Where are the mountains of Maine? When this question is asked, it’s hard to pin down one location.
If you think of the White Mountains, Green Mountains or Adirondacks, specific images of long ranges and large clusters of mountains come to mind. Maine’s mountains, not fitting any of those categories, are formed into a number of clusters and ranges, or are sitting alone and random.
In the early 1900s, a few maps named the range running from the Mahoosucs to Bigelow Mountains as the Blue Mountains, but this never took hold, due to the more noted Blue Mountains of Virginia.
In 1959, the Maine Legislature applied the name Longfellow Mountains to all the mountains of Maine, in honor of its beloved poet. Again this showed up on maps for about a dozen years and finally faded away, leaving no common name for the mountains of Maine.
The Mahoosucs, Saddleback, Abraham, Bigelow and Whitecap Ranges are the major ranges, while the clusters of mountains appear as the Oxford Hills, Mount Desert Island, the Camden Hills and the mountains west of Katahdin, known collectively as the Katahdinauguoh.
The individual names of the mountains and hills of Maine fall into a number of categories – descriptive, those with Wabenaki names, Wabenaki-transferred names, comical names, historical incidents, Biblical names, legends and individuals.
Maine has more than 300 mountains and hills, some with repetitive names, mostly those named for their shape, color or native trees. According to Stanley Attwood’s monumental book, “The Length and Breadth of Maine,” there are 26 Oak Hills, 19 Bald Mountains, 13 Peaked Mountains, 12 Pine Hills, 11 Hedgehog Hills, 10 Bear Mountains, 10 Spruce Mountains and nine Pinnacles.
Interestingly, there are six Sugarloaf mountains in Maine, the tallest being the cone shaped peak in Carrabassett Valley, the second highest mountain in Maine. Other hills named for their unique shapes are the Beehive at Acadia, Elephant Mountain in Piscataquis County and Castle Hill in Aroostook County.
It is commonly thought that many mountains were named by the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Tribes, known as the Wabenakis. There are actually only about a dozen mountains and hills named by them, such as Katahdin, Kineo, Nesuntabunt, Soubunge, Agamenticus, etc. The Wabenakis named all the rivers, streams, lakes and ponds because they afforded both travel routes and food sources, while the mountains had little to offer other than blueberries in season.
On Mount Desert Island, the Native American names, such as Pemetic, Norumbega and Penobscot, were all applied by George Dorr when he created Lafayette Monument, which later was renamed Acadia National Park.
The Wabenaki word for mountain was “adn” or “atn,” and it appears as a suffix in the name Katahdin, meaning “largest or most eminent mountain”. Other uses of this suffix show up as the middle syllable of Sowadnehunk.
A smaller hill in Wabenaki was known by the suffix “adjo, or wadjo,” as in Quaggy Joe Mountain and Kokadjo, the original name of Little Spencer Mountain, or “Kettle Mountain,” and part of the Kineo myth.
The longest Wabenaki name in Maine is the 20-letter Kokadjoweemgwasebemsis, the original name of Spencer Pond northwest of Moosehead Lake. This is followed by the 18-letter Chemquasabamticook Lake, more commonly known as Ross Lake, named for a famous river driving boss.
Potaywadjo Ridge, which rises above Jo Mary Lake, was named for an early chief of the Penobscot, who could outrun, outswim and outspit anyone. Jo Mary, head of the Whale family, would swim under water long distances, come up and spout water, giving the name Potaybahec-wadjo, or “blower hill” to this ridge along the Appalachian Trail.
The third way Wabenaki names were applied to mountains was done by the early surveyors, trappers and lumbermen who simply applied the name of a lake, pond or stream to an adjacent ridge of peak. This mostly occurred in northern Maine, resulting in many ridges and peaks with water-based names and suffixes, such as Millimagasett Ridge, Mooseluk Mountain, Haymock Mountain and Allagash Mountain.
In the Rangeley region is Bemis Mountain and Bemis Cove, which derive from bema, a cove, while others, such as Mount Megunticook, include the suffix “cook,” a bay.
Comical names were applied to mountains, usually as either a joke or a modified pronunciation. Some comical names are Peekaboo Ridge, Mount Tearcap and Pocomoonshine Mountain in Down East, which lies above the lake of that name.
Fanny Hardy Eckstorm, the noted writer and researcher from Brewer, said that Peter Ronco of the Penobscot Tribe told her the original name was pokwjanank-I-tagook, meaning stumpy brook, but lumberman, finding it somewhat unpronounceable, morphed it into Pocomoonshine.
Naming mountains after events
Historical incidents and events were also applied to mountains in Maine, such as Moody Mountain near Andover, where young Moody fell to his death while attempting to acquire a wolf pup, and Maiden Cliff in Camden, where in 1860, 14-year old Elenora French, while picnicking on the ledge, apparently grabbed for her hat and fell over the ledge to her death.
Randall Mountain in Parsonsfield was named for a trapper named Randall who was either murdered for his pelts or perished in a snowstorm on the summit while traveling to safety.
Since the Bible was found in almost all farmhouses in the 1800s, many mountains and hills received names from that book, such as Mt. Pisgah, Mt. Ararat, Mt. Abraham, Mt. Nebo and Mt. Gilboa.
In the early 1800s there were no names for Sugarloaf and Spaulding Mountains. Moses Greenleaf and other early surveyors considered them as peaks belonging to Mount Abraham in Kingfield. They saw the six or seven peaks from Salem to Carrabassett Valley as one long range called Mt. Abraham.
The other names don’t show up until the early 1900s. One local who climbed Cranberry Peak with friends, wrote of Mt. Sugarloaf as Bald Mountain. For some unknown reason, Mt. Abraham lies in Mt. Abram Township.
Stemming from legend
Other mountains were named for legendary creatures and people, such as Kineo, a noted warrior and hunter; Pamola Peak, named for a fearsome spirit that resided on Katahdin; and Agamenticus, where great warrior Passaconaway, known as St. Aspinquid, is either buried or from where he descended directly to heaven.
In honor of individuals
The last major category for naming mountains was for individuals, both local and noted. Baxter Peak, the highest point of Katahdin, was named for the former governor and creator of Baxter State Park in honor of his legacy of saving Katahdin from development.
Avery Peak, formerly West Peak of the Bigelow Range, was also renamed by the legislature for Myron Avery, who explored Katahdin in the 1920s and wrote many articles about the region. He later became president of the Appalachian Trail Conference, a position he held until his death in 1952.
Other mountains were named for lumber barons who owned the timberlands — Shaw Mountain and Wadleigh Mountains in the Piscataquis region, Van Dyke Mountain and King Mountains the headwaters of the Moose River, Coburn Mountain near Parlin Pond, and Bowman Hill north of Rangeley.
Last, the vast majority of mountains and hills were named for known and unknown individual trappers, surveyors, timber cruisers, lumbermen, farmers and town folk, their names often changing when a new farmer moved in.
Steve Pinkham is the author of “Mountains of Maine, Intriguing Stories Behind Their Names,” published by Down East Books in 2009.