As everyone knows, The Plains, in Waterville, runs along the west shore of the Kennebec River in the South End of the city.
The river played a large part in the development of the city and contributing to high numbers of industrial jobs. Many of the residents of The Plains, the majority of which were men, worked at these locations – Hollingsworth & Whitney Paper Mill, the Wyandotte-Worsted Textile Mill, Maine Central Railroad, Waterville Iron Works – just to name a few. Of course, the female workforce was not totally omitted. Many women worked at the C. F. Hathaway Shirt Factory, and at the other industries mentioned.
But two of the occupations that are not very often mentioned were the two that primarily existed because of the Kennebec River.
There were the log drives that brought pulp wood to the mill in Winslow. They would begin in the north woods where many men worked felling trees – by hand with axes – then sawing them, also by hand. No chainsaws back then. The logs were then brought to the river on skidders usually drawn by horses or mules. Once in the river, the logs would work their way south to the mills waiting their arrival in Winslow and Augusta.
Many a man died working those logs down stream. In Winslow, there was the famous “Queen Mary,” – a platform that extended out into the river – where men, with grappling hooks, would pull the logs ashore that were destined for the Winslow mill, and threw back the ones that were designated for the Augusta mill. It was a strenuous and dangerous job. My oldest brother, and younger brother both worked on the “Queen Mary” during summer vacation while they were in college. The river log drives ended in 1972.
During the winter, the river became a source of refrigeration for area homes. Ice boxes were used in those days, and ice deliveries had to be made year round.
Again, men with hand saws would cut large cakes of ice from the frozen river, and transport them to the ice sheds, located at the Springbrook Ice and Fuel Co., on the corner of Pleasant and North streets, in Waterville. There they were covered with saw dust that kept the ice from melting well into the summer months. I remember getting ice deliveries while growing up, before our dad purchased a “real” refrigerator.
Unfortunately, the river could not be used much for recreational purposes because of the toxic discharges from the mills that polluted the water. There were two famous sayings that evolved from that: One was that the river was so polluted, you could not drown in the river because the skum on the river was so thick. Also, it was said, the river was so polluted you could walk across without getting your feet wet. Fortunately, laws were passed, in the 1980s I think, that cleaned up the river, and it is actually used today for fishing and kayaking recreation.
Actually, we used to go down to the river, and played “pirates” on the island that hugs the west shore just south of the Hathaway Creative Center. There we would spend the day exploring what is basically a swath of land that is elevated enough from the waters to form an island. It is used today as a walking trail, – there also is a tent city of homeless people – that is when the river waters are at their normal level. Access is more difficult in the spring when the waters rise due to the melting snow runoff, or following a heavy rain.
Our parents weren’t crazy about us going there, but we would manage to sneak off once in a while, until someone came home wet.
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