WESTBROOK – Ellie Saunders has watched the Presumpscot River flow by nearly every day for 93 years. Like Saunders, the city is tied to the river, owing it much credit for the development, both economically and recreationally, of the area itself.

“It’s unusual, so many rivers are the boundary line, but ours runs right through the middle,” said Saunders, whose family has lived at her Conant Street home, with a view of the river, for the past 87 years. “The river is a part of Westbrook. Without it we wouldn’t be here.”

The waterway and the city have been intertwined since the area’s first settlers, relatives of Saunders, came here looking for a source of power and food. With the river, they found both.

Many city officials and residents believe the river, supported by a series of projects either under way or hoped for the future, is poised to again become a focal point for recreation and economic development. Its rebirth, they say, will bring people to Westbrook to live and work, in order to take advantage of the city’s businesses and natural resources, and return the river to its rightful place as the heart of Westbrook.

According to the Friends of the Presumpscot organization, in 1650 an early historian described the river, named to mean “many falls” or “many rough places,” in certain times as being so abundant with life “the entire surface of the river for a foot deep was all fish.”

The past is also tied by the river to the city’s present. It was S.D. Warren, the mill along the river, that gave Westbrook the nickname “Paper City” and helped mark it is as a place of industry. Now Sappi Fine Paper, the mill remains a Westbrook landmark, and is one of city’s top 10 tax contributors, paying nearly $1.1 million in real estate and personal property taxes per year.


But some say the river has potential to bring more to the city.

Saunders and other families who’ve lived in the area for many years remember swimming and canoeing in the Presumpscot in summer. They remember the cows chomping away at grass close to the banks, creating a natural river walk, and they remember how the floods and unruly waters destroyed homes and businesses, leaving their neighbors with nothing.

Those who live close to any waterway know it can give and it can take, and those in Westbrook have seen the waterfront transform, sometimes through decades and sometimes with the speed of one heavy rainstorm.

Right now, Westbrook city officials, environmental organizations and residents are working on a variety of projects that would again change the Presumpscot. This time, many of those changes are steeped in the river’s history, returning it to a time when it was a main focus for businesses, restaurants, recreation and residents just looking for a place to sit with a good view.

“Someone pointed out to me recently all the businesses in that area, they all face out toward Main Street,” said Bill Baker, Westbrook’s assistant city administrator for business and community relations. “Eventually, I’d like the river to be a focus again.”

Long a river proponent, Baker is working now on projects that would extend the walkway along the water’s edge, including a multi-use pedestrian bridge, and the addition of ramps and floating docks for canoes and kayaks. Baker’s goal is to get more residents and visitors to utilize the recreational aspects of the river, bringing it back to the days that Saunders remembers, when children and adults spent their leisure time together on its banks.


“We never learned how to swim, but I still remember those Tarzan yells,” Saunders said. “The bigger boys had rope swings and they’d holler. I can still hear them.”

Plans for a new bridge near the former Dana Warp Mill and the renewal possibilities of downtown buildings along Main Street could be another catalyst for change. Some would like see more multi-story buildings that could bring more daytime activity and allow for more residential spaces to create a night life. The goal would be to make Main Street a place of community – much like the pre-urban renewal Westbrook, when many of the historic buildings that lined Main Street were razed in the 1970s, according to Mike Sanphy, a city councilor and president of the Westbrook Historical Society.

“Everybody seemed more relaxed back then,” said Sanphy.

Residents are seeing some changes to the river already taking shape, like construction of a fish passage at Cumberland Mills dam. Sappi Fine Paper, which owns that dam and seven of the other eight that still line the river, has until 2015 to begin work on the second fish passage, above Saccarappa Falls. Options on the table for Sappi include adding another fish ladder like the one slated to be completed this spring, or removing the hydroelectric dam completely and have a natural fish passage in place.

This is not the first time a mill has been asked to remove its dam on the Presumpscot. The first time was nearly 300 years ago.

In 1734, Col. Thomas Westbrook, who came to the area with an interest in lumber, built a dam, along with other entrepreneurs in the area, on upper Saccarappa Falls to power a small saw mill. The first dam ever built in Maine was located at Presumpscot Falls, nearly 10 miles west and constructed four years prior to Westbrook’s. A second dam was built in 1738, five miles above Saccarappa Falls, beginning the end of the natural fish passage through the Presumpscot.


In 1736, Chief Polin of the Rockameecocks Indians walked to Boston to ask royal Gov. William Shirley to create a fish passage in the newly formed dams, allowing the salmon and other natural fish to continue to come upstream to spawn. The governor agreed, but nothing was ever done, thus depleting a once-robust fish population the Indians used as their main food source.

Mounting tensions regarding the fish passage between the settlers and the Indians led to a bloody battle in 1756, where Polin lost his life. Westbrook died many years earlier in 1743, so in debt that his family carried away his body in the middle of the night and buried him secretly on land now owned by the Knight family at Smiling Hill Farms.

After Polin died, talk of a fish passage dissipated for many years. A few centuries later, environmentalists, who have worked for years to clean up many of the pollutants that were dumped into the water by the 17 mills that once ran day and night, have led the charge for a fish passage.

Beginning in 1632

According to Westbrook Historical Society records, the history of the city really begins in 1632, when Chief Squitterrygusset traded land running from Capisic (now part of Portland) to the Ammoncongin (Cumberland Mills) falls to fisherman Francis Small for “one trading coat a year and one gallon of whiskey.” In 1666, George Murphy bought a tract of land on the opposite side of the river, which ran from the area of the great falls (Saccarappa Falls) down river from the lower most planting grounds.

But Westbrook was far from settled. Small’s original saw and grist mills were abandoned. In 1703, settlers were driven away and did not return to the area until the 1730s, when the Industrial Revolution came to Westbrook.


According to tax documents, 1733 was the first year the mills at Cumberland Mills and Saccarappa were operational, but those mills were far from the industrial boom that was coming.

Saunders and her family have owned land along the river for nearly 300 years, from the 1700s, when her relatives, Joseph Conant and his younger brother Samuel, arrived in Westbrook in search of power to run their mills.

Joseph Conant is widely agreed upon as the first permanent settler in the area that’s now present-day Westbrook. His initial saw mill and grist mill opened around 1739 and ushered in the first mill boom.

“When we were kids, the river always played an important role in our lives. We were always down there,” Saunders said. “My father’s family was some of the first permanent settlers. They came here in 1726 looking for water. It’s always been an industrial town. I resent when people say we’re not or there’s something wrong with that. The industry brought Westbrook residents.”

Saunders said while many children did play in the river, there was a rumored curse put on the water by the Indians. She said every year there seemed to be a drowning. That, the waste-filled water and her parents’ stern warnings were enough to keep her out.

“The river was dirty at that time,” Saunders said. “I watched the neighbor children swim. I never learned to swim myself. Sewage would float down through the river.”


In the mid to late 1800s, more industries began to take advantage of the power created by the natural river movement. Although the Presumpscot is only 25 miles long, connecting Sebago Lake to Casco Bay, it drops 270 feet. When the natural falls could not create enough waterpower, dams were built.

From the time she was a child, Saunders remembers spending much of her time indoors looking at relics from an era long gone. Her home in Westbrook still contains these items, including 100-year-old wallpaper, more than 50 scrapbooks filled with old newspaper clippings, obituaries and marriage announcements, and odds and ends left to her by family and friends through the years.

When she wasn’t busy collecting and hearing stories from the past from her father and grandmother, Saunders was outside playing near the river.

Saunders describes a time when the Presumpscot was filled with families in canoes and boats, children playing near the banks at the playground or in a large recreation building used mostly during rainy days. Cottages lined the banks – vacation homes for those who lived both nearby and far away as a way to escape from the busy days and into the calm lull brought by the moving water.

In fact, these cottages were where Saunders’ parents first met and where they took their honeymoon.

In the winter, when the river froze, action on the Presumpscot didn’t stop. Instead, bathing suits were traded for heavy coats and bare feet were covered by wool socks and skating shoes.


“A lot of this isn’t important to itself, but it adds up to tell the story of the city,” Saunders said.

At one time, long before Saunders’ memories of family cottages and canoe parties, the river was filled with logs headed to saw mills.


In 1858, the river was bustling with activity centered on the mills. On the island between the river banks was a sawmill, thread mill that created cotton cloth and, for a brief time, paper. A grist mill next to a mill for grinding plaster, then a sawmill owned by Dana Bringhan and another saw mill owned by Samuel Clements were also on that side of the river. On the other side of the river sat a cotton batting mill, a brick mill and a silk mill.

Samuel Dennis Warren first put his name on a mill in 1854, when he purchased a small sawmill from the 1730s, for $28,000. By 1863, a third paper machine had to be added to his mill because of increased demand for paper products.

The name wasn’t the only change to the new S.D. Warren mill. Warren also added a new ingredient to his pulp – he mixed wood fibers to the rag fibers all paper mills used. The change made the mill the largest paper producer in the world at that time.


The increased demand and mill size meant a need for a larger work force than Westbrook had to employ. Warren turned to the growing immigrant workforce. In fact, Scotch Hill, as it is still known today, was named because of the Scottish immigrants who came to work at the mills.

“From his purchase of the paper mill and water power rights in 1854 to the construction of a hydro-electric station in 1896, Warren focused on making the mill as functional and efficient as possible while also increasing the vitality of the area for his workers,” said Donna Cassese, the managing director at Sappi Fine Paper’s Westbrook mill. “He built homes for his employees on Brown Street, adjacent to the Presumpscot, and provided funding for the building of a church, schools and libraries.”

Sappi Fine Paper bought the sprawling facility in 1995 for $300 million and the S.D. Warren mill officially changed its name one more time to Sappi Fine Paper North America. The Warren family continues to have influence on Westbrook. The new wing of the Westbrook Community Center was dedicated to Cornelia Warren, daughter of Samuel Warren, whose philanthropic foundation gave the center donations for improvements. Cornelia Warren also led the charge for the swimming tank once constructed on the river itself.

Land that would later turn into the Warren Block, where Thatcher’s now sits in the triangle connecting Main and Cumberland streets, originally was purchased by Warren’s wife to be used as a recreational area for the residents, many of whom were employed by Warren himself. The block has been home to the post office, restaurants, bakeries, and alterations shops, and now a tattoo parlor, restaurant and bar.

As soon as lumber was cut at the mills, oxen hauled it to Portland to be shipped out to other ports. A canal, called the Cumberland & Oxford, opened in 1832 as the primary commercial shipping route until 1871, when the Portland railroad replaced the waterway as the best form of transportation. Horses drew the wagons that transferred loads between the mill and the railroads. In 1895, steam locomotives replaced the animal-drawn wagons. Remnants of the canal can still be seen in the woods by Canal School.

Riverboats were also seen up and down the Presumpscot. These were for leisure trips. The Riverton Trolley Park, built near the Westbrook-Portland line, was an amusement park opened in 1896 and boasted the largest rollercoaster north of Boston. The trolley park had a riverboat and canoe rentals on site, so travel by river way was not really obsolete after the end of the canal.


The Haskell Silk Co. was another notable mill. In July 1874, James Haskell, along with his sons Frank and Edwin, formed the company on the west side of Bridge Street near the falls. The Haskell Silk Mill was the only silk mill in Maine and one of the oldest in New England. At one time, several hundred people were employed there.

According to the Westbrook Historical Society documents, “This was one of the industries that carried the name of Westbrook throughout the entire country and attracted an industrious population to the town.”

The river brought people, jobs, recreation and transportation. Soon it would bring light.

In the 1880s, the first electric generator was installed outside the Leatherboard Mill on Main Street. Dana Warp Mills, quickly followed by S.D. Warren, replaced their lighting with the new electric ones, as well.

Terrible toll

Yet, the mills that had brought so much to the city eventually took a terrible toll on the river. According to Dusti Faucher, former president of the Friends of the Presumpscot, waste from gunpowder manufacturers, sawmills and sewage pollution dates back from before the Civil War.


By the early 1990s, the mills, except for Sappi, were a thing of the past. The focus was taken out of the downtown recreation areas and historic buildings and switched to adding new structures. The past had become passe?.

And the Presumpscot had a long way to go to bring it back to its former glory.

“The river was considered an industrial river, it has an industrial history,” Faucher said. “No one ever knew what they were doing to the water. They didn’t do it on purpose, they just didn’t know. For a long time people thought the river was a dumping ground. They had no idea they were polluting the water and what that would do in the future.”

But in 1992, when a new industry began to look at setting up shop on the riverbanks, a group of Westbrook residents and environmentalist banded together to oppose it. The Friends of the Presumpscot began to look at the damage caused to the river by the industries that once ran day and night. At around the same time, the Sappi mill first downsized and laws began to change to protect the water source.

Now, the section of the Presumpscot River that runs through the city is “pretty clean,” according to Faucher, but still ranked as class C, out of AA, A, B, C and D, not a very healthy waterway.

Westbrook fisherman David Engel says he’s seen car parts, manufacturing pieces and plain old miscellaneous debris when he goes out to fish nearly every day in the warmer weather.


But with this new effort, the city has begun refocusing its attention on the river in order to build a strong downtown based on modern industries and occupations. Many challenges remain, but in this vision, the Presumpscot is once again the center of Westbrook, a place where commerce and community interact in a way that is all new, yet very familiar.

“I think it is clear to any far-minded person,” Baker said, “that the city is on an aggressive track to breathe new life in to the center of the city and make Westbrook all it can be.”

Next week: The potential of the Presumpscot.

The Presumpscot River, which winds through Westbrook, has been the city’s lifeblood since the beginning. Courtesy photo

A postcard from the early 1900s. 
Photo courtesy Westbrook Historical Society
“You never knew what was going to float in” the old Presumpscot swim tank, according to historian Mike Sanphy. 
Photo courtesy of Westbrook Historical Society
The Dana mill facilities, shown in the early 1900s, included a warehouse on the left, a steel span and the Bridge Street mill.
The mill on the island, above, bought by Woodbury K. Dana, was built in 1879. 
The S.D. Warren mill in the late 1880s. 
Photos courtesy of Mike Sanphy

An early dam photo

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