THE SPECTACULAR PENOBSCOT RIVER
A Natural Wonder in Maine: Part 2
To read the previous segment of this post click on: THE SPECTACULAR PENOBSCOT RIVER A Natural Wonder in Maine: Part 1
I recently presented a program to fifth grade students in my granddaughter’s reading class, which had been reading The Sign of the Beaver. I picked the book up when she was visiting, and discovered its setting was on the west side of the Penobscot River. My research has been mostly on the east side of the river, but I had viewed the river from the Penobscot Narrows Observatory in September, and, using the pictures and the results of much of my research, I believed I had something valuable to share with the class. To read my experience in the observatory, click on: THE PENOBSCOT NARROWS BRIDGE AND OBSERVATORY
The Penobscot river and bay area is rich in Native American history. In former times the region was part of the traditional homeland of the Wabanaki Confederacy, one tribe of which was the Penobscot tribe. The Confederacy at one time, thousands of years before the arrival of the white man, controlled much of New England. Ancient remains of their campsites have been found on the bay’s shores and islands, where they hunted, fished, gathered clams and ate other food in the bay area of the Penobscot River watershed. Today, they believe they are the caretakers of the Penobscot River and its watershed, with carries a sacred duty to protect the river and its surrounding region.
The spelling of Penobscot was a difficult matter for the French…a Dr. Ballard discovered nearly sixty different ways the French people spelled it…the English did better, catching the sound, Penobscot.The word “Penobscot” originates from a mispronunciation of their name “Penawapskewi.” The word means “rocky part” or “descending ledges. The Tribe has adopted the name “Penobscot Nation.”
The late Dr. Frank Siebert, whose death was in recent years, actually lived among the Penobscot Indians. He was the last white man who fluently spoke the Penobscot language, and at the time of his death he was compiling a dictionary, in an attempt to keep the language alive. Much of his artifact collection is at the Abbey Museum in Bar Harbor.
Mr. Treat and his family, who settled in this area in 1759, are considered the first permanent European settlers on the Penobscot River. His oldest son, Joshua Treat, Jr. (1756-1826), built the first log house, saw mill, and vessel in (Frankfort), near Castine, about nine miles up the Penobscot River from Fort Point.
With the exception of the wetlands, mountain tops, a few barren and burned areas, the Penobscot river basins were forested with softwoods, primarily white and red pin, spruce, balsam fir, hemlock and cedar, and hardwoods, primarily beech, birches and maples, with oaks in the southern portions. Early on became a major area to produce lumber for the national and world market. Although it’s said that America owes becoming the greatest country in the world to the original forests and the falling waters within these forests, when the first settlers landed, these vast forests were considered an interference to farming, so they were cleared to make farms.
Lumbermen arrived in the 1770s, and built mills on streams running into the river. During most of the 1800s the region experienced a lumber and shipbuilding “boom” responsible for creating many fortunes in the area. At the time the river was a conveyor belt where logs from the north were transported to saw mills, giving some people the impresson it was “mainly a log driving stream.” The average log size on the drive in 1835 was 350 board feet a log 16 feet long and almost two feet in diameter. It would take about 33 of these logs to complete a medium size three-bedroom ranch house today.
Trade in forest products started with the first sawmills built in 1634. Settlers made clapboards, shingles, barrel staves and many other simple products from the trees. Boards sawed at the mill were hauled to the river by oxen and rafted to Bangor for shipment. The early mills on these sites generally produced one to three thousand board feet per day. Some settlers built ships to carry their goods to markets in the West Indies, Europe, the Wine Islands and Africa. Even firewood was shipped to Boston to heat homes, and later to power factories, steamboats and locomotives. Today, the Penobscot basin remains a huge forest resource. Its first and second forests have been harvested, and its third and fourth forests are now being harvested.
Although shingles and other wood products are still made in Maine today, lumbering was replaced with paper-making during the early 1900s. Large wood pulp and paper-mills were located all along the Penobscot River. Spruce trees had long, flexible, strong fibers that were separated either chemically or by grinding, and reconstituted into very low cost paper. This low cost paper helped to develop the literate, educated population that we have today. Maine became the leading newsprint maker in the country, and is still a major producer of now a great variety of paper types and grades.