A century and a half ago, when Bangor was the lumber capital of the world and Brewer’s kilns produced millions of bricks each year, the Penobscot River was at the center of thriving world-class industry.
Upstream, the river powered mills in Orono and Old Town.
A century later, when paper and pulp mills were the most prominent industry along the river, the Penobscot helped power the mills and flushed their industrial effluent downstream.
Today, industry on the Penobscot has morphed to fill smaller niches in highly competitive world markets but the river remains a key part of the region’s economic backbone as well as its future.
“It is why we are here,” said Richard Shaw, unofficial historian of Bangor and the author of several books on Bangor’s history.
While the Penobscot has always played a central role in the life of towns in the area, that role is changing as the cities and towns along the river themselves change.
When Dick Shaw grew up in Bangor, the river was dirty and smelly. Soapy scum floated on its surface and nobody swam in it. Today, Shaw sees pleasure boats on the river and hopes he lives to see the day when people swim in it again as they did in his mother’s time.
Bangor’s waterfront is now a source of pride and a draw for concerts and yearly folk festivals that bring music and music lovers to town.
“I would say there has been a renaissance,” said Shaw.
D’arcy Main-Boyington, Economic Development Director for Brewer, has also seen the change in her town.
“It is transformative,” said Main-Boyington. “The difference on the Brewer waterfront over the past 15 years is amazing,” she said.
Growing up in Orono, Main-Boyington remembers a Penobscot so polluted that buildings were constructed facing away from the river rather than toward it.
Today, however, people are turning back toward the river and in Brewer a much cleaner river is attracting people and businesses.
Brewer’s Riverwalk, a children’s garden and kayak steps allow better access to the river and a new generation of small businesses see the river as an asset.
Industrial giants like Cianbro still use the river. In 2012, Cianbro floated huge industrial modules downstream on their way to Newfoundland in 2012, and industry remains a key part of Brewer’s economy.
Main-Boyington said that she hopes Brewer is able to continue to grow its industrial base in coming years.
But today, that growth does not have to mean choosing between the river as an industrial resource and the river as a natural resource that can add value to the broader community.
“We are really trying to get people out of their cars out on the waterfront, walking and relaxing,” she said. “I think the path we are on right now is bringing the river back into the community as a focal point of the community.”
Main-Boyington said the cleaner Penobscot is helping to draw locally-based entrepreneurs interested in creating unique dining and shopping experiences in the downtown area.
It is a different role for a river with a proud industrial history, and it is a big part of the reason that Main-Boyington sees a brighter future for her city.