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Moving Lumber, Growing Bangor

Text by Richard Judd

Images from Patten Lumbermen's Museum

In 1839 Kennebec loggers proposed a canal to divert water from the Penobscot drainage into Moosehead Lake, deeply dividing the state legislature, and two years later Bangor lumbermen conducted a similar raid on the Allagash River by redirecting the waters of Chamberlain Lake southward to their own mills.

The move triggered a series of battles that included the “Telos War” a dispute over access to the channel that carried timber south to Bangor.

In other cases, companies cooperated to build dams, dig canals, and render the river drives more predictable.

The Kennebec Log Driving Company (1837) and the Penobscot Log Driving Company (1846) hired master drivers to control the entire flow of logs to the mills, bringing a form of scientific management to the industry. Millowners built huge sorting booms on the lower rivers to count and distribute logs at the end of the drive.

The Penobscot Boom north of Old Town, built in the 1820s, made possible a burst of sawmill construction at Old Town, Orono, Stillwater, and Great Works and made Bangor for a time the world’s greatest lumber shipping port.

During these years the state sold off its public lands and gave away land and flowage rights to those who promised to build sawmills. These liberal policies touched off a wave of timberland speculation that attracted vast quantities of capital to Maine and increased the number of mills in the state.

Bangor, a deep-water port with a huge watershed and 250 sawmills on the river above it, was the chief beneficiary of this speculative boom.

The Niles Weekly Register reported in 1833 that three-quarters of all houses in the northern states were built of pine cut in the Penobscot Basin, and in 1842 Bangor exported more lumber than any other port in the world.

The Penobscot drainage would see a second boom in the 1880s with the rise of the paper industry, but in many ways this simply continued the legacy of huge extractive industries shaping land ownership and politics in a way that reinforced regional disparities and limited opportunities for growth in northern Maine.