SEARSPORT — Although he grew up in Stockton Springs, there’s a lot Oliver Krause will never know about the sleepy community located at the mouth of the Penobscot River.
“I was never really curious,” the 17-year-old Searsport District High School senior said recently. “It just wasn’t something I thought about.”
But when he took an ethnography class this semester that focused on the not-too-distant history of Stockton Springs, Searsport, Frankfort and Swanville, he was astounded at what he learned.
Krause and other students worked in collaboration with the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport on a multi-media exhibit called “Then and Now.”
It features photos from the museum’s archives shown next to new photos of the same scene taken by the high school and Searsport District Middle School students, interviews with longtime area residents and a narrated slideshow.
Stockton Springs was once a thriving industrial port with railroads transporting goods back and forth. Vacationers also used to flock to a large hotel there where they would — according to the old pictures — party elegantly by the bay.
“There was a heyday,” Krause said in the sometimes mournful narration for his part of the slideshow. “It wasn’t just a small strip of land on the way to Bangor, the way it is now … I think now it’s a much more beautiful place here, physically. But what is there now? It’s sce-nic, but it’s empty.”
As the black-and-white im-ages showing factories, activity and bustling commerce flowed by, they are replaced by the colorful modern-day photos of the quiet landscape.
The question that Krause asked — and attempted to answer — was what happened to the region’s bustle.
“It was dismantled, little by little, by the slow, consistent crawl of technology,” he said.
Trains and steamships were replaced by trucks and auto-mobiles, according to the slideshow. Route 1 bypassed the town of Stockton Springs, and most of the area’s industries relocated to other places.
Kevin Johnson, the photo archivist at the Penobscot Marine Museum, said that the museum has an enormous collection of photographic negatives from all over Maine, New England and upstate New York that had been taken by the Eastern Illustrated Postcard Co.
The students used some of those for the “Then and Now” project, and Johnson helped to find the same spots for the modern photos.
“You’d look for landmarks. We would find clues. It was a little like a treasure hunt,” he said. “It was fun. Most of the time, I’m up in this windowless cave with a hundred thousand photographic images. This was a chance to work with a younger generation.”
Searsport District High School literacy and ethnogra-phy teacher Leslie Gregory said students decided that while the advent of technology — trucks and automobiles replacing trains and steamers — might have ended the area’s heyday, its use today would be redemptive.
The color photography and digital technology would allow the students to tell the area’s story in a powerful way. The students also learned a lot about the physical changes to the landscape when they took their modern-day photographs. Buildings disappeared, roads were put in and hillsides disappeared.
“Our job is to use technology to show the changes, and let the changes show themselves,” she said. “Maybe the thing that kept us from feeling empty was technology.”
As they pored over old shots of schools, towns, churches and industry, students had some tough questions about their modern-day towns, Gregory said.
“I think all the communities have to take a hard look at what do they offer their youth,” she said. “It just really raises some startling questions.”
Something else that helped them come to terms with the striking difference between the area’s past and present was the people, Gregory said.
“The resilient, independent-mindedness of the people who live in these communities hasn’t changed, and probably never should be,” she said.
The photo portion of the exhibit will remain in the Penob-scot Marine Museum’s admission center due to popular demand.
The “Then and Now” slideshow will be made available within a week on the museum’s Web site at www.PenobscotMarineMuseum.org, according to Gregory.