In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Biddeford History & Heritage Project

Sharing the history of a proud city rising where the water falls

V. A Cascade of Booms & Busts (1790-1865)

After the Revolution was fought and won, life began again in Biddeford, along with another period of growth. The shift from the Pool to Falls Village began in earnest. More entrepreneurs came to town, to lend their visions, enthusiasm, and indeed their names to the progressing area. Veterans Captain Seth Spring and Captain Moses Bradbury built homes and multiple saw mills on what became known as Spring's Island in the 1790's. Spring built bridges connecting the Island to Biddeford and Pepperellborough 1795-8. Captain Bradbury built a fulling mill on Spring's Island for the felting of woolen goods.

The first sawmill was built around 1853, and before the coming of Samuel Batchelder and the cotton mills, lumber was easily the most important industry at the falls. About 1866 a man named Joseph Hobson was the leading operator, owning mills on Spring Island on such a scale that he was known as "the lumber king", but unfortunately no good record seems to have been saved of his operations. His peak was during the 1870s and 1880s.

Matthew Cobb was the principal merchant in Biddeford during these years and had a large store until he removed from the area in 1796. There was no customs collector on the Saco River until 1789, when Jeremiah Hill, Esquire was appointed to the post. He served in this capacity until 1809, when he was succeeded by Daniel Granger, Esquire.

The second decade of the 19th century kicked off a period of immense change for Biddeford and Saco. In 1820 Maine became a state in its own right, no longer a district of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. There was still a good deal of agricultural activity going on in the area, but new industries taking advantage of the river and the sea were starting or expanding.

The Perkins shipyard opened in the 1820's, and by the 1840's it would be one of the most important shipyards in the state. In 1825 the Saco Manufacturing Company and the Saco Iron Works opened on Cutts Island in Saco; the precursor to the industrialization which would be the making of the towns on either side of the river. The first Saco venture was not successful, and eventually burned down, but was followed by the incredibly successful York Manufacturing Company, whose main owner was Charles Bradbury of Boston. He hired Samuel Batchelder, who made the mill a success. Both men had hands in the Saco Water Power Company as well, the real estate and machinery arm of the venture. These men & their companies would start and operate the Laconia and finally Pepperell Manufacturing Companies on the Biddeford side of the river as well.

The 1840's and 50's were full of firsts for Biddeford: the opening of the steam railroad (only 5 hours to Boston!), the first "block" built, the first bank, the first fire company, first fraternal lodge, first high school, first newspaper, first city directory, first textile mills and the first French-Canadian immigrant. In 1855 this growth manifested itself in Biddeford's transition from town to city. Biddeford's first mayor was Daniel Eton Somes, a developer and businessman who built the Somesville neighborhood in Saco and the Somes Block on Main Street in Biddeford. He would be elected to Congress in 1868 and spend the rest of his life in Washington, D.C.

When war broke out between the states in 1861, the first company of Biddeford volunteers left that May. By October of the next year more than half of all able-bodied men were in the armed services, and at the end of the war 1,000 men had gone off to fight. The war years in the city were difficult; high taxes, city debt, mill layoffs & the ensuing joblessness and poverty took their toll.

Because of the high cost of soldier's bounties to be paid by the city, the war had an overall negative economic impact upon Biddeford. As often happens, businesses which can support war necessities did well, and hired workers. Manufacturing in Biddeford and other cities which had access to raw materials advertised in the local newspapers for workers. Biddeford's textile mills however, were hit hard by the stoppage in cotton production & the cotton blockades. The Laconia Mills sold off much of their stock of cotton to European interests for high profits early in the war, but later ran out of stock for production. They would never recover from this miscalculation. Pepperell Mills held onto their cotton overstock, and were able to produce textiles throughout the war.

During the war years layoffs were common for mill workers, many of which were forced to rely on the city's Poor Farm for assistance. In the 1861-62 Annual Report, the Overseer of the Poor stated that 873 people were assisted either on or off the farm, and a second house had to be procured to house all the destitute people in the city. Overseers Aaron Webber and Ebenezer Simpson reported that "by the partial stoppage of the mills, and the general depression in business, hundreds of persons were thrown out of employment, large numbers of whom being unable, in consequence, to procure the means of support, have applied to us for assistance."

These citizens would either have food, clothing or medicine brought to their home if they had one, or if they had no home they would join the other "paupers" at the City Farm (or Poor Farm). Residents of the City Farm worked the land and produced goods and produce sold in town to earn their place. Those who didn't work the fields performed hard, back-breaking labor to earn what the city provided. "The paupers off the Farm have been employed in labor upon the streets, blasting stone, preparing them for use, and in removing loom from the gravel pit and spreading it upon the waste land near by, and such other work as we could procure for them." There is little doubt that to these men and women the mill work they had previously performed for Pepperell and Laconia was seen as a vast improvement to what the Overseers of the Poor had to offer.