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A photo of workers who helped construct Lewiston’s canal system, which directed water from the Androscoggin River into a network of canals whose moving water powered the city’s mills, first mechanically and then electrically. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The Androscoggin River has had many names.

The Wabanaki, an indigenous tribe, had several names for sections of the river; Pejepscot, Amitgonpotook, Amoscongon, and Rocamecook are just a few of them. When European settlers arrived its name changed again, until eventually “Androscoggin” became dominant; the name most likely was inspired by Edmund Andros, the governor of the Dominion of New England in the late 17th century.

Over time, with industrialization and increased human settlement, it acquired yet another label: One of the top 10 most polluted rivers in the United States.

Lewiston’s Museum L-A has documented all the changes the river has endured — including its many name changes — in its current exhibit “Our Working Waterway.” The exhibit aims to dive into the river’s influence on the industrial development of various Maine cities along its route.

A working water wheel is a popular attraction at Museum L-A. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Emma Sieh, the curator of the exhibit, said the idea to do a full display on the river developed from talking about water power in the museum’s educational tours.

“We realized places like Bethel, Rumford, Jay, Livermore Falls, Lisbon, Brunswick, all of these places that were along this huge waterway . . . people recognized the water power potential of the river and were able to start industries and develop cities,” she said. “So we decided to expand it to talk about the entirety of the river.”

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Themes of the exhibit include: From Headwaters to Shore (which talks about the 170-mile-long river and its 3,400-square-mile watershed basin); The Devastation of Floods; Living on the Banks; The Industrial Revolution; Industries Along the River; Pollution Problems; River Clean Up; The River Has Come a Long Way in 100 Years; Canal Systems; and Water Power Production, which features a working water wheel.

One of many photos of the Lewiston water system that brought power to the mills. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The exhibit not only offers information on and stories about the river, but features both historical and current photos of the waterway, as well as art from individuals in the community. In May, the museum held a photo contest that asked people to send in their best pictures of the river; the winners of the contest have their photos displayed throughout the exhibit.

“We wanted to get more creative telling this story,” Sieh said. “(The river) is a stunning part of our landscape here in Maine.”

Four large murals done by local artists take up one wall of the exhibit; the artists were asked to reimagine the river.

Kate Cargile, one of the artists who painted a mural, said her piece was inspired by the Twin Cities’ Riverwalk. The mural was the largest piece she’d ever worked on and she worked in her preferred medium, oil paint. She said that to her, the river is an asset to the community and she finds it beautiful.

One of several large murals painted by local artists, this mural was painted by Kate Cargile. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Cargile, who currently lives in Auburn, grew up in Maine. She remembers when the river wasn’t so scenic.

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“We used to refer to it as the root-beer river because it looked like root beer, sort of brown and foamy, and no one can say that about it now,” she said.

She said her mural is meant to reflect the intersection and interaction between nature and human development. She loves to paint scenes like this because it fascinates her.

“I love that about this area,” Cargile said. “It’s so beautiful. The colors you see in the old mill buildings and the reflections in the water.”

One of several large murals painted by local artists, this mural was painted by Melanie Therrien. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Melanie Therrien, owner of Wicked Illustrations Gallery and Studio in Lewiston, painted a mural for the exhibit as well. While she doesn’t recall any specific personal memories of the pollution, she said she hears people talk about it frequently. She said her acrylic painting was inspired by a picture of the river that had a message of hope.

“I’m happy to be involved in anything that has to do with art that uplifts the community,” she said. “The river means opportunity, hope and life to me because we can utilize it in so many ways.”

Therrien said the goal of her mural is for people to take a second to stop and look at nature. She said that as an artist, she has the time to slow down and notice nature in a way that many people may be too busy to do.

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This photo by Rafael Macias was one of the winners of Museum L-A’s photo contest on the Androscoggin River. 

“My art usually focuses on mystery, beauty and power of nature anyway,” she said. “I paint a lot of flowers, and you don’t just ‘stop to smell the flowers, you ponder their design’ is in my bio a lot.”

The exhibit also includes a life-size board game where participants can travel along the river and learn about the different obstacles that may be present depending on if you are a boat, human or fish.

Sieh said it took about five months of both research and design to finish it. She collaborated with about 40 individuals and groups, such as professors, historical societies, libraries, employees from state departments, and artists, to get the most accurate information and bring it to completion in a meaningful way.

She said one of her goals was that she wanted to make sure there wasn’t just one specific narrative of the river – the relentless pollution by industries. Another goal: Emphasize that the waterway has affected many Mainers’ lives.

“I really wanted people to walk away understanding the river more as a whole,” Sieh said. “A lot of people, especially here in our area . . . they have a certain view of the river and it’s typically leaning toward ‘it’s dirty, it smells bad, it’s not a great place to be.’ But that’s just not an accurate representation of its entire history let alone its current-day condition.”

Museum L-A Executive Director Audrey Thomson holds up a game piece from the giant board game that is a popular feature at the newest gallery exhibit: “Our Working Waterway.”  Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Although the pollution levels in the river have improved greatly, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife advises people to eat no more than six to 12 fish per year from the river due to high levels of DDT, dioxins and PCBs – all chemicals that can cause cancer and other health issues.

“We need to recognize our past, realize what’s been done today to make things better and realize what our future can be,” Sieh said.

The museum is located at 35 Canal St. in Lewiston and is open to the public from Thursday to Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visitors must wear masks. The exhibit is expected to be on display until the end of March in 2021. A virtual version of the exhibit is available at www.museumla.org/gallery-exhibit.

Informational offerings and visuals in the exhibit feature local environmental heroes and their efforts to clean up the waterways. One of the biggest heroes was former Maine U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Rumford. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo


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