The Androscoggin River was on an incredible rampage in late winter of 1936.

A Lewiston Evening Journal headline on March 23, 1936, read “Jam Speeds By Lewiston — Bridges Are Saved.” A page one photo showed a man holding a pick pole as he stood atop a mass of floating debris and ice cakes at the North Bridge.

“Pulp logs, river debris and ice cakes roared pasts Lewiston from 7:35 until 10:35 in solid mass this morning without damage,” the news story said.

“The bridges were safe,” it said. “It was no easy fight. All the resources of the Gulf Island dam and all the engineering knowledge of Union Water Power Co. were mobilized along the valley.“

At 10 o’clock came the crisis.

“We are now making the last desperate effort,” Paul L.Bean, river authority and agent of the Union Water Power Co., said.

“I have been watching the wrath of God for the past three days,” Bean said. There was no levity or sarcasm, only deep and humble solemnity in those words from the well-known river authority.

“I pray to God that I may never have to witness anything comparable to it again,” Bean said.

Men with pick poles were risking their lives at the Maine Central Railroad trestle over the Lewiston Falls fending off logs and beams that were pounding against the piers. It was the same at North Bridge.

“The great Gulf Island Dam, which proved its worth in this supreme test, was called upon for a mighty effort. Gates were closed to reduce the flow to 20,000 feet a second in order to give more clearance for the bridges,” a newspaper story said.

Within half an hour, the river’s assault was under control.

“The Old Man of the Falls began to show his face again,” the account said.

It was the previous Wednesday when a day of torrential rain precipitated the local flood conditions. Bean had made snow surveys from Lewiston to the dam on the Androscoggin at Errol, New Hampshire, so when flood threats were evident, he knew what to expect. His survey showed that 70 billion cubic feet of water was on the ground and in the rainfall.

Bean had kept records over many years, and he could see that this river flow would bring perilous conditions to Lewiston-Auburn. The greatest flow of the 1896 freshet, when the North and South bridges were swept away, was 60,000 cubic feet per second, and the 1936 flow was registering four times that rate.

According to Bean, when the first pulp wood jam hit the railroad trestle and the North Bridge, he asked Gulf Island to hold back some of the flood. Four gates were closed at 10 a.m. and opened at noon. This brought the river down from a 60,000-cubic-feet-per-second flow to 44,000, bringing the water level to a point of safety as far as the bridge was concerned.

Bean and his son, Paul Webster, also an engineer and officer in the 103rd Infantry, set up general headquarters of the Union Water Power Co. in the Masonic Building, Main and Lisbon streets, Lewiston. From that location they fought the greatest flood battle in local history.

I can get a very clear picture of the danger and magnitude of the river rampage of 1936, thanks to a photo booklet that was published a few weeks after the river had returned to some normalcy that year. I look through that booklet often.

It’s filled with 50 remarkable photos taken by Sun-Journal staff photographers.

Its first page shows the river at sidewalk-level of North Bridge. Houses are shown tipped on their side, and garages sit in the middle of streets.

North Bridge withstood the water’s force, but a section of South Bridge was swept away. At several locations, dynamite charges were set off to clear ice jams.

Residents of Oxford Street in Lewiston are shown in boats on the street beside apartment buildings. A section known as Gas House Patch was under water and residents of homes there were moved to the Lewiston Armory.

Today, I sit at my window and watch the bright sunlight sparkling off the river just a few hundred feet away. There’s only a moderate ice flow, compared to years ago when furious currents sent huge chucks of ice over the riverbanks of the Twin Cities.


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