The potato has long been the king of crops in Aroostook County, but in the early 1960s, farmers were in a bind after a years-long drop in potato prices. For some, the solution was the introduction of a second cash crop:
The allure of sugar beets had been strong in Maine since at least 1876, when Republican Gov. Selden Connor devoted a section of
his inaugural address to the crop’s praises. Unlike potatoes, sugar beets were subject to strict national quotas in the 1960s, making the price farmers fetched for them at the market stable from year to year. A 1963 University of Maine study estimated that Aroostook County farmers could earn a $76 profit from each acre of sugar beets, compared with $17.91 for peas, $1.36 for oats and $68 for potatoes.
After lobbying from politicians and business interests, in April 1964 the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the state a 33,000-acre quota to grow beets under the national sugar program. But that allotment was jeopardized later that year, when Colorado-based Great Western Sugar Co. abandoned its plans to build a refinery to process Aroostook sugar beets because of the region’s acidic and rocky soil.
Enter the backslapping industrialist Fred H. Vahlsing Jr., who in February 1965 agreed to open a sugar beet refinery adjacent to his potato processing plant along the Prestile Stream in Easton. All he needed was the state and federal governments to guarantee the loans needed to build the $14.7 million refinery and the state to
downgrade the Prestile’s pollution classification, a move supported by Democrat U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie and Republican Gov. John Reed.
Nearly 770 farmers pledged to plant 61,509 acres of sugar beets, the Maine Sugar Beet Growers Association assured the feds. But farmer interest — or lack thereof, particularly once potato prices began to rise again — ultimately proved a fatal flaw, among many others.
The most productive growing season — 1968 — saw only 22,174 acres planted, according to
a 1971 U.S. comptroller general report. The yield per acre never exceeded 10 tons, compared with the national average of 17.
Without the necessary crop of beets, Vahlsing in 1970 was unable to make his payments on more than $23 million in taxpayer-backed loans. There was little hope of recouping that money because the Easton refinery’s value as scrap was little more than $1.5 million. In the end, the state auctioned off the refinery’s machinery to a Quebec-based sugar company in 1980, an ignoble end to a dream first sown more than a century earlier.
The largest oil refinery in the nation
Maine’s top court will soon
hear a challenge to South Portland’s 2014 ordinance prohibiting Portland Pipeline Corp. from reversing the flow of its 236-mile pipeline to offload Canadian crude oil or tar sands at the city’s port.
It’s worth remembering when quite a different proposal met with its fair share of resistance: refining foreign crude oil in Washington County.
In June 1968, the Maine Port Authority filed an application with the federal government to classify Portland as a foreign trade zone and Machiasport as a subzone, where a 300,000 barrel a day oil refinery would be constructed. Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum — headed by Armand Hammer, a family friend of Vahlsing — would operate the refinery.
The refinery would be the “largest of its type,” and include storage tanks with a 16 million barrel capacity, making it “one of the largest oil storehouses in the nation,” according to a 1968 New England Regional Commission pamphlet. The commission called Machiasport, with its deep harbor and wide entrance channel, “ideal” for accommodating supertankers.
If all went right, the refinery’s supporters, which included Maine politicians, such as Democrats Gov. Kenneth Curtis and Muskie, said it would lure petrochemical plants, pulp and paper mills, aluminum and other metal plants, and shipbuilders Down East with low-cost power and deep water, revitalizing “one of the most severely depressed areas along the entire eastern seaboard.” It also promised annual savings on heating oil of $50 million to $60 million for New England.
Not only that, but in the event of full-on nuclear combat, the Defense Department believed Machiasport would “remain relatively free of radioactive contamination,” making its “enormous” oil reserves a “vital” strategic asset, the New England commission noted.
But the proposed refinery could never overcome opposition from oil lobbyists and environmentalists, who feared the refinery would spoil the rustic beauty of Down East Maine.
St. John River, home of the mega dam
Credit: Courtesy of Craig Ouellette
The Machiasport refinery wasn’t the only idea pitched to reduce Maine’s energy costs. A massive hydropower project was proposed on Aroostook County’s St. John River, and it divided opinions nearly as much as Central Maine Power’s
transmission corridor does today.
Congress authorized the $300 million Dickey-Lincoln School dam project in 1965, according to the Congressional Quarterly Almanac. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan called for a dam 10,200 feet long and up to 335 feet high at Dickey, which The New York Times
reported in 1974 would have been the 11th largest dam in the world. When paired with another smaller dam downstream, the project would have a generation capacity of 830 megawatts, with the potential to increase it as much as another 380 MW.
The project would employ about 1,800 people during an eight-year construction period with combined annual wages of $586 million and then about a 70-person workforce to operate the completed dam with combined annual wages of $700,000, according to
a 1977 state report. Once completed, Dickey-Lincoln would save Mainers as much as $6.9 million a year in electricity costs, that report estimated.
The dams required about 207 miles of transmission lines in Maine alone, with 100- to 150-foot rights of way. Those lines would have crossed 352 rivers and streams and another 80 wetlands in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Additionally, it would have flooded 88,650 acres, according to a 1981 Army Corps of Engineers
Despite the environmental impact, many prominent Maine politicians, including Muskie and George Mitchell, enthusiastically supported Dickey-Lincoln. But its opponents were manifold, including conservationists, coal-state representatives and New England’s private utilities, which instead suggested building a nuclear plant in Maine. Among the opponents were other federal agencies, such as the EPA that, in October 1981, called the project’s environmental impacts “unacceptable.”
The New England utilities and others lobbied vigorously to keep Congress from appropriating any funds to construct the dams, according to the congressional almanac.
Eventually, even Maine’s congressional delegation united against Dickey-Lincoln. In December 1981, Republican President Ronald Reagan signed
a bill into law that deauthorized Dickey-Lincoln. It was the first time, according to the Christian Science Monitor, a “major federal waterworks project [was] deauthorized by Congress after receiving a solidly favorable report from the corps.” Harnessing Quoddy’s tidal power
Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Dickey-Lincoln wasn’t the first major hydro-electric project proposed in Maine. In fact, its roots were sown long before 1965 in an abandoned project to harness the power of Passamaquoddy Bay’s tides.
In the 1920s, hydroelectric engineer Dexter P. Cooper, who lived on Campobello Island, envisioned damming Passamaquoddy and Cobscook bays to harness their tidal power, which swing as much as 19 feet from low to high tide, according to
a 1950 Maine Development Commission booklet.
That vision found a supporter in Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When elected president, Roosevelt used the proposed Quoddy dam as a “work-relief project” before it was abandoned in 1936, when Congress did not appropriate needed funds, according to the booklet. As with Dickey-Lincoln, opposition at that time was fierce from existing electric utilities.
But the idea didn’t stay on the shelf long. In the 1950s, the United States and Canada teamed up for a “farsighted venture” to harness the bay’s “tremendous” tides to meet the nations’ growing energy needs.
1959 International Joint Commission report said the $484 million project would construct 30 turbines, generating 1.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year for the U.S. and Canada.
Quoddy dam would not only unleash the bays’ tidal power, but also the economic potential for Down East Maine, attracting numerous industries with “abundant power at reasonable prices” and enable the region “to get in step once more with the orderly industrial development of the rest of their respective countries,” the Maine Development Commission predicted in 1950.
Like its earlier iteration, this vision was eventually shelved, and every so often reappears — as it did
in 2012 — but Passamaquoddy and Cobscook bays remain unencumbered. Bangor, the ‘great city’
Credit: Courtesy of the Bangor Public Library
In 1869, businessman Oliver Frost predicted: “The time may soon arrive when the three great cities of North America — Bangor, New York, and San Francisco — shall be representatives of the wealth, population, intelligence, and enterprise of the eastern, central and western divisions of our country.”
Anyone who has lived in Greater Bangor long enough has heard Frost’s famous pronouncement. That’s an unbridled optimism not often found in the Queen City these days. But Frost had plenty to be optimistic about.
Thanks to the Penobscot River, Bangor became known as the “lumber capital of the world.” The city was home to numerous “lumber barons” and the river was often “jampacked with timber and lumber,” according to Trudy Irene Scee’s history of Bangor. Even the nickname “Queen City of the East” evoked the era’s prosperity. Henry David Thoreau
remarked, in 1846, that Bangor was “overflowing with the luxuries and refinement of Europe.”
But that promised prosperity began to peak as soon as Frost made his prediction as timber exports declined. The lumber trade moved to the Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest, while pulp and paper displaced lumber in the state’s timber industry, making mill towns industry centers.
Bangor may not have become Frost’s “great city,” but it still serves as a vital hub for tens of thousands. In recent years, the city has seen a burst of
downtown redevelopment, as well as decline around the mall. The elusive east-west highway
Credit: John Clarke Russ
While rivers once powered economies of cities like Bangor, roads now serve as the state’s major economic arteries.
The first modern proposal for an east-west highway to connect the Canadian maritimes and Quebec
emerged in 1990. One Aroostook County legislator said at the time the road could be the county’s “saving grace.”
In the 1990s, more than 4 million vehicles — including 550,000 commercial trucks — passed through the five U.S.-Canada border crossings serving east-west routes. The Calais-St. Stephen crossing accounted for nearly 70 percent of that traffic, according to
a 1999 Maine Department of Transportation report.
It was in 2007 when Cianbro’s then-CEO and Chairman Peter Vigue unveiled a $2.1 billion, 220-mile private highway that would bisect the state from Calais to Coburn Gore. The project was seen as
a potential economic boon, particularly if manufacturers could reduce shipping costs for products destined for the Midwest.
But the project encountered intense pushback from environmentalists and small-business owners and residents of towns through which the highway would run. The Legislature’s Transportation Committee, in 2013, voted
to kill a $300,000 feasibility study, and the project, in 2014, was described as being on “ life support.”
The dream for an improved east-west route, however, isn’t dead. The state is moving forward with
a highway to connect Interstate 395 and Route 9 that would give commercial trucks from Canada a faster route to the U.S. interstate system. Turning the North Woods into a ‘preserve’
Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki
Not all ideas and predictions for Maine’s future came to naught. At least this one became a reality.
Henry David Thoreau, who believed in the “tonic of wilderness,” famously visited Maine three times — in 1846, in 1853 and in 1857. His time in the Maine woods inspired him to muse about setting aside forests as “
Nearly 150 years later, Thoreau’s vision of natural preserve came to the Maine woods, in June 1994, when RESTORE: The North Woods
proposed a 3.2 million-acre national park. That began more than 20 years of oftentimes bitter debate over the fate of Maine’s forests.
Roxanne Quimby, the founder of Burt’s Bees, in 2003 began
buying up tracts of land in northern Penobscot County before making another push, in 2011, for a smaller 70,000-acre park.
Finally, 170 years after Thoreau first ventured into the North Woods, Democratic President Barack Obama, in 2016,
signed an executive order designating 87,563 acres east of Baxter State Park, gifted by the Quimby family, as a national monument.
His Republican successor, Donald Trump, ordered
a review of the designation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, among more than two dozen others, casting doubt on its fate. But, eventually, the designation was affirmed and its tens of thousands of acres remain protected.