all behind. He died a couple of years later, gifting the mill to the public library.

Charles Fadden and his son, Reg, bought the mill at auction and operated a box mill, using a turbine for power. The office was still standing until about ten years ago, when it collapsed.

By the mill, the Harrison Narrow Gauge crossed over a trestle; today only the stone stanchions remain.

This image courtesy of Bridgton Historical Society provides a bit of a sense of the scene in the day.

It was here that I recognized a tree I don’t always encounter–a black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). The bark appears almost braided and the overall essence that of a child’s fairy tale tree.

Power Site #6, better known as Lower Johnson Falls, and was the possible 1859 site of the Milliken Bedstead Factory.

A foundation is still visible on the eastern side of the brook. It’s in that area that there is also evidence of the Walker Sluiceway, one that dodged all the dams so logs could travel from Crotched Pond (Highland Lake) to Long Pond (Long Lake) without impediment.

Beside Power Site #7, still stands the building that housed the coffin shop. Hey, somebody had to build them. Lewis Smith built the two-story building with a basement in the late 1860s. It was a sash and blind factory, but he also built furniture, and yes, coffins. More local lore: he was the town’s first undertaker. While the building has had several owners since then who have tried to restore it, it still needs some (way more than some) tender loving care so it doesn’t go the way of all the other mills.

If you peer closely, you might see all that remains of a water-powered turbine on the building. From the left, it’s located under the third window of the second floor. Originally, all the water wheels along the brook were overshot wheels. While an overshot wheel had horizontal axils, a turbine wheel had vertical axils, thus making it smaller, more efficient and more dependable given the rise and fall of the water.

What’s not pictured is the western side of the brook, where a Foundry and Bridgton Machine Shop were located.

And on the front lawn of the coffin shop, the real deal–a Perry Turbine Water Wheel. In 1877, Richard Bailey and Samuel Miller operated an iron factory and machine shop built by William Perry and George Taylor across the road from the Smith factory. When they sold their business to Forest Mills owed by William Fessenden Perry, it was renamed the Bridgton Machine Company with George and Frank Burnham taking over as managers.

Overshot water wheels had a horizontal axis. Nearly all the water wheels of the early mills were overshot wheels, best adapted for small streams with high falls. The overshot wheels didn’t hold up long over time and were replaced a century later by the more dependable turbine water wheel. A turbine had many benefits including a vertical axis; small in bulk for its power, efficient in highest and lowest falls, and more dependable. In 1887, the Perry turbine was invented at the foundry and it received nation-wide popularity for use in mills along small streams.

Power Site #8 is one of my favorites. This is where Perry and Taylor erected a mill in 1862 to manufacture woolen goods. The dam was built to provide a fifteen-foot fall with a mill pond above.

Today the sluiceway is dry, but I can imagine the water pouring through here.

With the advent of Kansas Road in 1865, the woolen mill expanded to 200 feet by 45 feet and stood two stories tall. With more looms than any mill in the area, outerwear was produced here and shipped to Boston. During the Civil War, attention turned to creating war materials.

Anyway, Taylor and Perry purchased this site in 1865 and built a three-story carding mill with an overhead walkway that crossed Kansas Road and connected their two mills: Forest Mill #1 and Forest Mill #2.  By 1879, Mr. Taylor had died and Mr. Perry re-organized as the Forest Mills Company, which employed 130 workers and produced cashmere. As Sue has told me, this was not from cashmere goats but rather a lightweight fabric consisting of wool fiber that had either a plain or twill. 

A railroad spur and trestle were built in 1900 to unload coal and other supplies for the Forest Mills Company.

The American Wool Company purchased the mill, which was large for Bridgton, but small compared to those south of Maine. Eventually, business moved south. In 1925, a shoe shop moved in, but it wasn’t successful either. The building was torn down in 1962.

Our journey today found us following the trail for the most part, but there was some bushwhacking as well, which opened our eyes to more mill pond and artifacts.

One such was a truck my guy surmised to be of 1940s vintage.

We also discovered an old lodge that might be considered a McBeaver lodge, for such was its size.

At last we reached Power Site #10. This is the most modern of them all, but again, it has a history. It’s possible that this was the site of Jacob Stevens’s first sawmill built in 1768.

Mr. Stevens would have built a boulder and gravel dam, not one of cement certainly. He lived nearby and raised eight children; the four oldest worked beside him. It made sense for him to build a site here for both a saw mill and grist mill, as this is near the mouth of the stream and would have provided him with easy access to the main thoroughfare of Long Pond and beyond.

I don’t know what happened between 1768 and 1896 when the Bridgton Water and Electric Company took over as the first source of electricity and water for the village.

The concrete dam was built in 1931 by Central Maine Power after several transfers of ownership.

A 790-foot penstock was built to regulate the flow of the water. If you look closely toward the left of the dam, you might see the round hole that was the start of the penstock.

The greatest power could be found between this site and Power Site #11, where the brook drops 25-30 feet. The Hart Tannery may have been built on an island in the middle of the brook somewhere in this vicinity.

The exact location of Power Site #12 is also elusive, but rumor has it that a shingle factory was located between Site #11 and the outlet. Look closely and you’ll see the water racing southward, Long Lake through the trees on the left, my guy through the trees right-middle, and the present day power station.

Each time we reach this spot, I have to wonder what Jacob Stevens or those who came before him would think of our energy consumption.

Early on, a wooden structure was used as a power house. That was replaced by a brick building built in 1922 by the Western Maine Power Company. Notice where the penstock entered. And above it, a turbine generator.

At last we reached the mouth of the brook, where the water seemed extremely low for early spring, but served as a reminder of why the turbine was built to replace the water wheel as a power source.

Upon reaching Long Lake, we’d finished our journey. Well, sorta. We still had to walk all the way back 😉

But first, there were two more things to admire. The minute magenta flowers of Beaked Hazelnut are so easy to overlook that I feel I must honor each one I spot. And hope you’ll do the same.

And then there was the Song Sparrow who reminded me that there were a few people to thank for this “Long” Lake journey: not only Jacob Stevens and all who came before and after him; but also the late Sue Black, fiber artist and historian who shared the trail many times with me; Ned Allen, former executive director of Bridgton Historical Society who let me pick his brain and comb through files upon many occasions and use photographs within those files; and all of you readers who stuck with me for such a long read.

4 thoughts on “A “Long” Journey

  1. Well-researched post! Maine and the rest of New England have similar remnants of the water-powered, industrial past. Some of these old dams are being removed in hopes of restoring shad and salmon runs that were decimated with the building of these dams so long ago. A big project to say the least!

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  2. So interesting! Thank you. I have walked this trail a few times and wondered about the mill remains. Now I know and plan to go back and explore this area again.

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