Courtesy Wright-Pierce Engineering

An old steam pipe bridge will be replaced with a pedestrian bridge spanning the Saco River to connect the mill districts of Biddeford and Saco. The bridge is part of the RiverWalk project that will provide unprecedented access to the riverfront of the twin cities.

May 6, 2013

Biddeford-Saco plan path to prosperity

The RiverWalk pedestrian bridge will help to reconnect the two communities for development.

By Gillian Graham
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD - Alix Hopkins sees the emerging RiverWalk as more than a path past old mills and along the banks of the Saco River.

click image to enlarge

Part of the RiverWalk is already completed on the Biddeford side. The first phase of the project included construction of a scenic overlook near North Dam Mill that gives views of the Saco River on the Biddeford-Saco city lines.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

RiverWalk Coalition Director Alix Hopkins talks about her organization’s plans while standing on a scenic overlook that gives views of the Saco River on the Biddeford side.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

"I view this project as the spine of the redevelopment of Biddeford and the reconnection of Biddeford-Saco," said Hopkins, director of the coalition that is working to create a river walk through the cities' historic mill districts. "These projects build communities."

At times, the divide between York County's twin cities -- whose histories are inextricably linked -- seems to run deep. Back when the mills were churning out millions of pounds of textiles each year, most mill workers lived in tenement housing in Biddeford, while owners and managers lived across the river in Saco. The rivalry that developed between the cities has long played out on basketball courts, hockey rinks and during the annual Battle of the Bridge football game.

Now, years after the textile mills closed and as the cities are poised for economic redevelopment, leaders from each community are teaming up to continue to bridge the divide, both literally and figuratively.

The RiverWalk pedestrian bridge -- which will be built next year -- will link the two downtowns through the mill district, opening up views of the river that have long been inaccessible to residents. At the same time, the cities are working together on a branding effort to market both sides of the river as a destination for redevelopment and tourism. They've adopted a new slogan, "Biddeford + Saco, Saco + Biddeford: One dynamic place, no matter how you say it," to reflect the twin city relationship and its position as an economic engine for York County, according to city leaders.

"Having the river as a divider no longer worked," said Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant. "We offer far more when we combine our assets than we do when we erect a brick wall across the Saco River."

It is the river that has both connected and divided the cities for hundreds of years.


Before Europeans settled the area, Abenakis who lived near Fryeburg traveled downriver to hunt and fish. What is now known as Biddeford was first settled by Europeans after Richard Vines landed at Biddeford Pool four years before the Mayflower arrived in Plymouth, Mass. The area on both sides of the river was incorporated as Saco in 1653, only to be reorganized as Biddeford in 1718.

Frustrated by perilous river crossings to attend church and town meetings, residents on the northeast side of the river split off to become Pepperellborough in 1762 and, finally, Saco in 1805, said Camille Smalley, collections and research manager at the Saco Museum.

Over time, sawmills, lumber mills and shipyards sprang up on both sides of the river. By the mid-1800s, large brick mills powered by the river churned out textiles that were shipped around the globe. Generations of families in both cities -- many of French-Canadian and Greek descent -- made a living in the mills until the last textile manufacturer closed in 2009, bringing that 150-year tradition to an end.

With large-scale manufacturing gone and the Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash incinerator on its way out of downtown Biddeford, there is renewed interest in bringing businesses into an area that has lost hundreds of jobs in recent years. City officials in Biddeford say the twin cities are increasingly desirable for businesses that want to locate to industrial parks, downtown main streets or renovated mill space.

"We have a dynamic and exciting decade coming," said Saco Mayor Mark Johnston.

Peter Morelli, the economic development director for Saco, said now is a good time to draw attention to the area.

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