September 19, 2017
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Then & Now: the Penobscot River

By Dick Shaw, Special to the BDN
Updated:

Those lucky enough to live near the Penobscot River realize there is no other thoroughfare in the world quite like it. Dubbed “The Rhine of Maine” by our ancestors, the 350-mile long Penobscot might win bragging rights when it comes to its jaw-dropping beauty, centuries of history, and unbreakable tribal ties.

Dotted with islands, mills, cities, towns, and a whole lot of wilderness, the Penobscot has inspired poetry, paintings, songs, stories, and even a scene in Tom Clancy’s submarine novel, “The Hunt for Red October.” Like a family member, its mood is ever-changing – ranging from placid in summer to ice-encrusted in winter. No one could ever imagine life without it by our side.

“The Penobscot River is one of the reasons that our city was first settled,” said Melissa Gerety, executive director of the Bangor Historical Society, “so large ships could travel up the river. The intersection of the Penobscot and the Kenduskeag Stream made Bangor an ideal location for the timber coming from the north woods to be processed at the lumber mills and then loaded onto ships and sent around the world.”

Society walking tours make much of the river’s historic mystique. Rock-ribbed harbor masters settled many a squabble between boat captains who desired favorable berthings. Ships were packed so tightly that, at times, one could skip from Bangor to Brewer across their decks. And where would Bangor’s 19th century “Devil’s Half Acre,” an area noted for its offerings of vice, have been without the river to bring its hungry male customers down from the woods and up from the sea?

Portuguese explorer Estevan Gomez was the first European believed to have explored the river, in 1525. Frenchman Samuel de Champlain followed in 1604. A few years later, French priests converted Penobscot Indians living along the river to Catholicism. Pentagouet, now Castine, where the river becomes Penobscot Bay, was settled by the French, and the Penobscots settled Indian Island in Old Town.

Joshua Treat was the river’s first permanent English settler, and eventually the Penobscot was settled all the way north to Medway, where it splits into its East and West Branches and beyond. The Penobscot tribe still claims the islands as sacred hunting grounds from Old Town northward.

The British navy drove colonists’ ships up to Bangor in the disastrous 1779 Penobscot Expedition, and marched into the “Queen City” for a brief occupation in 1814. After that, the river was largely a commercial thoroughfare, with Bangor as its head of navigation and the town of Veazie the head of tide. Boston steamers began providing service in 1835, and by the early 20th century, the Penobscot was becoming the river of today, given more to pleasure craft and recreationalists.

“I’ve had the good fortune of canoeing the Penobscot, its north branch, south branch, and west branch,” said Zip Kellogg of Newcastle, “each from places where they are about as wide as a canoe, all the way to Bangor, where all Penobscot water meets the ocean tides. This has been a hobby, perhaps a passion, maybe even an addiction.”

Historically, Kellogg said, the river provided a homeland for Native Americans, as well as a food supply and travel network. It became an economic and power source for 19th and 20th century industry. And it provided respite and rejuvenation for author Henry David Thoreau, who came up the river on north woods excursions. Despite changes in its landscape (dams in Veazie and Old Town have been removed, and salmon fishing is limited in places), it still has much to offer locals and visitors.

Today, the Penobscot is never far from the minds of people who care about its present and future. Penobscot Riverkeepers takes schoolchildren on educational canoe trips along the fabled thoroughfare, and the Penobscot Tribe regards the river as their own.

On June 8, students from across Maine celebrated Clean Water Week at Bangor’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. Ten juvenile salmon treated in water at the plant were released into the river to bring awareness of the importance of clean water in the river’s ecosystem.

Two days later, a Penobscot River rally and flotilla attracted canoeists and kayakers in support of the Penobscot Nation’s ongoing struggle to protect and enhance the river’s water quality and watershed. An often overlooked fact is that the river’s drainage basin contains a staggering 8,610 square miles.

“The Penobscot River is beautiful, and Maine is my spiritual home,” said participant Elaine Levine of South Freeport. “There’s so many things to be involved in we don’t even know where to begin. It just seemed like one of the things we should do.”

Understanding today’s river means sharing its past with people too young to recall its glory days as a shipping and pleasure craft center. If you witnessed the two lost white beluga whales near the salmon pool in 1954, tell your grandchildren about. If you rode the Bon Ton ferry for a nickel, from Brewer to Bangor, what was it like? And fewer and fewer people are living who rode the last of the Boston boats up to 1935, so share that experience, too.

Sending the year’s first fresh-run salmon to the White House is also a lively story. So is the launching of the Horace E. Munroe from Brewer in 1919. Ice cutting and log driving were not for the faint of heart. So was dam keeping and sail making. All were trades directly related to life on the Penobscot. There were no safe jobs in the river’s early days, and people died on the river making a living.

The river towns are filled with sculptures, markers, and modern art celebrating its past and present. Gomez, Champlain, even Paul Bunyan, are important names. Why not photograph each and make your own book?

Penobscot River history is filled with happy and sad stories, and they need to be told. And why not publish a dictionary of names and terms long associated with the river and its branches, such as Telos Cut, boom, sluice, peavey, cant dog, and peapod boat.

The good news is that the waterfront is safe and clean today, said Bangor’s economic development director, Tanya Emery.

“The city’s longtime focus on waterfront and downtown revitalization has ultimately resulted in an incredibly livable city,” she said.


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