In the early 1820s, territory was cleared for farm land in the Katahdin region. It remained a silent, gentle and quiet set of family farms that grew into a small but vibrant region.
The industrial revolution expanded throughout the successful new “Union” and all of Maine. The transportation of commodities and products to serve the nation’s expanded appetite set the stage for the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad to extend service to Houlton in 1894. The line ran through the Katahdin area, opening it to development and growth.
From the beauty and majesty of the mountain, the Katahdin region exploded and provided timber, pulp, paper and many employment opportunities.
The University of Maine and a creative and innovative engineering graduate, Charles W. Mullen, proposed a hydroelectric dam on the Penobscot River. The falls of the Penobscot River provided an ideal water power source to operate a large pulp and paper mill. UM and Mullen contacted Garret Schenck, vice-president of the International Paper mill in Rumford and an expert in the industry, about building a pulp and paper mill near the dam. Mr. Schenck agreed and set about obtaining the necessary financial support. After securing land rights, the chosen site was at the junction of the West Branch of the Penobscot River and Millinocket Stream.
Things moved quickly, and on May 15, 1899, construction began on the Great Northern mill. The mill and its construction economically transformed an entire region. It has provided generations with employment, a quality of life that has sustained lifestyles and a way of living alongside nature.
Our communities prospered with skilled laborers, growing families and decent profit margins. From shipbuilding, shoe making, woolen mills and wood products, Maine’s communities were part of the American expansion.
In the case of the Katahdin region of Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway, the area shared its success with Bangor as the hub. The success of the Katahdin region had significant impact upon the economic success of Bangor. As I-95 surpassed rail in the 1950s, the interdependence of the economies of Katahdin and Bangor became stronger.
Today, as the economy of the Katahdin region continues to change, the Bangor region’s relationship with Katahdin continues and its economy changes. Together we succeed. Separated, we are both subject to lost investments, jobs and community. We must face the challenges together. A variety of factors, such as a never-ending recession and globalization, are undermining our economy. Many of the communities that dotted Maine with mills are now into the fourth or fifth generation of mill ownership. They fight an overwhelming and undermining restructuring of the economy.
But we do have a choice between two futures. The situation can continue to decline or we can reinvent ourselves using our ingenuity and creativity to compete in a new economy. This path demands that we make some tough choices, but it will lead to prosperity and development. The new game plan must be bold. We cannot compete in the 21st century with 20th century products and strategies. A successful strategy has five steps:
- Think regionally, but compete globally.
- Focus public investments on transforming economic opportunity based upon regional assets and strengths.
- Foster innovation and entrepreneurship, turning ideas and inventions into economic progress.
- Create a climate that welcomes business and a culture that grows new companies.
- Build a knowledge-based economy with a 21st century skilled work force.
Regional cooperation, a shared vision and supportive collaborative action will result in success. This pathway won’t be easy, but neither is watching our young leave the state, communities continue to struggle and seeing opportunities lost.
We must think of ourselves as a single region, from Katahdin to Bangor to Searsport, comprised of an intermodal transportation system, high quality educational facilities and an environment for business growth. Somewhere our new 21st century Mullen and Schenck will surface and provide the economic development that will lead us to the next successful period of our shared economic history.
This column was modified to eliminate passages that should have been attributed to Wikipedia, which was the source for the historical background on Millinocket and the Katahdin region.
Michael W. Aube is president of Eastern Maine Development Corporation in Bangor. He is a past commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development and former state director of Maine USDA Rural Development.