Friday, March 3, 2023

A matter of historical record: prosperous and tragic, historic gunpowder mills of Windham-Gorham, now subject of documentary

By Walter Lunt

As a kid, Patrick Bonsant spent countless hours indulging his curiosity and fascination with nature.

“I would spend hours and hours just walking through woods, roaming, exploring, observing…I just loved doing that.”

This grainy photograph from the late 19th century was taken
of staff and mill workers in front of the 'Old Stone Mill' on 
the Windham side of the Gambo Powder Mills at Newhall.
A carpenters' shop and foundry was located here to support 
infrastructure needs of the powder mills. OUTTAKE FROM
After acquiring a degree in Communications and Media from the University of Maine, Bonsant said he combined his fascination of nature with his creative interests and, utilizing video and sound, began showcasing the great outdoors and its forgotten stories. His latest production is titled “The Gunpowder Mills of Gorham-Windham, Maine,” a documentary that chronicles the 81-year history of the storied Gambo Powder Mills of South Windham and Gorham.

Much has been written in books and articles about the mills, however Bonsant’s work is the first to document the story with moving images and spoken words.

The mill site, located on both sides of the Presumpscot River at the end of Gambo Road at Newhall in Windham, first produced gunpowder in 1824. The operation proceeded through several owners until about 1905, manufacturing the explosive product for military and sporting firearms and for blasting. It is estimated that 25 percent of all the powder used by the Union forces in the American Civil War was produced at the Gorham-Windham mills.

In his acclaimed 1985 book “The Gunpowder Mills of Maine,” author Maurice Whitten explained that the Gambo Mills were the first, the largest and the longest running powder mills in Maine, and the fourth largest in the nation for many years.

Raw materials necessary for producing gunpowder were potassium nitrate (saltpeter) imported from India, sulfur (brimstone) from Sicily, and charcoal manufactured on site from alder or poplar wood “baked” in cast-iron retorts. The imported ingredients arrived by boat on the Cumberland & Oxford Canal which ran adjacent to the mills. In his book, Whitten quoted medieval philosopher Roger Bacon, “Take 7 parts saltpetre (old spelling), 5 parts hazelwood charcoal, 5 parts sulfur, and you can make thunder and lightning…”

Tragically, some explosions occurred unintentionally during the manufacturing process. Over its 81-years of operation there were several accidental blasts causing loss of life and extensive property damage. Despite an abundance of caution, oversights, inattention and errors were inevitable. Over eight decades of operation, 25 explosions claimed the lives of 47 men.

In one exceptionally horrific blast on Oct. 12, 1855, seven workers were killed while loading powder kegs onto a canal boat. Among the casualties were Franklin Hawkes of Windham and Samuel Phinney and John Swett, both of Gorham. The next day, Portland’s Eastern Argus newspaper headlined the explosion as a “Frightful Accident.”

Whitten reprinted the journalist’s graphic description of the scene: “Phinney, after the explosion, walked several rods, until he met a man who spoke to him, and he instantly fell dead. Swett was thrown nearly a quarter of a mile. Hawkes had his bowels blown out, and one side of his head blown off. A cart, to which a yoke of oxen was attached, was shattered to fragments, and the hair was burned off the oxen almost entirely. A buggy wagon was also blown to pieces, and the horse driven, like a wedge, into a pile of lumber.”

Bonsant says he hopes people will take away several things from seeing his film.

“I wanted to create an understanding of a little-known chapter in Maine (and local) history, particularly, Maine’s connection to the Civil War,” he said. “It’s the story of hard-working men sacrificing to support their families, as well as the hardships (for families left behind) after the loss of the breadwinner.”

“No matter where we go history is all around us. We’re often walking on hallowed ground where great stories happened. I hope this film helps to raise the curiosity in people as they travel around.”

Bonsant is the executive director of Saco River Community Media but characterizes the documentary as a “two-year no budget labor of love.” And, he said with an air of pride, “(the documentary) has been accepted by Maine Public Broadcasting and will be aired soon as part of their Community Film Series.”

Bonsant said that “The Gunpowder Mills of Gorham-Windham” was a collaborative effort made with the help of several local historians and dedicated assistants. It is dedicated to Maurice Whitten “for the reverence and respect he deserves, without which this documentary couldn’t have been made.”

The public is invited to a viewing of the documentary at Windham’s Little Meeting House at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 11.

The event is free. Refreshments will be served and donations to the Windham Historical Society are appreciated. <

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