Long before the arrival of European settlers, the Cathance River, like Merrymeeting Bay, was used by Native Americans, particularly tribes of the Abenakis. It was from the Abenakis that the river received its name. Cathance or “Kathanis” in the Abenaki’s language meant ‘bent’ or ‘crooked’. The river was a means of transportation, a source of food, and a convenient location for settlements. This site also served as a “carrying place” where Abenakis portaged their canoes around the falls.
Early contact with European settlers was peaceful, but by the late 1600s, conflicts arose. By 1715, the Pejepscot Proprietors, a group of Boston business investors, had acquired title to all of Topsham and were promoting its settlement. The Proprietors encouraged Ulster-Scots from northern Ireland to settle along Topsham’s waterfronts.
With growing concern for settler safety, the Proprietors promoted settler participation in local militia and offered incentives for enlisting. This led to the end of a quiet period and spawned a three-year conflict (Lovewell’s War, 1722-25) that temporarily discouraged settlement and drove away settlers.
Hydropower of the Cathance
The Proprietors leased the milling power rights to this waterfall and 1,100 acres of surrounding forest, to establish a saw mill. The availability of sawn lumber was a key factor in settlers’ decisions to come to Topsham. The Proprietors required that milled lumber be reserved for those early settlers so they could more easily build houses and barns.
After the best of the trees were harvested from the area and the lumber industry moved farther north, activity at the mill slowed. But in the 1860s, a new use for this site’s hydropower was conceived. Local feldspar mines had begun producing ore that was shipped by water to Bath and then to Trenton, New Jersey, where it was ground into a fine dust and made into pottery, electric resistors, and other products.
Processing the stone locally at Cathance Falls seemed more efficient, so in 1872 the Trenton Flint and Spar Company became the first feldspar mill in the state. At first the processed feldspar (or spar, as it was called) was packed in barrels and shipped by scow to Bath. Later it was hauled uphill to the Cathance Railroad Station.
How the mill worked:
Feldspar ore that was mined from surrounding quarries was hauled to the mill in wagons drawn by horse or oxen.
The mill was powered by a waterwheel set into a dam at the falls.
The ore arrived in pieces approximately 4 inches in diameter, which were dropped into the (1) jaw crusher.
These smaller pieces were then ground in the (2) buhrstone crusher, whose stones are set in the ground at the Park.
Finally, the ore was placed in the (3) ball mill, where it was tossed with small stones much harder than the ore to make a fine powder.
During this period, Topsham was known as a source of very high quality feldspar, perhaps the best in Maine. Topsham was the sixth largest producer of feldspar of any American community. The fine feldspar powder produced here was shipped to the Trenton Flint Spar Company in New Jersey where it was used to manufacture plumbing fixtures, electrical insulators, dinnerware, and similar products.
Initially the mill used local labor to haul ore and run the mill. Later it drew workers with mining experience from Europe, many of whom were from Italy. Working conditions in the mill and the Feldspar quarries were dangerous. Workers were constantly exposed to the fine feldspar powder, which over time cause lung disease and shortened lives.
The mill operated until the late 1940s, when new processes and materials (plastics in particular) led to a sharp decline in demand for ground spar dust. For a short while the mill held on selling ground feldspar to be used as chicken grit to the local poultry industry which saw dramatic growth in that period. When that industry moved south the mill closed and sat vacant for around twenty years, when the site became a cluster of rental homes that occupied the site for the next forty years.
Recognizing this area as a place of natural beauty and historic significance, the Town of Topsham partnered with the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust and the Cathance River Education Alliance to create Topsham’s first waterfront park. A trail along the river links the park to Topsham’s Cathance River Nature Preserve, and a launch allows paddlers to enjoy this lovely and natural waterway, both above and below the falls.