Historical Sketch of Penobscot River & Bay, Maine
A Gazetteer of the
State of Maine

By Geo. J. Varney
Published by B. B. Russell, 57 Cornhill,
Boston 1886

Penobscot River and Bay. The Penobscot River has well been called the main artery of the State. Its fluviatile district illustrates the geographical ideal of the river basin-appearing as a mere point at the mouth of the stream, and interior-ward expanding symmetrically upon both sides of the central channel, presently embranching into subordinate basins, themselves disposed likewise about tributary streams, which in their turn break up into still smaller basins located upon still smaller tributaries, until the whole takes on the similitude of a mighty tree. The greatest length of the Penobscot basin from north to south is 160 miles, its greatest breadth, 115 miles; area, 8,200 square miles. Eight hundred square miles discharge their surplus water into the main river, below its lowest water-power, at Bangor. The Penobscot country is less elevated above the sea than the Kennebec, and considerably less than the Androscoggin, as results from the subsidence of the whole State surface from west to east. Yet the northern portion has a mean height of 1,085 feet. The loftiest portion of the basin is at the head waters of the main river (west branch), which has an altitude of from 1,600 to 2,000 feet. The west branch is properly a continuation of the main river which, down to the Mattawamkeag, should be called the Upper Penobscot, as the river below should be called the Lower Penobscot. There are 1,604 streams represented upon the State map in the Penobscot system. The Mattawamkeag, its largest eastern branch, is 800 feet wide at its mouth, and the Penobscot 500 feet at the same point. The Piscataquis, the largest western branch, is 250 feet wide for 25 miles above its mouth. The mean width of the Penobscot for several miles above Bangor is about 800 feet. From the confluence of the Mattawamkeng to the open sea, the Penobscot has a length of about 120 miles; from the junction of the Matagamon to the sea, 132 miles; from its extreme head-waters, about 260 miles; or including the windings, 300 miles. The main water-power section extends from Lake Chesuncook to Bangor, 120 miles, the fall being 900 feet, or via the Mattagamon, from Lake Mattagamon to Bangor, 115 miles, a fall of about 850 feet. The annual discharge is estimated at 319,800,000.

The number of lakes and ponds in the basin of the Penobscot, represented upon the State map, is 467. Of these 185 are above the lower powers of the main Penobscot, and have a combined surface of 395 square miles. The volume of the river in the vicinity of Bangor assumed to be 146,250 cubic feet per minute for the 24 hours at the period of extreme low run, the power in the 92 feet of fall from Milford to Bangor would be 55,600 horse-power gross, or 2,224,000 spindles for eleven hours a day.

Penobscot Bay forms a fitting entrance to its magnificent river. The head of the bay is 30 miles from the sea, the width for 15 miles from the sea is about 20 miles, while it is 8 miles in width at the head. The islands within it form several towns, and add to its beauty and interest. Everywhere there is sufficient depth for the largest vessels, and open water the year round to Bucksport, some six miles above the head of the bay. A marked feature of the lower bay is its granite islands, furnishing the best qualities of this stone in inexhaustible quantities. As far north as Franklort and Bucksport, gneiss, schists, granite and limestone intermingle, with the first predominating. Thence northward to the Piscataquis, mica-schist prevails, with granite about the Passadumkeag. North of Piscataquis succeeds clay slate; but on the left bank, schist prevails to some distance north of the Mattawamkeag, where clay slate is struck. The last rock occupies much the larger proportion of the northern part of the basin, with granite abundant about Katahdin, and sandstone north-east of Moosehead Lake, and mica-schist at the head of the main river, west branch. Slaty rocks are largely in excess of all other forms, and at some points are of unsurpassed quality for roofing purposes. The basin of the Penobscot is mountainous from the sea to above The head of the tide at Bangor, thence northward, gently undulating, to, into and throughout the region of the east and Mattawamkeag branches, until it is insensibly blended with the valley of the Aroostook. On the main river, above Nicatou, it is more broken, and is singularly diversified with lakes, ponds, swamps, streams, hills, valleys and detached peaks. The Katahdin Mountains, the highest in Maine, affording a prospect characteristic and sublime from the vast breadth of level country overlooked, lie upon the IefL bank. Further west, the valley becomes merged with that of the Kennebec on the south, and the All aguash on the north, and terminates on the north-west at the highland boundaries of the State, and in the swamps and lagoons which form the common reservoir of the St. John and Penobscot.

At the period when America was still an unknown New World, Spanish, French, Dutch and English navigators alike praised Penobscot Bay and River. The earliest Spanish explorer, Gomez, honored himself by naming the river "Rio de Gomez;" and others of his nation called it "Rio Grande," "Rio Hermoso," the great, the beautiful river. Thevet, the French explorer, visiting it in 1556, described it as "one of the finest rivers in the whole world." Samuel Champlain, exploring in the service of the French in 1604-5, enthusiastically says, "The river banks are covered with verdure, and here and there lovely stretches of meadow." Judge Godfrey of Bangor, who has studied deeply into the history of this region, says the name of this river was reported by the French in sixty different ways during their occupancy, to 1664. The principal spelling made use of was Panananshek. The Indian name was Penobsceag or Penobscoote, suggested by the rocky falls just above Bangor. From these, doubtless, the New Plymouth colonists formed the name Penobscot, by which this river was known to them as early as 1626. The Dutch were so well pleased with the region that they sent a man-of-war to it in 1676, and captured the French fortifications on the bay and river. The Dutch were driven off by the English, but the French held possession of a part of the river to 1745, when most of them removed to Canada. On the fall of Quebec, in 1749, the whole passed to the British crown, where the title remained until the Revolution placed it within the borders of a new nation.

The first steamboat on the Penobscot was the "Maine," Captain Cram, which arrived in Bangor, May 23, 1824. It ran to Portland during the summer season. The "Bangor," a larger boat, Captain George Barker, was put on the route in 1834. In 1849 small, flat-bottomed steamers commenced running above Bangor, affording opportunity to observe the pleasing scenery of the navigable section of the river. The Sanford line of steamers, by the excellence of its boat and. management, has possessed so long the steam transportation between this river and the west as to become historic in its interest. Started as a personal enterprise by Menernon Sanford, in 1845-36 years ago, it formed soon after a union with the Kennebec Steamship Corn. pany, the joint line becoming known under the name of the Sanford Independent Line. The first steamer put. upon the line was the Penobscot, followed, in a few years, by the Boston, each about 600 tons burthen. In 1852 the lines were divided, the Penobscot boats retaining the name of the combined lines. In 1859 the Menemon Sanford, of 900 tons, and the Kennebec, of 500 tons, were added to the line. In 1862 the Katahdin, of 1,200 tons, and 1867 the Cambridge, of 1,500 tons, were added, the six boats having been built by Englis in New York, for Captain Sanford. In 1875, the present company was formed with a capital of $500,000. The Sanford and the Boston, while under lease to the government, during the late war, were lost, the first on the Florida Keys and the second in one of the South Carolina bayous. The Penobscot was sold to private parties, and the Kennebec, while under charter to government, was lost or disabled so that she never returned to the company. The boats now on the line are the Cambridge, commanded by Capt. Otis Ingraham, the Katahdin, Capt. W. R. Roix, and the New Brunswick, Capt. F. C. Homer. Trips each way are now made daily, Sundays excepted, during the summer, between Boston and the Penobscot, also Mount Desert, five days in the week, by connection with another line of steamers at Rockland. A new steamer of 1,500 tons is now building in the yard of Messrs. Smith & Townsend, at East Boston. Though the river closes by ice at Bangor, for 125 days on an average, each year, it is rarely frozen ver so as to stop steam navigation below Bucksport, which being connected with Bangor by railroad, becomes a convenient winter-port for this noble city. Only from a balloon could a better view of Penobscot Bay be obtained of the shores than from the fine steamers that ply this river and along the coast. After passing Cape Ann eastward to the Penobscot the first land to be seen is the high and solitary Monhegan Island, visible to early risers on the boats; next Whitehead Point is noticed, and several islands, of which Dix Island, remarkable for its granite, is most interesting. Away to the right now are the ancient "Fox Islands," the two principal ones constituting the towns of Vinalhaven and North Haven; the rugged and historic promontory of Owl's Head is passed, whose fog-bells are silent and whose flashing light grows more and more spirit-like in the dawning day; and then the city of Rockland gleams along the level line of her shore; and among the hills perchance arises the scarcely-visible smoke from her numerous lime-kilns. Next Camden, nestling in a nook of the hills on a deep angle of the bay, is seen; and north of the village Mount Battie and high Megunticook send their spurs down to the very shore. Northport, with its camp-meeting cottages and oak groves, is next noted pressing out its bold shores; then the hill-side city of Belfast is seen smiling over its expansive bay. Beyond this, Sear's Island thrusts its level plain across the steamer's course, and breezy Fort Point, with its summer hotels, quickly hides the gleaming village of Stockton. Opposite the head of the high, barren Wetmore Isle (town of Verona), the granite walls of Fort Knox, with their dark port-holes, command respectful attention. Then the steamer feels the swifter current of Bucksport Narrows, and a sudden turn reveals on the right the bright village of Bucksport, with the Methodist East Maine Conference Seminary at the height of the eminence, attracting the eye by its bold relief. The river now becomes more narrow and picturesquely sinuous, and vessels lumber-laden glide sea-ward leaving fresh odors of pine and cedar upon the breeze; while on the left towers the granite mass of Mount Waldo, with Mounts Heagan and Mosquito nearly in line. Then the buxom village of Winterport presents itself to the eye, and we turn from it, and round the intrusive capes above; then watch Hampden's long narrow village until we catch glimpses of Bangor and Brewer on their commanding hills, where our voyage ends. Descending the river, the same objects engage our attention until we reach the bold bluff of the Castine promontory on our left with its sea-ward looking village on the southern slope. North Haven and Vinalhaven with their rocks and woody points, are passed, ahd the long shores of Little and Great Deer Isles, and we reach the freer waters of Isle-au-Haut Bay, and cliscover the bold shore and the mountain-saddle of Isle-au-Haut, the lands end of the easyern side of the noble Penobscot.

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