HOME: The Story of Maine

"Power Lines"

TRANSCRIPT

Narrator:

Electricity is something we take for granted. It flows through almost everything we do today. But that wasn't always the case - especially for those living in rural areas. The story of how power lines were established in Maine, coming up next on "HOME: The Story of Maine."

David Cheever, Editorial Editor, Central Maine Newspapers:

On July 1, 1999, there were probably on the order of 1500, 2000 maybe even 3000 people lining the banks of the Kennebec River looking at the Edwards dam and looking, not so much at the dam but metaphorically looking at the passing of what had been a way of life. It had a symbolic value that far outweighed the actual physical event that people were there to witness. They were seeing the removal of the Edwards Dam. The Edwards Dam represented a key point. What it marked was, the passing of history, the passing of a significant element of history that had tied in the natural environment with the built environment and it had led to the development of an entire industry: the hydroelectric industry in Maine.

Narrator:

Hydroelectric power was an industry that would change Maine forever. It grew during a century-long struggle of vision, conflict, and innovation.

Cheever:

Going back before 1800 water power was used to turn the mill wheels. It was used to turn the heavy machinery in saw mills and cotton mills. Maine's major rivers represented a tremendous opportunity.

Narrator:

Throughout Maine and New England, this opportunity was fully harnessed during the Industrial Revolution when the region's rushing rivers and streams provided waterpower for the country's newly created, centerpiece mills and factories. This was a blessing to a population whose economy and way of life depended on physical labor. Before long, the mills proved to have even more potential. The inventor Thomas Edison conceived of a way to transform mechanical power into light. This marvel found its way to Maine in 1880 when a spool mill in the town of Willimantic was the first in the state to produce electricity. What started out as a curiosity soon became a remarkable tool. The role of mills and water power had been transformed. It was a transformation played out across the state, from big cities to small towns like Flagstaff, along the Dead River.

Duluth Wing, Former Resident of Flagstaff Village:

It was a nice quiet little town. There was only one industry in town, Harry Bryant Mill, a birch mill. And the mill supplied power to us through a turbine. When there was enough water in the mill pond to operate it the generator ran. I think they waited till it started to get dark, and the lights would come on. And I think we knew when they were gong to come on, so you could have electric lights and turn off your kerosene lamps and enjoy a light bulb. And then the first thing you knew it would be getting dimmer and dimmer and finally we realized it was time to go to bed. So it was unique. There was no money involved as far as I remember. I don't remember getting a bill or paying the poor old man that ran the mill.

Ed Churchill, Chief Curator, Maine State Museum:

About the 1890s, many little communities had small electric companies operating, local firms. And a lot of communities would have just small, like 20 kilowatt generators and regulators. Many of them, all the equipment could be put on one board on the wall and kept in one small office.

Narrator:

The same quick waters that fostered the growth of mechanically powered mills now made it possible for communities to generate their own power. In the early 1900s, Maine boasted more electric companies than almost any other state. Although plentiful, these generation plants were small and scattered. They produced only a low volume of electricity and were spread out too far to be combined.

David Smith, History Professor Emeritus, U. Maine:

There were far-thinking people in Maine who saw that the generation of electrical power could in fact make Maine a stronger, better place, bring it into the industrial revolution more than it was before. Two thought this way in the strongest way-one was Walter Wyman, The other one was former governor Percival Baxter. Baxter was an unusual man because he believed that the purpose of government was to make life better for ordinary people.

Churchill:

Wyman realized that with all that power of water that he had in front of him there that there was the ability to bring this up to something fairly substantial.

Smith:

So what you have is a classic example of two people wanting much the same thing but one from a public point of view and one much more from a private point of view.

Cheever:

Walter Wyman was an entrepreneur and somebody who drove the development of the state of Maine. It might have occurred without a Walter Wyman, but it was the Walter Wyman influence that largely lead to the largest public utility in the state of Maine.

Vivian Dennett, CMP Historian:

The story of Walter Wyman is really the story of CMP. he was considered a Maine pioneer, a dominant personality and a business genius.

Narrator:

Central Maine Power Company was the creation of Wyman and partner Harvey Eaton. Other utilities would form and thrive, but Walter Wyman's CMP took the lead in the early consolidation of electrical power.

Dennett:

Wyman was really all over the state of Maine trying to scout out places that he could build hydro-dams. And purchasing other small utilities trying to work on building this inter-connected system.

Churchill:

They begin to expand. They begin to buy up other companies. They begin to build larger generators, or have them built. And so start putting this on a much larger commercial basis, and the whole thing of consolidation and the economies of size that come with that.

Narrator:

In time, Wyman acquired dozens of small, electric utilities. By 1924, CMP served over 60,000 customers, and its power lines crisscrossed the state. As significant an accomplishment as this was, few of those lines reached the people of rural Maine. Without the guarantee of a profit, the company was leery of making an investment to connect these remote areas. While there was little profit to be found in rural Maine, the money to be made in the more populated towns and cities held Wyman's attention. His sights were set on a venture that was bringing Mainers together in another way - the electric trolley.

Dennett:

The trolleys in Maine were a great connection to the electric utility. They obviously provided a lot of revenue for this great output of electricity that was being created by building dams. CMP acquired a lot of these or bought out a lot of these small electric trolley companies.

Smith:

This state was covered with such trolleys and trolley lines.

Narrator:

Trolleys provided inexpensive, public transportation to small and large communities alike. In 1914 alone, Maine's trolleys carried 54 million passengers. Streetcars ran in a continuous network stretching all the way to Boston, where lines connected to New York and beyond.

Smith:

It was claimed that you could get on a trolley in Waterville, Maine and by taking transfers go to Philadelphia. that meant that you could go literally anywhere.

Narrator:

In time, the newfound appeal of the automobile pushed the trolley into extinction, and sent Wyman in search of a new way for CMP to thrive. He now found himself looking beyond the state's borders. His ambition was to sell electricity to factories throughout New England. But others in Maine didn't share his vision. Under the leadership of Governor Percival Baxter, lawmakers passed legislation to protect what they saw as a resource belonging to the people.

Churchill:

One of the things that began to occur as Wyman was very busy trying to build new dams and create new power in the 1920's was that he ran into conflict with a law called the Fernald Law. The Fernald Law essentially said that Maine couldn't export power that was produced here. The law was a safeguard. Percival Baxter was an individual who supported the law all along. He was afraid of what Wyman wanted to do because power would go out of state to companies elsewhere, be of no benefit to the people of Maine. And there would be no incentive for these people to come up to Maine to create factories.

Smith:

What the Fernald law did was bring money to be invested in Maine to generate power to benefit Maine.

Churchill:

It was an idea that was very, very important to the local people because they wanted to make sure that that power got used here and not just shipped away.

Narrator:

Unexpectedly, the Fernald Law ended up not only being good for Maine, but good for Wyman's short term plans as well.

Churchill:

The Fernald Law was, in terms of historic time, absolutely propitious because all of the mills who were going into the depression period, were in real financial trouble. And Wyman took over ownership so that the mills didn't fail. And then he at the same time was then able to go out and sell them power. The sum of it was that it helped Wyman because now he had a place to sell his power. Meanwhile, the mills kept working. And these were several of the major Lewiston mills of Edwards Mill in Augusta, the mills in Saco. And so through the depression period Maine did far, far better than much of the rest of the nation because it was in the interest not only of the mill workers, but in the best interest of Wyman and Central Maine Power to keep them going.

Narrator:

Wyman and Baxter's differences helped keep Maine from financial ruin during the Great Depression. Despite his in-state success, Wyman hadn't abandoned his out-of-state dreams. He saw the demand for power growing in all markets with no end in sight. To fill that need would require more power generation, and, for that, Wyman had a plan. Filling that need would require more power generation and, for that, Wyman had a plan.

Smith:

If you could just put a dam at the forks flow the area up-country of it you would have an immense potential hydroelectric force which could be generated there and utilized as you needed it. This was Walter Wyman's dream. This was the Central Maine Power Company's dream. When they began to propose it they found that Percival Baxter was in their way.

Narrator:

Wyman's proposals to flood state land in the upper Kennebec valley met one veto after another from Baxter. The Governor wanted power to remain in state, bringing lights to rural Maine. However, the Legislature thought both goals could be met and a compromise was reached: Any state-owned lands flooded by CMP would be leased. This compromise made it cheaper in the long run for Wyman to develop dams where he could buy privately owned lands. He altered his plan for a single dam on the upper Kennebec to a series of three smaller dams on the Kennebec and Dead Rivers. Flagstaff was critical to the success of this endeavor.

Smith:

It was a small town in rural Maine but epitomized in many ways what rural Maine was. There was a filling station. There was a small hotel. There was a general store, and there were the people who lived there.

Wing:

Central Maine Power Company would buy a farm that had 100 acres on it, for say $1500 and said we'll sell you back the house for $50. And you could do anything you wanted with it. Some people put logs under them and dragged them up. That's what I done. I had a small place, put it on a couple of big logs and got my uncle's truck and dragged it up to where the water comes. So it was all cleared and it looked like a desert all winter, and the snow would be blowing for miles. And all you would see is a few fences or somebody's old shed or something. There was always a few people in town who said they didn't plan to move, they didn't plan to sell out. And Central Maine made them an offer or two and sometimes they would come back and up the offer. Most people just submitted to the fact that we were going to give up our homes, find a new place to live, for the good of everybody. That was the spirit that today, I don't think prevails that much. Today I think people would say, I'm not interested in that.

Narrator:

The flooding of Flagstaff was imminent, and Wyman's argument for doing so was difficult to dispute. In the post-Depression economy, the resurgent mills were producing at a fever pitch and the call for electricity was at an all-time high. Adding to this increased demand were the state's many rural residents. Thanks to the federal government, they were electrical customers at last.

Churchill:

One of the things that happened after 1935 that certainly helped the rural areas was the development of the Rural Electrification Administration, which meant that there were real efforts for the first time to bring electricity to the rural areas.

Smith:

There were large areas, both in Maine and elsewhere where there was no public power because profits ruled where the power would go. Rural Electrification provided start-up funds so that cooperatives could be created not to make profits but rather to provide electricity to the homes of people who were without it. From 1936 or 1946 The rest of the country and the rest of the state was electrified, those parts which had not been electrified before.

Churchill:

I think once power got into the rural areas they had to feel like they had something going for them. They now could get milking machines. They now could get other kinds of electrical coolers and they don't have to be as dependent on sun up, sundown. You still have a lot of people around who can remember going to the barn with a kerosene lamp and trying to live their lives with those kind of things, without any kind of electrical appliances. And it was always a major event in their life when electricity finally came to the house. And that electricity could be very minor. It might be a couple of light bulbs, literally, in the house. And only later, that we really see a major takeoff in things like electric clothes dryers and electric heaters, and a tremendous expansion in sales of such small appliances as toasters and this kind of thing. So it's a, a major revolution in your house when all of a sudden you have electricity and all of these things available to you.

Carol Toner, Assistant Professor of History, U. Maine:

However, there were men's machines and appliances and there were women's machines and appliances. Few families could afford to jump right in there and buy everything that was available. Therefore, the biggest question was do we get machines and appliances that will help on the farm or those that will make life easier in the household. And of course the farm machines and appliances would bring in more money. The household ones did not. And yet women's work did contribute directly to the farm. Imagine cleaning your rug before vacuum cleaners. I mean hauling the rug out to the line and beating it. A heavy rug. This was quite a chore so vacuum cleaners were probably very nice things to have. On the other hand, having these conveniences didn't always mean that women spent less time on housework. So while the rug was maybe taken out and beaten a couple times a year, with the vacuum cleaner, one would expect to have a cleaner rug.

Narrator:

Recognizing that electricity represented a major change, the Cooperative Extension Service began demonstrating how electricity would make life easier.

Toner:

The Extension Service was very interesting, a part of the University of Maine's efforts during this period and earlier for that matter, to bring the university's research education to people who weren't students. Their mission was to bring information to the rural communities, both to men and women, and the topics that they focused on were very wide ranging, anywhere from animal husbandry to soil information and the conveniences of electricity. The demonstrations and lectures, talks, gave farm women a great chance to get together. They lived rather isolated lives and so any opportunity to come together was a welcome one.

Narrator:

Promoting electricity became a regular part of doing business for the utilities as well.

Dennett:

One of the departments of the company was called the Home Service Department. And they employed mostly women who had degrees in home economics and would have live demonstrations in order to teach people how to use all these new, wonderful appliances. And the Home Service Advisors actually went out into people's homes and would bake cakes and show them how to use all these electric appliances.

Narrator:

Spurred on by new, rural customers, demand for electricity reached unprecedented heights. Generating enough power to keep up with demand was getting harder and harder to do. Wyman's plan for flooding Flagstaff was critical to the state's electrical power needs. In the fall of 1949, the Dead River was diverted and the waters began to rise.

Wing:

The town of Flagstaff was flooded. It hit me like a ton of bricks, losing my own house. What am I supposed to do? I had been kicked out of home. I just accepted it as being the thing that was good for everybody, creating a lake here. The dam could maintain a flow up and down the Kennebec, which meant a lot to everybody that lived up and down there to generate electricity but also flood control.

Smith:

So it was difficult for them to give up their land. Even though they were compensated for it, moved to other parts, they found it difficult. In a sense, for many Mainers, Flagstaff now is a symbol of that other Maine, that 19th Century Maine. And here we have that the 19th Century Maine, being drowned by the forces of the modern world and being drowned eventually by electricity. Look at the two of them and you can get that feeling of this is where the old Maine and the new Maine came together under the water in Flagstaff. It's necessary to destroy things to make progress, but it doesn't diminish the impact of the destruction on us some at least.

Narrator:

The people of Flagstaff knew what the cost of progress was 50 years ago. For some, the price was the family farm, which had been generations old. Maine's largest man-made lake now fills the foundations where those farm houses and barns once stood. The nature of Maine's electric industry has shifted radically since the days of Walter Wyman and Percival Baxter. Wyman's dream of repealing the Fernald Law was eventually realized, allowing Maine's power producers to connect to the large energy network of the Northeast. In addition to hydropower, many ways of generating power have come through Maine, including: coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power. And all have had environmental consequences. Hydroelectric dams brought electricity to Maine, but they have devastated the inland migratory routes of sea-going fish.

Cheever:

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission looked at the Edwards Dam asking the question: Should we not be looking at the value of having fish in the river compared to the value of having a dam because you didn't need the source of electricity that that dam generated; well, did the dam serve a purpose anymore? Never before in history had a working hydroelectric dam been ordered removed against its owners wishes. On July 1st, 1999 the Edwards dam had begun to be removed. The removal of the Edwards Dam was a poignant moment because you were restoring a river to an environment it had not seen in 140 years. People gathered on the banks of the Kennebec River and saw something that they're never going to see again. They were seeing the return of a river to its natural environment once that, that swath was cut the impoundment waters just forced its way through there, through the Edwards Dam and as the impoundment bled down and that water came out, the Edwards Dam was exposed the upper branch of the Kennebec river banks were exposed and what you saw was history being made, history that was not going to go backwards and much of the community that is Augusta was formed because of the development and use of that dam. When you take out a small one here and you start an erosion process? Have you in fact stepped forward? Is the fishery going to be restored? When you look at the river you don't see a 900-foot wide dam, you see a 600-foot wide river with a natural flow, and you might see fish there but you don't see the dam. And if you don't see the dam do you necessarily see all the things that the dam helped develop?

Narrator:

To learn more about electricity in Maine today, visit our website.

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