Maine’s Walter Wyman: genius or ecoterrorist?

By Randall Poulton | May 28, 2020

I am guessing 99% of the folks reading this column have no idea who Walter Wyman is, let alone whether he is deserving of either label. Don’t feel bad; I have had 17 years of classroom time and I never learned much history either. That is a shortcoming of our education system that prevails today. But I digress.

My Walter Wyman story starts about 5,000 years ago, when Midcoast Maine was home to a unique Native American culture (or tribe) we now call the Red Paint People. One defining feature of these folks was their custom of burying their dead in shallow graves filled with iron ochre, a bright red mineral.

There is also strong evidence that the Red Paint People were expert anglers who fished our rivers and even went offshore to hunt swordfish! According to Bruce Bourque, longtime Maine State archeologist, “Swordfish hunting is a big deal and not for the faint-hearted, for swordfish are among the fastest and perhaps the most dangerous fish in the ocean. Those found in the Gulf of Maine were huge, some topping 1,000 pounds.” Talk about the deadliest catch!

What we know for sure is that, for many years, the Red Paint People spent a good deal of time around Penobscot Bay and Lake Alamoosook. According to Bourque, at least eight of the known 31 Red Paint cemeteries are in the Bucksport area, the highest concentration found anywhere.

There is also anecdotal evidence that the old Verso paper mill site was once a Red Paint settlement. This would make sense because the mill site geography would have been user-friendly with an extensive level area leading down to the water. The Penobscot River would have provided quick access to the ocean, and, by paddling upstream, a navigable waterway extending north to Moosehead Lake and beyond.

But, this same geography that made the old Verso site attractive for ancient human habitation is distinctly not suitable for a paper mill. Why? Because paper mills need lots of electricity and paper making uses lots of fresh water. Virtually every other mill in Maine was situated on a river near a major waterfall that could easily be dammed. Standard procedure was for mills to build their own dam and power station. So, what the heck was a paper mill doing in Bucksport on the shore of a salty, flat, tidal river?

To answer that question, we fast-forward to Oakland, Maine: In 1899, Walter Wyman, an engineer, and his partner Harvey Eaton, a lawyer, bought the town’s hydroelectric plant, which provided power to about 100 customers. The Oakland situation was typical. At the turn of the century, many towns operated small, run-of-the-river (small dam or no dam), water-powered generating stations, mainly to make electricity for street lights and trolleys (for example, this was the case in Bangor). But, there was no interconnecting electrical grid. Each town was on its own.

Generally, during the summer, when the rivers and streams that provided the water to the generators ran dry, or nearly so, there was no electricity. Wyman had a vision: He would build massive dams in northern Maine and use the impounded water to generate huge amounts of year-round electricity. Then, Wyman would connect his power stations not only to Maine towns, but to all of New England via high voltage transmission lines. Obviously, this was no small undertaking, but Wyman was smart, well connected and determined.

By 1910, Wyman’s company was known as Central Maine Power and he owned dozens of small generating stations. Under Wyman’s leadership, CMP soon identified three prime locations for major dams: Long Falls on the Dead River near the town of Flagstaff; Indian Pond, on the upper Kennebec River (now known as Harris Dam); and, at a steep set of rapids on the Kennebec south of The Forks near the town of Bingham (now known as Wyman Dam).

Today, some folks would consider building these huge dams and power lines as ecoterrorism — even worse than Nordic’s proposed fish farm! And there was opposition, led by Percival Baxter, no less. The state owned the land Wyman would need for the Long Falls dam, and Baxter did not want it sold to CMP.

In the end, Wyman won the Long Falls dam battle, with the Legislature approving the taking of private property by eminent domain (including flooding the towns of Bigelow, Dead River and Flagstaff!) and granting CMP a long-term lease for the adjacent state-owned lands. Starting in 1940, and continuing to this day, I believe, CMP pays the state $25,000 per year for the right to operate the Long Falls Dam.

Baxter may have lost at Long Falls, but he was not done, and that turned out to be a very good thing for Bucksport! Baxter teamed up with then-Gov. Bert Fernald to pass a new law that would prohibit electricity generated in Maine from being sold outside of Maine. Wyman fought “Fernald’s Law,” and, in a foreshadowing of today’s debate about CMP’s plan to import Canadian hydropower, Wyman eventually forced a public referendum. But, this time Baxter won and Fernald’s Law was upheld by the voters. Wyman’s plan to sell power to Massachusetts was foiled.

Not to be stopped, Wyman quickly came up with a new idea: He would help Bath Iron Works, Keys Fiber, and CMP’s other big customers expand (so he could sell them more electricity) and, in addition, build a giant $150 million (today’s dollars) paper mill in Bucksport. And thus the Maine Seaboard Paper Mill was born.

Construction of Wyman Dam and the Bucksport mill proceeded concurrently and, both projects were completed before even the initial permitting would be finished today. In fact, the Seaboard Paper Mill was ready for electricity before Wyman dam was complete. Rather than cut power to his other customers, Wyman bought the half-finished ship Jacona and converted it into a 20,000-kilowatt floating power plant.

The Jacona was anchored in Bucksport harbor and connected to the paper mill. On Thanksgiving Day of 1930, less than one year after construction began, the new paper machines came to life and would run, more or less continuously, for the next 84 years, until the Verso mill was shuttered in 2014.

The old mill site will soon be home to another band of expert anglers and sailors. While Whole Oceans will grow its own fish, rather than harvest them from local waters, and Maine Maritime Academy sailors will not hunt swordfish, it does seem fitting that this site has been returned to the kind of traditional uses that the Red Paint People would surely recognize.

Randall Poulton is a columnist for The Republican Journal. He lives in Winterport.

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Comments (2)
Posted by: Wendy Schweikert | Jun 03, 2020 08:37

Fascinating. More please.

Posted by: Alan Charles Pickering | May 29, 2020 13:26

So growing fish ashore in Bucksport is OK and in Belfast is nearly ecoterrorism.  Think of all the air pollution that Wymans dams have prevented over the years. When we send hydro power cheaply South and West the NH and Mass folks don’t have to run their coal plants which blow their effluvia all over Maine.


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