Here, in the deep primeval forest, the brave aboriginal inhabitants searched for those medicinal treasures stored in the pharmacy of nature, and from these compounded the curative preparations for which the tribe has long been renowned. Here, upon the Saco river bank, the Sokokis built his bark wigwam, upon these waters he propelled his beaded canoe of birch with noiseless pad, die of ash, and in the pellucid depths saw the reflection of his dusky form.
The adventuresome Vikings, reared in a land indented with intersecting voes, when they discovered our rivers upon which the tide ebbed and flowed, supposed them to be channels leading through the continent to some western sea, and with the contempt of danger and ambition for exploration characteristic of their race, boldly entered some of these broad estuaries in their long, narrow galleys and were soon astonished to find themselves confronted by a frowning waterfall. So the early mariners, who felt their way around our New England coast, and entered the mouths of our streams, sailed not far before having encountered impassable barriers. How true was this of the Saco! The topography of the country traversed by this river seemed designed to constitute it a chain of water powers nearly its entire length, and some of the most valuable of these are close to the seashore, linked with navigation.
The voices of the inland waterfalls were invitations to the enterprising colonists to arise and build; they told of latent power that might be used for the good of the inhabitants, and they were not long allowed to remain unimproved. But for these mill privileges what might have been the condition of the Saco valley today! To them the thriving villages, the broad farms, and the populous towns, owe their existence. Along the banks by the trail of red man the millwright penetrated the timber-abounding forest; upon some ledge above the wasted waters he stood and formed his ideal of the initiatory foundation from which the mills and hamlets arose; and soon the workman’s shout, the mallet stroke, and the ringing saw were heard about the falls. Houses were erected for the mill-men and a mansion for the owner; fields along the rich intervales expanded into broad and smiling farms, and thus our early settlements grew. Great boats were built with which to float the wares down the river, and noble oxen, tugging at the bow, moved the odorous lumber from the mill-house to the landings.
Gradually, but firmly, the materialized wave of settlement moved inland, upstream, and spread itself along the Ossipees, tributaries of the Saco, and from valley to valley, until cozy homes, surrounded by fruitful farms, nestled under the shadows of the granite hills of the north.
Science has found no golden key by which the phenomenal mystery involved in the movement of water within and upon the surface of the earth can be unlocked; this is one of Nature’s secrets which she declines to unfold. Regulated by its own peculiar law, the floods of water obey their Creator’s behest with as much regularity as do the bodies of the planetary system. But we are often led to inquire how the great reservoirs, elevated upon mountains, from which the rivers rise, are supplied with water. Some of these are supported at such altitudes that the law of gravity has no discovered part in filling them, and no season’s rainfall could replenish them. Somewhere under the earth’s crust, unheard by mortal ear, some potent enginery is forcing the water uphill into these mountain ponds, from whence they are thrown down into the river and carried to the exhaustless ocean.
In our Saco River we find a remarkable example of this action of water. Taking its rise from Saco pond, which is nearly 2,000 feet above the sea level, it drains the southwestern district of the White Mountains. The small stream passes through the Notch, falling 600 feet in the first three miles, and nearly as much more in the next nine miles. Along this distance it flows between lofty mountains, walled in by solid granite. At the west line of Bartlett the Saco is 745 feet above the ocean. In the next eight miles, to the mouth of Ellis river, its descent is about thirty feet to the mile. At the line between Maine and New Hampshire, the water of the Saco is elevated 400 feet above the high tide level.
The course of the Saco spans a distance of about 140 miles; it is a rapid and remarkably clear stream. Its head is in the western pass of the White Hills, while the Ellis River, which forms a considerable tributary of the Saco, rises in the eastern pass. After flowing in a southeast course for about thirty miles, receiving several streams on its way, it enters Maine across the line between Conway and Fryeburg; then, as if something had been forgotten and left behind, turns north and runs in that direction about fifteen miles, when Cold river pours its crystal and refreshing tribute into the wandering stream. The Saco then turns in a southerly direction, forming a great bend, and separates the towns of Brownfield and Denmark. In Fryeburg the river runs thirty miles and has formed, where once there was evidently a great lake, extensive and very productive intervales. In all this distance it progresses but four miles on an air line, thus forming a natural curiosity that has excited the wonder of many a visitor. In 1817 and 1818 a canal three miles in length was cut across about four miles below the extremity of the curve, which laid the river bed above entirely dry. Lovewell’s pond, through which the Indians used to pass when journeying up and down the Saco, lies three miles below the canal. This whole district was early known as the Pequawket country. From this point, the river runs sixty miles in a southeasterly direction before its waters mingle with the tide. At the Great Falls in Hiram the stream plunges down seventy-two feet.
Thirty miles from its mouth, the Great Ossipee contributes one-third of the Saco’s water; this stream issues from Ossipee pond, eighteen miles westward. Between this point at Cornish, and the incoming of the Little Ossipee at Limington, Steep Falls, twenty feet in descent, are formed. Passing onward to Bonnie Eagle Falls it then rushes madly down through a rock-walled channel to Moderation Falls, Bar Mills, and Salmon Falls, where it plunges down, boiling, roaring through a narrow defile cut deep in the solid rock. Below are Union Falls; thence the river descends to the head of Saco Falls, where it is divided by Indian Island, and on either side falls over a precipice forty-two feet and mingles with the saltwater of the bay. The view of the cataract on the Saco side is majestic and grand.
Saco River is greatly disturbed by freshets. The water frequently rises ten feet, and has reached the height of twenty-five feet, resulting in a great destruction of property along its entire course. In 1775 a stream called New river broke out of the White Mountains and discharged into the Ellis river; thence into the Saco, which was so enormously swollen by this avalanche of waters that mills, bridges, large quantities of lumber, and many domestic animals were swept away. Very destructive freshets occurred in 1814, when saw-mills and bridges were taken bodily from their foundations and carried down the mighty current. Again in 1843 there was a memorable rise in the river which nearly cleared its banks of mills, houses, and lumber. Some of the saw-mills, chained to sturdy old oaks upon the bank, were carried away, the heavy chains being torn in pieces by the resistless flood.
Although the lands adjacent to the river have been nearly denuded of the grand old pines that once grew there, the lumbermen land their logs upon the banks, and the stream is the great highway, or rather water-way, over which the brawny, blue-shirted river-men “drive” them to the mills below.
Who that spent their early years on the Saco, that has fished along its banks, sailed upon its surface, bathed in its eddies, or listened to its murmur, can cease to look back with pleasure to those careless, happy days?