Harriman tells historians about Mills and Dams of the Narraguagus

By Terry Hussey

Driving or walking beside the Narraguagus River in Cherryfeild Today, one sees only the sparkling river, tall grasses and wildflowers. Not even the smallest trace remains of what was once one of the largest concentrations of water-powered mills in the state of Maine. At their July meeting, Phil Harriman told members of the Milbridge Historical Society and guests about Cherryfield’s busy days as a bustling lumber town.

Harriman said that at the turn of the century, the Narraguagus River sustained nine dams which supported one to three mills each. Nearly 15 million board feet were shipped from Cherryfield annually. Large crews worked at these mills and numerous teams were employed to transport the logs and finished lumber. Cherryfield was one of the most prosperous towns in Washington County, with a population of close to 2,000.

Harriman said that Ichabod Willey, one of the first settlers of Cherryfield, built a mill on the Narraguagus in 1757, located just above the present upper corner bridge, at the side of what was later to be the New York dam.

The town’s second mill was erected in 1772 by Alexander Campbell who built just below the present route 1 bridge. Campbell brought logs from the islands and from the riverbank below to his mills and shipped out the finished lumber by schooner. According to Harriman, his was the same site chosen in the late 1800’s for the Wilson Steam Mill. Emery Wilson built this mill around 1865 and fitted it with a 20 horse power steam engine, the first of its kind in the Narraguagus valley. The main product of this mill was wooden boxes which were used by the sardine and blueberry industries. The mill employed 12-15 people and required 600,000 feet of lumber each season.

Forest Mill, largest mill site

The largest concentration of mills, according to Harriman, was located at the Forest Mill dam which was erected at 1825 at the head of the tide. On the east end of the dam were a grist mill, furniture factory, planing mill, and machine shop, all powered by water-power. On the west end were two saw mills and an electric light station. Above it was a foundry and below it was a paint shop and blacksmith shop.

The grist mill could process 300 bushels of grain a day. the furniture factory above it was operated by E.A. Guptill, who made furniture for schools, churches, and homes, including fancy moldings, mantels, and stairways. This building burned in 1921.

The planing mill was established in 1856 by George Washington Wingate. It made windows, doors, and moldings. The machine shop, owned by Ed Wakefield, was powered by one of the three turbine water wheels. This building was town down in 1930.

Above the machine shop was a foundry owned by George Wakefield and Sons. The foundry made stoves, anchors, ships’ fittings, and mill hardware until the early 1900’s. The saw mill at the west end was owned by G.R. Campbell, and the one below was owned by C.P. Nichols. Over a million feet of lumber a year was shipped from this mill.

According to Harriman, the Cherryfield Electric Light Company constructed a water-powered dynamo at the west end of the Forest Mill dam in 1885. The dynamo had a capacity of 650 lights, wither service only at night, "There just wasn’t that much demand for electricity," said Harriman. When the water got too low to turn the wheel, power was generated by a 75 horse power steam engine. The facility served the community until 1925 or 1926 when the Bangor Hydro-Electric Company took over the area. The Forest Mill dam lasted until 1942, when it was destroyed by ice.

Spearing Salmon with a pitchfork

Harriman said that just about every dam on the river had a fishway, to allow salmon to spawn upriver, but that the fishways didn’t work that well. "In the morning when the water wheel was turned over, employees of the electric company could be seen spearing fish, caught under the wheel, with a pitchfork," said Harriman.

The New York dam was erected just above the upper corner bridge in 1836 by a group of New York businessmen. It was later purchased by William Nash and other Cherryfield interests.

The mill here was a large saw, shingle, and lath mill that employed 30-50 men and 12 or more teams. The average output was three million to five million feet of long lumber, in addition to the laths and shingles. The mill operated until 1013. "A few years later the buildings had to be burned by the town, because they were considered a hazard to the bridge and the mills below," said Harriman.

The Dragon Mill was located on the west end of the New York dam. The name came from the vertical snap-dragon saw which cut the logs into four foot sections for laths. This mill was built in 1809 and was one of the earliest on the river.

Just above today’s blueberry factories was the Willey dam, erected in 1865. The mill there produced 14,000 shingles a day and half million feet of long lumber annually. It continued to operated until 1937 when it was destroyed by fire. It continued to operated until 1937 when it was destroyed by fire.

At the west end of the Willey dam was a mill that produced barrel staves, laths, and shingles. One of the owners, O.C. Ward, owned 19 lumber camps and was responsible for supplying much of the lumber used in various pulp mills all over New England.

The Freeman dam was located just below the railroad bridge. The Freeman mill, erected in 1853, produced long lumber, clapboards, and laths. It is said to be the first belt-driven saw mill in this part of the country. In 1923, this mill was purchased by Fred Grant, who resumed the practice of driving logs downriver in the spring. In 1942, the Freeman Mill Dam was destroyed by ice. Grant converted the mill to electric power and operated it until 1968 when it ceased for good.

Stillwater Dam, now for ice control

Just above the Freeman dam was the Stillwater dam, which was built by A. Campbell & Co. about 1836. Later it was owned by the G.R. Campbell Company. This dam housed a mill at each end. The mills were powered by 18 huge water wheels.

On the west end was the Stillwater Mill which produced long and short lumber. It was destroyed by fire in 185 and rebuilt. It was in use until 1901 when it was taken away in a spring freshet.

On the east end, G.R. Campbell and CO. built a stave and shingle mill with a capacity of 8,000-10,000 shaves a day. This mill was so productive that it required two million board feet of lumber a year, more than 50 hands, and 12-15 teams. All the lumber for the mill was cut on land owned by the Campbells in Washington and Hancock Counties. This dam today serves as an ice control dam.

Harriman related that at Sprague Falls, on the west branch of the Narraguagus, stood the Robertson Hill which was built in the mid 1800’s. This mill had huge vertical saws that produced material for boats and ladders.

Harriman said that there were three more mills in Deblois, the last of which was destroyed by flood in 1918. The largest dam on the river was the Beddington dam, ten miles upstream from Cherryfield. The mill there was built by A. Campbell, prior to 1861. It my have been moved downstream later to become the Forest Mill dam.

Harriman showed slides of many of these mills and contrasted the busy waterfront pictures with slides of the same scenes today. He said that even a close examination of the sites reveals no vestiges of the past. Much of the scrap metal was removed to be melted down during World War II. Time and the river have removed the more fragile wooden buildings, Gradually nature has reclaimed the scarred landscape with grass and wildflowers. Color slides taken by Bruce Cassaday of Milbridge show the quite, unspoiled beauty of the river today.

The historians noted that we often see pictures of a scene of quiet beauty that man has changed into a hustling, bustling workplace. Seldom do we see a developed area return to its natural state.

More information about the subject can be obtained from Phil Harriman’s book, Mills and Dams of the Narraguagus which we wrote in 1977. Copies may be purchased for $4 from the Milbridge Historical Society or the Cherryfield Historical Society.