A view of the Androscoggin River from Lewiston’s South Bridge in 1973, with a layer of scum floating downstream. Charles Steinhacker/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

What is it I smell?

Rare perfumes from the east?

Or is it spices for a feast?

That comes from where the tigers dwell?

You idiot, you numbskull, you nut:

‘’Tis neither one, but —


Just the Androscoggin’s stench,

Worse than any bloody trench.

So get a clothespin for your nose

This gaseous odor is no rose.

— July 11, 1941 Lewiston Evening Journal

It is nearly impossible to overstate the summertime stench that once defined the Androscoggin River.


Outflow from the Oxford Paper Co. in Rumford into the Androscoggin River in 1973. Charles Steinhacker/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

It smelled like “stagnation and death,” observer John Gould wrote. He called the Androscoggin of the 1950s “a reeking mess of filth and debris.”

Decades in the making, the odors were a clear consequence of proliferating paper mills dumping a toxic stew into the once-pristine waters as well as growing communities pouring untreated waste directly from outlet pipes into the flowing current.

It didn’t help that dams arose along the river where rocky rapids once existed to mix and purify the rushing waters.

The result? The muck coating the river bottom, the floating scum on the surface, the chemicals, waste and bacteria in between all combined with summer’s low water levels and hot air to create an annual hazard that by the mid-1930s had become noxious.

“It stunk to the high heavens in Lewiston in the summertime,” said David Cohen, a lawyer who grew up in the city during the 1940s and 1950s.

“There was just a putrid smell” from the “absolutely disgusting” river, with its “disgusting color, obviously just full of chemicals and garbage, and at the falls there was just this dirty foam all the time,” Cohen said in an oral history recorded for the Muskie Archives at Bates College.


Effluent dumped into the Androscoggin River in Jay by the International Paper Co. in 1973. Charles Steinhacker/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

A drugstore manager in Rumford, Leo Good, said customers would sometimes order an ice cream but toss it aside, too sickened by the stench to eat.

Machinist Cleo Lacombe complained that “everything I eat seems to taste the same as the river smells.”

During one especially noxious summer in the early 1940s, “gaseous odors were so bad that thousands of people complained of sore throats, house paint was darkened overnight, restaurant silverware acquired heavy layers of tarnish and some people complained that silver coins in their pockets were tarnished by the fumes,” the Lewiston Evening Journal reported.

An Auburn woman showed a Lewiston Evening Journal photographer in 1939 how fumes from the nearby Androscoggin River had discolored her house paint on River Road. Lewiston Evening Journal

In 1942, the paper noted that “once again, the river is visiting the communities along its banks with its nauseating aroma.”

It added that residents were responding with an affliction known as “clothespin nose” in response to children selling clothespins that could be used to pinch someone’s nostrils closed.

During a 1944 visit by gubernatorial candidate Horace Hildreth, the politician witnessed “gas-emitting, sponge-like sludge” floating along the river and called it “the most flagrant example of pollution I ever saw.”


William Provencher, president of the Lewiston Community Association, called the smell a “health hazard” in 1947 and said it was giving the community an evil reputation.

A sign warning of the dangers of drinking and swimming in the water was posted beside the polluted Androscoggin River near the New Hampshire border in 1973. Charles Steinhacker/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

“It is a disgrace to tolerate the stench, and Lewiston and Auburn are fast becoming the laughingstock of other Maine communities,” said George Hauck, manager of a Montgomery Ward department store in Lewiston in 1941.

By 1948, the Portland Evening Express, in a sympathetic editorial, declared the “vile Androscoggin” such a problem that it sent “strangers speeding out of town holding their noses and swearing never to return.”

So much gunk flowed into the river that the Androscoggin had become “a veritable open sewer, all the way from Berlin to Merrymeeting Bay,” the Portland paper said.

Though nobody questioned the reality of the stench, some said it was better to ignore it than mention it.

Maine Attorney General Ralph Ferris chastised the Lewiston newspapers in 1948 for their thorough coverage of the issue.


“If the newspapers did not play up the odor,” Ferris said, “Lewiston would be better off.”

He said stories about the river’s stench “give the city poor advertising.”

The Portland paper said everyone knew all along what it would take to fix the problem: money.

“The remedy is for valley communities to stop pouring raw sewage into the stream and for the paper mills to treat their waste,” the Evening Express said.

The Oxford Paper Co. in Rumford produced air pollution along with dumping waste in the Androscoggin River in 1973. Charles Steinhacker/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

It said people who live along the river have rights that shouldn’t be ignored “merely because paper mills find it easier and cheaper to pour raw waste into the stream” than to clean it up first.

Efforts to dump absorbents into the river made the smell more tolerable starting about 1950, but that amounted to little more than putting perfume on a pig.


As late as 1970, Newsweek cited the Androscoggin as one of the 10 filthiest rivers in the nation, the kind of dishonor a state touting itself as Vacationland could live without.

Not until strict new environmental standards laid out in the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 took effect did the river take a sharp turn for the better.

Androscoggin River Valley residents can be thankful they don’t have to shop for clothespins any longer to take a summertime walk.

Pink eye, corns and prickly heat,

Congestion of the liver:

They’re new to me, and it must be


The odor of the River.

My lettuce, cukes and lima beans

They all were doing well:

But they’ve gone bust with wilt and rust —

It is the River smell.

I’m losing weight, my hair don’t grow,


My stomach’s all a’quiver:

This H2S has made a mess.

‘Tis the odor from the River.

We found a cockroach in the sink,

My wife is all a-dither:

And large black ants crawl up the plants.


They were driven from the River.

We went to ride the other night

And all was going swell.

But had to sit where the old bus quit

When it caught the River smell.

The clapboards crack, the roof’s gone bad


I think I’ll try to sell:

The paint has peeled, the pipes annealed.

It is the River smell.

I see now dawn. I have no hope.

I chill and shake and shiver.

I cannot talk — I’ll go to walk,

Look for me in the River.

— Aug. 14, 1941, Lewiston Evening Journal

Scum floating in the Androscoggin River downstream from a paper mill in Berlin, New Hampshire, in 1973. Charles Steinhacker/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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