Friday, July 24, 2020

A matter of historical record: 'And great was the fall thereof'

The story of Windham’s massive freshet of 1861
Last of a three-part series on Popeville. If you missed the first and/or second-part in this series visit

By Walter Lunt

An extraordinary event, unimaginable today, occurred in Windham in early May, 1861. The great freshet, or flood, originated in North Windham and swept through the center of town, then South Windham, and on to Westbrook and beyond. As reported in part two of this series, the quiet neighborhood of Popeville in Windham, located along Pope Road between route 202 and the Pleasant River bridge, was once the site of a thriving industrial center owned and operated by three brothers, Isaiah, Oliver and Joseph Pope, whose ancestor, Elijah, a Quaker, came to Windham and opened a blacksmith shop there about 1768.

A 1915 postcard view of Popeville looks north toward the
Pleasant Street Bridge.
By 1841, the ambitious and enterprising family had established a prosperous mill business at the mill dam near Pleasant River bridge. The sprawling company included a lumber and grist mill and the manufacture of custom clothing. A substantial boarding house accommodated many workers.

In the early 1900s, Phoebe Pope, great-granddaughter of Elijah, related numerous stories of life in Popeville during the hey-day of Isaiah Pope and Company. She reminisced to a reporter about the plain and honest living style of the Friends, or Quaker, community. Phoebe shared fond memories of the mid-nineteenth century village where “We young people used to gather on pleasant evenings and watch the water rush over the dam. There were nice young folks from neighboring farms, and (among them) some good singers. But the rule was, ‘Be home by nine o’clock.’"

The Pope brothers, always the entrepreneurs, decided in 1859 to expand operations to include a cotton mill, but more waterpower was needed to run it. Two of the brothers, Oliver and Joseph, purchased the water privilege at “The Narrows” at the base of Little Sebago Lake off present day route 115 (between route 302 and the Falmouth Road).  There they enlarged the dam utilizing split stone with no cement or pilings for reinforcement. On the river below, at Popeville, a new cotton mill had been readied for operation.

The spring of 1861 brought unusually heavy rains to the area. Local residents estimated the lake level had risen 10 to 20 feet above normal. At 7 a.m. on the morning of May 7, Ellery Sawyer had just sat down to his breakfast when a thunderous crash and roar emerged from the Little Sebago dam near his farm. “And great the fall thereof.” Sawyer knew in an instant what had happened. 

Mounting his horse, Sawyer raced toward Popeville to warn what he knew would be an impending doom. He beat the rushing water by several hours, its progress halted several times by turns in the river, bridges and by accumulated debris. The Pope brothers made no effort to remove machinery from their various mills or to secure any of their property, believing the heavy booms strung across the river just above Popeville mill dam would restrain the onslaught. An eyewitness to the calamitous event worked as a clerk for the Pope’s and would later write about it in his book Windham in the Past. Samuel T. Dole described the flood waters arrival to Popeville this way:

“At about ten o’clock, a low sullen roar, like the rushing of  a mighty wind, gave evidence that the hour of peril was near at hand; and in a short time, around a curve in the river came an immense wave bearing on its crest a huge quantity of debris, consisting of stumps, the ruin of bridges, mill logs, cord wood and trees that had been torn up by the roots, all in one confused mass, and borne along with irresistible force by the rushing waters. It first encountered a strong double boom, where its career was for a moment checked, but only for a moment. The huge logs of which the boom was constructed snapped like pipe stems, and the confused mass, augmented by hundreds of mill logs, precipitated itself upon the mill dam. At one end of this stood a woolen mill filled with heavy machinery, a large building intended for a cotton mill and partly fitted up for that purpose, and a dye house, which contained all the appliances for coloring and finishing cloth. On the other end of the dam stood a sawmill, a joiner’s shop, grist mill and stave mill, all in one large building. After remaining stationary on the dam for nearly half an hour, the mass of ruins , with a mighty crash, started on its downward course, carrying with it the dye-house and town bridge, the splintered fragments of which were mingled with the already confused mass.”

After leaving the Popeville mills in ruins, the raging waters that were draining Little Sebago Lake continued its mad rush on Pleasant River to its confluence with the Presumpscot River, carving out a new channel and wiping out mills and bridges at Allen’s Falls, Gambo (Newhall), Little Falls (South Windham/Gorham) and Mallison Falls.

In the following days, the Portland Argus and the Portland Transcript newspapers would report various details of the massive Windham flood:

“Seventeen bridges were swept away in the town of Windham…The Windham stage had a narrow escape (as it had just) cleared a bridge when the rushing waters cast it downstream…The scene at Sacarappa (Westbrook) was terribly grand and awful…”(Portland Argus – May 10, 1861; page 2).

“The entire body of water from Little Sebago Pond which is nine miles long by two broad was instantly poured forth into the surrounding countryside… Many from this city went out to view the mighty rush of water …The total damage is probably not less than $30,000 (it was later reported to be in excess of 35,000 {1861} dollars)…Actions for damages have been entered against Messrs. Pope, who it is alleged did not properly secure the dam, and all of their property is attached…” (Portland Transcript – May 18, 1861; Vol. XXV, No. 7).

After the catastrophe, the Popes rebuilt some of the mills, but as Samuel Dole observed “never recovered their old-time prosperity.”
Isaiah Pope died in 1872. The two remaining brothers were in their 70s and 80s and finally sold the mill property in 1879. The end of an era. And great was the fall thereof.

Phoebe Pope and her young sister, Mary, found themselves penniless and homeless and ended up living with Friend ministers in East Parsonsfield where they lived happily with a large circle of Friends.

Next time, we trace down the last surviving Pope. And discuss the Windham Quakers involvement in the Underground Railroad.  <


No comments:

Post a Comment