MECHANIC FALLS — The day after fire ripped through a 19th-century mill complex in the heart of downtown Mechanic Falls, a young man stood downstream on the banks of the Little Androscoggin River in a steady rain, silently gazing up at the still smoldering ruins.
“I grew up here,” he said quietly.
It wasn’t necessary to ask him to elaborate.
The destruction of the community landmark that was the livelihood for thousands of workers for more than a century, the source of family income for the owners of several small businesses recently housed there and the homes of two families, was more than the loss of the building.
The property, like those in many Maine mill towns, was more than the economics it provided.
It was simply always there, sitting by the side of the Little Androscoggin River dam, an historic touchstone for the community.
“The history is represented in the changing landscape that property housed. In that time that property will be home to another group of concerns. The land will not change, just what sits atop it,” said Eriks Petersons, of the Mechanic Falls Historical Society.
Historically, the property has been home to a paper mill since 1853 when the 181-foot-long, 40-foot-wide, three-story-tall Eagle Mill complex was built, said Petersons.
The mill town grew on the banks of the Little Androscoggin especially after the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad arrived in the late 1840s. The railroad opened the village to business and trade on the direct line between Portland and Montreal and so it was natural that the town‘s first paper mill was established shortly thereafter.
“That facility and its environs has been owned by a host of parents since then, from original owner Adna Curtis Dennison to the Poland Paper Company, then to a Swedish syndicate following World War I, then sold to A & P Corrugated Paper in the 1930’s, bought by Pond Tissue after World War II, then Waterfall Tissue Company, then International Paper and finally Marcal in the 1960’s,” Petersons said of the 150-year mill development of the site that ceased in 1982 when Marcal Paper Mill shut down operations.
Since then, that part of town has been known as the “mill property,” he said.
On the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 14, when investigators believe fire broke out in the first floor storage area on the south end of the mill and more than 100 firefighters from 20 departments worked over a two-day period to douse the fire, the mill complex was gone.
Flames and black smoke shot high enough in the sky to be seen by a Norway firefighter in Portland as he raced back and others on Bailey’s Island on the coast in Brunswick.
The damage was so complete that several days later investigators from the Office of the state Fire Marshal and agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said they will probably never know how it started.
The 380,000-square-foot building housed two apartments, a woodshop, and several other businesses, winter storage for boats and other vehicles. No serious injuries were reported, but the community loss was measured by more than inventory destroyed.
For local area residents, the loss was personal. The community immediately stepped into action to take care of those directly affected. The American Legion Post 150 opened it doors to firefighters and others, offering food donated by local stores and residents. Fund raising events and Go Fund Me pages were set up to help businesses that lost their livelihood and tenants who lost their homes.
The building was in rubble, but the community rallied.
This was not the first fire to break out at the former Marcal Paper Mill property.
In 1988, more than 100 firefighters from nine departments turned out to fight a fire that destroyed the wheel room of the hydroelectric generating plant, the electrical shop, beater room and part of the maintenance shop.
It was reported that in addition to a fire wall between the beater room and the machine rooms,then Deputy Fire Chief Donald Boyd entered an uninvolved section of the building and closed several fire doors in the mill which stopped the fire from spreading.
Parts of the structure were also scorched in a March 2003 fire when a Great Northern baling machine ignited cardboard. The fire burned for several hours as some 60 firefighters from Mechanic Falls and surrounding communities battled the blaze.
The demise of the Marcal Paper Mills was foreshadowed in the early 1980s when officials announced it was shutting down for “an indefinite period,” to permit work to be done on the Yankee dryer in the plant. The shut down had been ordered following a three week closure because of lack of sufficient orders to warrant a start-up, according to a plant manager at that time.
In 1989, the prospective new owners, a Concord, N.H. investment company, said they hoped to have a paper mill operating at the site within two years.
In 1993 Great Northern Recycling Inc. of Lewiston, asked the Planning Board for conditional use approval to operate a recycling facility at the former mill and to locate its administrative offices in the former Elms Hotel on Elm Street, a property that adjoins the mill. Both the mill and the former hotel had been vacant for several years, and town officials had made efforts to reactivate the use of the downtown structures.
In 2003, a former Portland resident purchased the mill and announced plans to create more then 300 jobs by turning the industrial property into a business complex.
He said the planned renovations would convert the industrial property into a complex with an old-fashioned look called the Riverboat Complex. There would be shops and retail businesses and medical and dental offices. He even suggested in building a marina at the site.
In 2003, Union 16 school leaders in Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls decided to move their administrative offices out of a building within the former Marcal Paper Mill complex. They had planned to purchase the building but environmental problems surfaced including a foundation issue and possible mold and the plan was scrapped
In 2005, the family that runs Bryant Energy purchased the former Marcal Paper Mill and renovated and reopened a few of the buildings in the mill complex.
Current building owner Charles Starbird, who also owns the former Robinson Mill in Oxford, told reporters he had insurance on the mill when he bought it about it 10 years ago, but dropped the insurance after the mortgage was paid when payments became too expensive.
Starbird told reporters he has stage IV lung and bone cancer and is not expected to live long. The mill’s rents, he said, were supposed to support his wife when he could not any longer. He has said he would like to rebuild.
Regardless of what is built or not in the future, what is fairly certain is that the landscape along the banks of the river and dam will remain a place that the community takes pride in.
In the early 1990s, a decade after the Marcal Paper Mill had shut down, the community came together to begin a massive cleanup of the Little Androscoggin River at, and below, the mill property. It had become a dumping ground for tires, appliances, bicycles and other debris. Residents wanted a place where fish and perhaps even people could swim.
In one morning, they reportedly retrieved tons of trash including 125 tires, a part of a car, a refrigerator, an old boat, two or three bicycles, and other assorted debris.
Habitat quality is limited in the first 550 feet of the Mechanic Falls Dam due to bedrock, steep slopes and absence of shelter, but anglers say it becomes abundant as the river bed is followed downstream and brook trout, small mouth bass and other fish routinely in caught in the river.
The land will stay the same. What is built on it remains the question.