On Thanksgiving Day 1869, a three-quarter-inch tin pipe was connected to 94 Danforth St. in Portland and water began flowing.

It was the first time water completed the journey through 16 miles of newly laid pipe from Sebago Lake to Portland, where more pipes were being laid to connect other new customers. Gone were the days when Portland relied solely on dug wells and cisterns that provided homes and businesses with limited supplies of water carried by wooden pipes.

Now, 150 years later, 1,000 miles of mains carry water from Sebago Lake to Portland and 10 surrounding  communities, supplying 22 million gallons of water each day to roughly 200,000 people – one out of six Mainers. And Sebago Lake – chosen for its pristine and abundant water – remains one of the cleanest sources of public drinking water in the country.

No one knows why 94 Danforth St. – then home to the Maine Loan and Building Association – was the first building in the city to be hooked up by the Portland Water Company. Also a mystery is why the water was turned on Thanksgiving Day.

“What an interesting way to do it,” said Carrie Lewis, general manager of the Portland Water District, which replaced the Portland Water Company in 1908. “It was probably the day they finished. They had 16 miles of pipes to put in. I can imagine that wasn’t done with backhoes and bulldozers. That must have been quite a job.”

The need for a public water supply had become apparent three years earlier, when a fire swept through the city on July 4, 1866, consuming one-third of Portland and leaving more than 10,000 people homeless. Firefighters rushed back from a holiday picnic at Sebago Lake, but low tide made it difficult to get water from the harbor and other water sources were limited.

By the time the fire essentially burned itself out 15 hours later, roughly 1,500 buildings and 58 city roads were reduced to smoldering piles of rubble. Losses exceeded $10 million, or well over $240 million in today’s currency.

Portland’s first water service was at 94 Danforth St., turned on Thanksgiving Day in 1869. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Soon after the fire, a group of investors formed the Portland Water Company to provide a more reliable source of water to the city. After considering the Presumpscot River and Long Creek as potential nearby sources, the decision was make to go farther west and bring water in from Sebago Lake.

“They didn’t select Sebago Lake by chance. They were looking for a pure water source,” said Michelle Clements, spokeswoman for the Portland Water District. “It was magnificent forethought for them to advocate for that choice.”

The Portland Water District was a private company and didn’t share much about its finances, but Clements said early records show the cost to put in that first water main to Portland was estimated at $3.9 million – well over $100 million today, when adjusted for inflation.

A photograph of the Union Station Spa, on display at the Portland Water District. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

By the early 1900s, people in Portland became concerned about rising water rates and the secrecy around the private company’s finances. In that era, those types of complaints were becoming increasingly common around the country as people argued that essential services such as water should be supplied by public utilities instead of private for-profit companies.

In 1907, Portland approved the creation of a water district and, on March 27 that year, Gov. William Cobb signed the charter for the new public utility. The Portland Water District paid the water company $1.68 million and took on more than $2.1 million in debt for 200 miles of mains, 900 fire hydrants and 12,000 customers. The combined cost would equal about $100 million today.

After the incorporation of the water district, the top priority was expanding capacity. By 1912, the installation of a 42-inch main from Sebago Lake to Portland had increased capacity to three times as much as the demand, according to the water district.

It wasn’t long before state lawmakers recognized the importance of protecting the area’s source of public drinking water. The Maine Legislature in 1913 made it illegal to swim within 2 miles of the Sebago Lake intakes, a restriction that remains today.

Sebago Lake is one of only 50 public surface water supplies – out of 13,000 across the country – that do not need filtration before treatment. The Portland Water District holds an exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency that says filtering is unnecessary because of the quality of the water.

That high quality of water from Sebago Lake has long been a source of pride for the water district and its customers.

In the 1930s, the Portland Water District celebrated the purity of its water in advertisements aimed at attracting visitors to Portland. In the summer of 1932, the water district opened a “spa” booth at Union Station in Portland to give free water samples to visitors. A sign above the booth touted pure Sebago water as “Portland’s greatest asset.”

Singer Rudy Vallee – perhaps the most famous person to sip one of the 27,700 cups of water served from the booth that year – said the water was the “best welcome I ever got in any city, and I have been all over the United States.”

An old ginger ale bottle touts a key ingredient: “Pure Sebago Water.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

But the Sebago Lake watershed, like other sources of water across the country, is under constant threat from pollutants and surrounding development. Sebago Lake – one of the largest lakes in Maine and the deepest in New England – is a summer playground for recreational boaters, swimmers and anglers, and a popular winter destination for ice fishing.

The lake’s clean water is largely due to the forests that surround it.

Currently, 84 percent of the 234,000 acres in the Sebago watershed is covered by forests, according to Sebago Clean Waters, a group whose partners include land trusts and the water district. Sebago Clean Waters aims to conserve 35,000 acres of watershed in the next 15 years and to build a $15 million Water Fund to support that conservation work.

That work will get a boost from Allagash Brewing Co., which recently pledged to donate 10 cents to Sebago Clean Waters for every barrel of beer it brews. Rising Tide Brewing Co. has made a similar commitment. Both breweries are members of the Maine Brewshed Alliance, which recently formed to protect water supplies throughout the state.

Jason Perkins, brewmaster for Allagash, said breweries have a unique platform to engage people in conversation about protecting Maine’s waters from contamination and development.

And Portland brewers are particularly interested in protecting the Sebago Lake watershed, which they say provides them pure water that is perfect for beer making.

“For brewers, it’s great because we don’t have to do anything to our water,” Perkins said. “The water in Sebago Lake is beautiful, but it’s not by accident. One of the most important reasons is the land in the watershed is not developed. Preserving the watershed around the lake is so important to keeping the water the way it is now.”

Long Beach on Sebago Lake in Sebago. Press Herald file photo

While much of the district’s emphasis these days is on providing clean drinking water, the original priority of public safety is not forgotten, said Lewis, the water district’s general manager.

“Right now we have about 1,000 miles of water main and over 5,000 hydrants,” she said. “That’s how we keep the city from not burning down again.”

Capt. Robb Couture of the South Portland Fire Department says his city benefits from having one of the best water systems in the state. He grew up in rural western Maine where there is no public water supply and firefighters filled their trucks with water pumped from ponds and rivers.

There are more than 700 hydrants across South Portland and because the city sits at sea level and the surface of Sebago Lake sits about 260 feet above it, the water pressure from hydrants is strong enough that firefighters don’t need to boost it using pump trucks when they’re fighting fires, Couture said.

“We have the luxury of just plugging into the hydrant and the water is there,” he said.


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