Tucked into a clearing where Route 90 crosses the Georges River, in Warren, is little Payson Park, where local moms bring their kids to play. Cross the river on the footbridge and take a walk into history, along an almost forgotten man-made waterway that was begun in 1794 and was operated for a number of years by Maine’s Revolutionary War hero, Gen. Henry Knox. Back then, roads leading to the farms and settlements upriver were bad to nonexistent, making for difficult commerce.
The Georges River Canal floated barges through a series of locks, carrying supplies upriver and taking farm and forest products downriver. The canal ran for 28 miles between Warren, where the river becomes tidal, and Quantabacook Lake in Searsmont, and operated, off and on, until 1850. The forest has grown up in the bed of the old canal, and its banks have been worn down by erosion so today it is hard to visualize the barge traffic and the canalside life that must have accompanied it. I was unaware of the existence of the canal until this year, though I often crossed directly over its traces on my way to the pool below what we knew as the Powder Mill dam, where as kids we jigged for alewives. Back then we were not aware that the powder produced at the mill was gunpowder. Gunpowder being what it is, the powder mill experienced a number of explosions, some fatal, before the mill was finally closed, probably to the relief of the neighbors. A few standing granite stones and a scatter of half-buried old bricks are all that remain.
The alewives we jigged below the powder mill dam were descended from several millennia of alewife spawning runs. Early settlers found that the Georges supported a huge spring run of alewives, also called river herring. Each spring a weir was constructed and thousands of alewives funneled through the weir into waiting nets. Many of the fish were dried and smoked; I’m sure many were consumed fresh but the consumers must have had alewife bones sticking out of their skin. They are a bony fish, the alewives. Much of the catch was salted, packed in barrels and sold. As a community resource, the alewives picked up the tab for a lot of municipal improvements; the Warren firehouse was paid for by alewives. Old Warren Maine, published by the Warren Historical Society, notes this doggerel rhyme:
Thomaston for beauty,
Rockland for pride,
If it hadn’t been for alewives
Warren would have died.
The alewife run nearly died, as it did in many rivers when dams stopped the fish well short of their spawning grounds. Warren was more concerned about their mill owners than about the alewives. Douglas Watts, in his book, Alewife, cites the town’s petition to the legislature in 1837, asking that they not be forced to provide fish passage around the dams. The dams are gone now, and the alewives have the run of the river all the way to Quantabacook.
After following the traces of the canal from Payson Park to the site of the long-gone powder mill dam I went to the village for lunch at the St. George River Cafe, on the west bank of the river right about where the village dam stood.
A couple of years ago, Ann Gonzalez and Faye Davis made their escape from overcrowded, overpriced, over-techied Seattle and landed in Warren, where they set about remedying the town’s lack of a good restaurant/cafe. The result is a friendly, casual townie kind of place with homemade comfort food and way-too-good desserts. As I waited for my lunch, three guys walked in and sat at the next table. “That your vehicle with the FLY CST license plate?” one asked. That plate has made me a bunch of friends in the flyfishing world, and I have three new ones, all members of Georges River Trout Unlimited — president Dan Daly, Roy Hitchings and Don Abbott. Daly was doodling on one of the restaurant’s napkins and when he finished he handed it to me.
Three new friends plus an original work of art, a walk through history, and a great lunch — I’d call that a good day.