It has been a remarkable month for watching the ups and downs of the Androscoggin River.
After several weeks of dry weather, the flow was exceptionally low. Then, day after day of rain brought the river to within inches of overflowing its banks and the Great Falls thundered.
I had chances to walk along the river under both conditions, and I was struck by the contrasts. At low water, hundreds of yards of sandy beach were exposed and there were long stretches of rocky ledge. At high water, swift moving currents lapped at the bushes and trees, and the walking was much more difficult in tangled underbrush.
Actually, the history of the Androscoggin is filled with contrasts. The most well-known, of course, is its cycle from salmon habitat through unbelievable pollution to its present state of recovery. I talk with many people who view the river from those extremes. It could be better; it has been much worse.
As I walked our shoreline about midway between the massive Gulf Island Dam and the mostly hidden but very important Deer Rips Dam, I realized that most people in the Twin Cities have very little real contact with this mighty river. They see it briefly as they cross a bridge.
Years ago, just about every house, farm and road began at the river and communities drew back from it as they grew. It’s easy to lose sight of the direct effect it has on our daily lives, principally through power generation, but increasingly as a force for economic development.
Construction of Deer Rips Dam, originally called the Libbey-Dingley Dam and Powerhouse, got under way on April 16, 1902, more than a year before the Wright brothers flew their first airplane.
There had been electric power in Lewiston and Auburn since about 1884, but there was never enough. It was prone to interruption and the cost was high.
W. Scott Libbey and Henry M. Dingley, who purchased land and flowage rights, proceeded to blast a canal through solid ledge. They built a 1,000-plus-foot dam across the river and strung miles of wire between the Twin Cities and their new power source. It delivered more power than any other hydroelectric facility in New England at that time.
The construction of the powerhouse at Deer Rips provided a boost to Auburn industry, which until that time had received little direct benefit from the power of the Androscoggin River. Several shoe companies announced plans to locate in Auburn while the dam was still under construction.
Lewiston’s textile industry, on the other hand, had always relied on the Androscoggin River, and the power delivered to it through the canal system built in the mid-19th century.
To me, the laborers who built the dam illustrate another contrast. Immigrants were nothing new to Lewiston or Auburn when 60 mostly Italian laborers arrived. Both cities had been home to large numbers of Irish and French Canadians for decades, and there were growing numbers of English, Scotch, Russian and Lithuanian immigrants.
However, there were very few Italians, and their arrival aroused a great deal of curiosity. According to the late Lisa Giguere, long-time Lewiston Sun Journal editor and journalist, the newspaper commented on the workers’ culinary tastes, their evening entertainments of smoking, playing the accordion and singing love songs, and even their bewilderment at constantly having their beer confiscated.
She said the early news accounts blamed it on their lack of understanding “that they must make their peace and their price with some elected and sworn official before they can enjoy this latter privilege.” Sounds like early reporters gave a wink and a nod to excuse some thinly veiled bribery.
Descriptions of the living and working conditions for the Italian crews are fascinating. They appear to have been migrant workers who built temporary housing at the site. In addition to primitive cabins, some lived in dugouts carved into the hills. Others slept in a dormitory, where they also shared meals.
Similar scenes occurred when Gulf Island Dam was built in 1924. These two projects certainly represent a unique brief period in our area’s past.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and an Auburn native. You can e-mail him at: [email protected]