The month of March brought tremendous damage to Lewiston and Auburn when two devastating floods tore away bridges and riverside buildings in 1896 and 1936. 

Scenes of the 1936 disaster were recorded in a booklet of photos published by The Lewiston Daily Sun and Lewiston Evening Journal more than 80 years ago. But there were no news photos on the newspapers’ pages 40 years earlier.

Pen-and-ink sketches testified to the destruction of Turner’s mills. All connections between Lewiston and Auburn except the Grand Trunk Railroad bridge were swept away in that 1896 flood. The North and South Bridges and the Maine Central Railroad Bridge were gone. The news stories emphasized how quickly people rallied with ideas for repair and recovery.

It started with a three-day rain in the first week of March. Foundry Brook, which runs down the gully in back of Penley’s slaughterhouse in Auburn, became a raging torrent. Water was 10 feet deep on the streets of that section, now the Great Falls Plaza area, when suddenly the wall on Turner Street near the railroad overpass gave way. The abutment of the Maine Central overpass began to crack.

Crews cut the rails on both ends and the overpass and rail bed slumped 3 feet. This snapped off the electric wires going beneath it and all of Perryville was in darkness.

The slaughterhouse was washed away and Fern Penley offered $1 a barrel for each keg of tallow rescued downstream.

“The Androscoggin was now a raging, destructive monster,” a newspaper account said. “There was only 9 feet between the bottom of the falls and the top, the river had risen so high.”

Great ice cakes kept slamming into the North Bridge, a totally wooden structure. It trembled visibly.

The South Bridge was also in trouble.

“A great jam of logs and ice had piled up against it so that it swayed and creaked like a suffering creature. At 3 a.m., March 2, two foolish men were crossing it from the Auburn side. They had just reached the center when it began to vibrate so that they could scarcely keep their feet.”

Police Officer Kavanaugh on the Lewiston end shouted for them to run for their lives. Scarcely had they reached land when the bridge gave way with a crash and it floated away.

An hour later there was a crowd on hand to witness the loss of the North Bridge, the news story said. One crash after another was heard as the supports gave way.

Sizzling electric wires whipped around. Miraculously, no one was injured as the poles up as far as Lincoln Street in Lewiston went down like bowling pins.

In spite of the terrific punishment delivered by the river, the stone piers of the Grand Trunk Railroad bridge held firm. This was the only remaining lifeline between Lewiston and Auburn.

A Lewiston Journal magazine section column by my aunt, Edith Labbie, in the 1960s recalled how L-A families coped.

“For the first time, local residents discovered how important that community on the opposite side of the river was to them. A boardwalk with crude railing was built on the Grand Trunk bridge,” she wrote. “It was ticklish traveling across, for the walk was often icy and the seething river was not far below. It was even more frightening when a train came thundering across the bridge spewing smoke and sparks within inches of the pedestrians.”

My great-grandfather and a brother had dairy farms where I now live on North River Road in Auburn. On March 2, 1896, my great-grandmother’s diary had this entry: “The ice went out last night and took both bridges and the one down to the brook. Ern (her brother) carried milk across the railroad bridge on a hand cart. He got home at 3 o’clock. Oh, it is a wild and frightening sight.”

The next few days were snowy, cold and windy. On March 3 she wrote, “Lovely all day. Ern carried his horse across the river (on a ferry) and left him and ‘holled’ his milk over in the wagon.”

News stories said all kinds of bridge replacement solutions were put forth. Pontoon bridges, such as those used in the Civil War, were proposed. A woman suggested that a steamer be brought in.

The most novel idea was a movable sidewalk on a cable swung across the river from the top of the Main Street grade in Lewiston to Court Street hill in Auburn. It would be a sort of giant escalator.

Modern weather reports and river control methods minimize the chances for another tragic flood, but every spring the high waters of the Androscoggin bring many spectators to the river for a thrilling display of the powerful water.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]

 

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