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Princeton: Woods and Water Built This Town

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Text by Nancy Marshall

Images from Princeton Public Library

Athian Lewy, Princeton, ca. 1860
Athian Lewy, Princeton, ca. 1860

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Princeton Public Library

Woods and water played a critical part in establishing early industries in Maine. Princeton's story provides a good example. Soon after the first settlers arrived they assumed responsibilities of making a living for themselves using their surrounding resources. These resources consisted primarily of timber, agricultural land, water and fisheries, and played a substantial part in the history of Princeton and its development.

In 1815 Moses Bonney of Baileyville arrived in what is now South Princeton. He is the first known white settler. In 1820, when Maine separated from Massachusetts and became a state, settlers were expanding their reaches to where the present bridge on Route 1 crosses from Princeton to Indian Township.

Tomah Lewy, a Native American, and his wife and children had traveled up the St. Croix River to this location around 1812. The settlement that grew up around the Lewys home became known as Lewy's Island Settlement.

Later the island became covered by water when Putnam Rolfe built a "roll dam" that crossed the lower part of the island, and Lewy relocated his dwelling place to the area on the north side of the river now known as Indian Township.

Roll Dam, Princeton, ca 1967
Roll Dam, Princeton, ca 1967

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Princeton Public Library

When the town was incorporated in 1832, the name of the community was changed to Princeton in honor of Princeton, Massachusetts, the hometown of Ebenezer Rolfe, an early Princeton settler.

Woodlands contributed much to the industrial prosperity of Maine, and Princeton was no exception. White pine provided lumber for ships, homes, barns, and other buildings. Logs were sawed into lumber and shipped by boats to all parts of the world.

Timber was cut upstream of Princeton and floated down the St. Croix River to mills located along the river all the way to Calais. Putnam Rolfe watched the logs float by and became determined to build a mill in Princeton.

In 1851 "Put" Rolfe built a roll dam, so-called because the water rolled over the dam, and in 1852 he built the first lumber saw mill in Princeton. Thereafter the area on the river surrounding the roll dam became known as the "Roll."

Train Station, Princeton, ca. 1890
Train Station, Princeton, ca. 1890

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Princeton Public Library

Downstream in 1852, the Calais Railroad was re-activated as the Calais and Baring Railroad and extended along the St. Croix River northward to Baring. Lewy's Island Railroad was chartered in 1854, but according to the Maine Central Railroad website, the railway wasn't extended from Baring through New Brunswick to Princeton until 1857.

In the meantime the Calais and Baring Railroad, for the year ending Dec. 31, 1853, reported having hauled "34,623,217 feet long lumber, 41,232,000 laths, 753,300 pickets, 444,500 shingles, 600 ships' knees, and 6000 cords of mill-wood end edgings."

Captain Lewy Steamboat, Princeton, ca. 1900
Captain Lewy Steamboat, Princeton, ca. 1900

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Princeton Public Library

In 1853 Charles Spooner and Abbott Moore built the first steamboat in the area and it operated on Big Lake in Princeton. It was financed by a group of Washington County mill operators and lumber merchants called the Schoodic Lake Steamboat Corporation.

Because of the Passamaquoddy native Lewy's intimate experience and knowledge of the local waters he was employed as a navigator on this new steamer. He could be seen stationed on the front of the boat motioning to the man in the wheelhouse which direction to take, thereby earning himself the name "Captain Lewy." This steamboat also was named the Captain Lewy.

With cheap and plentiful lumber now being produced in town, and the presence of a new railroad, other mills and businesses rapidly sprang up. In 1857, Put Rolfe and his new business partner, Leonard Peabody, enlarged the lumber mill by adding a stave mill for barrel making, and a gristmill for grinding corn and wheat.

McKechnie Mill, Indian Township, ca. 1907
McKechnie Mill, Indian Township, ca. 1907

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Princeton Public Library

Nathaniel Darling built a mill for sawing long lumber, lathes and shingles. William Sargent built a mill in 1858, and in 1859 A.W. Buckman, also called the "Squire," opened a mill. In 1858 or 1859 James Belmore and Ben Young built a long lumber mill that primarily used cedar. In 1858 C. Waite and Company built a mill. Around 1860 a tannery, which used hemlock bark, was built by White and Waterhouse; and B.T. Wright and Company had a mill for long lumber and lathes.

In 1863 Leonard Peabody built a woolen mill, and shortly after he built a spool-bar mill near the woolen mill.

Princeton was in a commercial building boom, and as a result, there was an influx of men and families to work in the mills. The population of Princeton rose from 280 in 1850, to 626 in 1860 and to 1,076 by 1870. Each mill had a company store where mill employees could exchange their labor for food and supplies and a boarding house for employees.

In winter many men worked in the woods as lumberjacks, felling trees and yarding logs. In the spring these same men worked as log-peelers and river-drivers; in the summer they worked in the mills or on the farm.

The Captain Lewy with Log Boom, Princeton, ca. 1890
The Captain Lewy with Log Boom, Princeton, ca. 1890

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Princeton Public Library

Long logs, and later pulpwood, were harvested in the remote forests upstream from Princeton. Lumberjacks used teams of horses to haul the wood to the ice and on the shore, where it remained until spring. These men worked all the hours of daylight and at times didn't receive any cash until the logs were at the mill "below." Sometimes instead of cash they were given credit at the company store.

Streams, lakes and rivers were the standard means of transporting the logs. Using spring runoff and a series of dams to hold the water until needed, the logs were sent into the water and floated downstream to the awaiting mills. Near the point of entry into the waters of a lake, the logs were gathered by a series of logs chained end to end into "boom logs."

The boom logs were used in the small lakes to channel the wood, or they were attached to boats that hauled the logs to the outlet where the rushing waters, aided by skilled men called river drivers rushed the logs to the next lake where they were gathered again by boom logs.