Dan Corcoran arrived in Millinocket for a job with Great Northern Paper Co. in 1971, the same year the company held its last log drive, the historic process that used the region’s lakes and rivers to float logs from the depths of the wilderness to the company’s paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket.
To replace the log drive, Great Northern built the region’s first network of modern logging roads that allowed large trucks to get logs out of the woods. The backbone of this network is the Golden Road, which stretches from Millinocket to the Canadian border, named because its engineering and construction costs were so high.
The modern logging roads opened the woods to large trucks, but they also offered locals and visitors easy access to millions of acres of wilderness. Along with the completion of the interstate highway to the Medway and Millinocket exit in the late 1960s and the growth of Baxter State Park, these developments marked the birth of the Katahdin region’s modern tourism industry.
In 1970, Great Northern recorded roughly 20,000 visitors to its land for recreational activities, according to Corcoran, who was Great Northern’s manager of forest policy when it went bankrupt in 2003. By 1985, that number had jumped to 165,000, he says.
“Millinocket became a gateway” to the North Woods and its opportunities for hiking and hunting and canoeing, says Corcoran, who got his real estate license after the mill went bankrupt. He now owns North Woods Real Estate in Millinocket. “That has continued to grow over the years and tourism is becoming an increasingly important part of the economy.”
To many, the region’s beautiful, untouched wilderness makes it a natural foundation for a thriving tourism industry and its best hope for an economic rebound. But not everyone sees it that way. Despite the fact that the Millinocket mill has been shuttered since 2008 and is now being torn down for scrap, there’s still hope that manufacturing will revive. The mill overshadowed tourism’s economic contributions for more than 100 years. For many, it still does, according to native Ed Girsa, general manager of Millinocket Fabrication and Machine Inc., one of the few growing manufacturers in town.
“If you tore down the mill stack and the mountain” – a reference to Mount Katahdin in nearby Baxter State Park — “in the same day, people would notice the mill stack was gone first,” Girsa says. “That’s a reality in this town.”
Baxter State Park visitor statistics 1972-2013
Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin, the park’s most famous feature, have attracted tourists like Henry David Thoreau since the mid-19th century. But the 200,000-acre park, which was founded in 1931, has only been keeping visitor data since 1972. The following chart tracks park visitors between May and October from 1972 to 2013.
What the future holds for the Millinocket area, and how big a role tourism will play in it, has been debated for nearly 30 years, ever since Great Northern announced its first big layoffs in 1986. The debate has created divisions on the town council, sunk past economic development efforts and created animosity among members of the community.
“Tourism is tough to talk about in this town,” Girsa says.
Those past conflicts — between people who want to see the region become a Mecca for outdoors enthusiasts and tourists, including those who support Roxanne Quimby’s proposed 150,000-acre national park in the region, and those who believe the revival of wood products manufacturing is the only answer to the community’s economic woes — are likely to continue to hinder progress.
Stu Kallgren, a 43-year-veteran of the now-idled East Millinocket sister mill and president of its largest union, is unabashed in his opposition to efforts to transform the Millinocket region into a tourist destination.
“I don’t think the Maine people should have to submit to environmental zealots trying to push their beliefs as far as the economy goes on us,” says Kallgren. “We know what works for us. That’s the forest products industry. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we just have to put some tread on it.
“The (East Millinocket) mill reopening is the only option or this town will die a slow, painful death.”
The debate is rarely so black and white. Most people, including Corcoran, believe Millinocket’s future depends on a mix of tourism and forest products manufacturers.
“The town isn’t dying. The town is evolving,” Corcoran says from behind the wheel of his pickup truck as he drives northwest on the Golden Road toward his home on Ambajejus Lake, where he says a burgeoning second-home community is developing along the shore of one of Maine’s largest lakes.
TOURISM IN FITS AND STARTS
ven before modern roads brought people to the Katahdin area, limited amounts of tourism existed. One famous tourist was Henry David Thoreau, who in 1846 climbed “Mount Ktaadn” and wrote about it.
In 1925, an unnamed writer for the Portland Sunday Telegram wrote that, “Many of [Great Northern’s] roads are the admiration of motor travelers into the great north Wonderland of Maine, notably that which extends from Greenville at the foot of Moosehead Lake along the east side of that inland sea to the far-famed Ripogenus Dam, which is an engineering marvel that tourists flock to see and that has brought about a transformation of the face of nature thereabout.”
In 1926, Great Northern’s records show that 13,454 visitors accessed its land for recreational purposes — 27 percent in cars with out-of-state plates.
But tourism was never a priority while the paper mill operated, says Matt Polstein, owner of the New England Outdoor Center in Millinocket and a strong proponent of creating a vibrant tourism industry.
“You didn’t need a strong tourism economy to be part of the financial or economic backbone of the community. The mill did it all,” he says. “Tourism happened here because there were great resources for it, but the community didn’t build itself around tourism.”
Those resources include Baxter State Park, which attracted 63,000 visitors last year, and Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail; the Pemadumcook chain of lakes; and thousands of acres of other protected wilderness open to recreational uses, such as hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and white-water rafting.
Polstein has been working since the mid 1990s to build an infrastructure to support a robust, four-season tourism industry, but it’s still nascent. For example, downtown Millinocket doesn’t have a place for people heading to Baxter State Park to stop and buy things like hiking poles or to rent mountain bikes to use on Baxter’s perimeter road. The lodging options are limited as well.
But there are signs of change. Polstein has added more cabins at his Twin Pine Camps on Millinocket Lake and is planning a network of mountain bike trails on the 1,400 acres of land he owns there. He says an effort is underway to create a mountain bike trail from Matagamon through the 100-mile wilderness all the way to Bethel in the western mountains. He has also bought a commercial building on Millinocket’s Penobscot Avenue that he hopes to renovate and turn into a bike rental shop.
“You’re starting to see facilities develop that are more welcoming and encouraging longer stays — where the stay becomes part of the experience instead of just a convenience,” he says.
Park would have ‘huge impact’
ut the tourism effort with the biggest potential impact on the region — and the most controversial — is a proposal by Roxanne Quimby’s family-led Eliotsville Plantation Inc. to convert 150,000 acres east of Baxter State Park into a national park. The Katahdin Woods & Waters Recreation Area, as it’s known, is not waiting for the federal government to step in. It currently has 100,000 acres open and free for the public to use for limited recreational purposes.
Such a park could attract 300,000 visitors a year and directly and indirectly create 450 jobs, Polstein says.
“We could almost anticipate a tenfold increase in traffic associated with a national park, which would have a huge impact on this area,” he says.
People like Kallgren, however, are not convinced. An oft-cited complaint from locals is that they watch hikers drive through Millinocket on their way to Baxter, but they never stop.
“A national park isn’t going to save the region,” says Kallgren, who lives about 45 minutes away in West Enfield. “You could excavate Old Faithful and bring it here and we still couldn’t make any money.”
The Baxter State Park Authority, which oversees the park rather than the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, conducted a study in 2008 that found that park visitors spent an average of $606.70 during a trip, including $187.86 in the local community and another $198.65 in other areas of Maine. With a 60-person staff, the park is now one of the area’s largest private employers. Millinocket Regional Hospital is the largest with roughly 240 employees.
The role tourism could play in the community has been a matter of debate since 1986 when Great Northern announced a massive modernization plan that led to the layoff of 1,400 workers. The news sent shock waves through the community and was the first indication that townspeople could no longer rely on the mill for their livelihoods.
“I don’t mind tourists,” William Ayoob, Millinocket’s town manager in the late 1980s, told a Portland Press Herald reporter in 1987. “But we have had so many people in here telling us how we are going to live, we are sick and tired of people telling us to close our shops and close our mills so they can have their recreation area.”
Polstein, a former Millinocket town councilor, has heard all the arguments before and says it is “disingenuous” to pit tourism against wood products manufacturing. The two industries can co-exist, he says.
“The economic money flow from the act of the cutting of that wood is tremendous for this area,” he says. “We can’t live without it. I wouldn’t trade either sector of the economy for the other. I want to see the two grow together.
“The future is bright for the Katahdin region … if we can get out of our own way.”
espite the rough time Millinocket is experiencing now — unemployment was 12.7 percent in June, while its smaller neighbor East Millinocket’s was 19.9 percent — there is still a lot of hope expressed by members of the community.
Pelletier Manufacturing is expanding its facility on the Golden Road to manufacture trailers for logging trucks and plans to add jobs. Millinocket Fabrication and Machine Inc., which has been in the town almost as long as the mill, is adding eight positions, bringing the total to 30, says Girsa. It recently secured a large order to build penstocks for some of Brookfield Renewable Energy’s hydropower dams. Each business recently received a $50,000 economic development grant from the town.
Outside town, along the shores of one of Maine’s largest lakes, a quieter industry is taking root.
Standing on the dock of his home on Ambajejus Lake, Corcoran points to various camps along the shoreline, noting one new owner is from Florida and another is from Connecticut.
Throughout Great Northern’s history, most of these lots were leased by the company to mill employees and their families. But two years ago Katahdin Forest Management, the company that owns a large portion of the former Great Northern land, began selling the lots, sparking new investments in vacation homes. While a single family home in downtown Millinocket can be had for less than $50,000, some of these lakeside camps with views of Mount Katahdin are selling for six-figure sums, Corcoran says.
“Selling these lots has been a game changer. It’s bringing new people to the area with more disposable income,” he says. “It’s one of the quiet things going on that’s going to change this area.”