Magic City in the Wilderness, Part 1
Great Northern Paper built the mill, then the town to go with it. What's next?
Thursday, September 11, 2014 5:46 AM
Something large and heavy stumbled on the steep slope in the forest below. I couldn't see it and by the time I parted the bushes and my eyes adjusted to the twilit gloom beneath the trees, it would be long gone.
Great Northern built the largest paper company in the world at the beginning of the 20th century, shown in an undated postcard, above. Today, the town of Millinocket is at the center of changing values of land use and global economic forces.
It was probably just a dead tree falling, anyway.
It was very hot. The air was uncharacteristically dry for late June and the maddening blackflies of early summer had thankfully taken refuge somewhere damp. Yesterday's rain roared off the top of the mountain and down a narrow chute nearby with such velocity that a cool mist rose up to where I sat in a small sunlit clearing surrounded by blooming laurel. Clusters of pink flowers hung from the bushes and, with a perfect slice of summer sky overhead, the clearing formed a sort of natural courtyard, with gray rock underfoot.
I knew the trail above narrowed and steepened, with spruce and fir trees crowding in close, their roots tripping hikers headed up to the summit. Long before they reached it, a rock buttress fitted with an iron spike would stop some of them, forcing them back down the trail. Those who hauled themselves up would be over the worst of it. Beyond that, the trail went up the grey rock ridge and the trees overhead gave way to open sky and the solidity of Mount Katahdin itself, with the deep blue-green of the northern Maine forest spilling out below, broken by lakes and ribbons of rivers and not much else.
Moosehead Lake (was) to the southwest, fitting like a gleaming platter at the end of a table, wrote Thoreau in "The Maine Woods," published 150 years ago this year. He had climbed the mountain four years earlier, in early September 1846, when wolves still roamed the woods. Chesuncook, eighteen long by three wide without an island, he wrote, and Millinocket Lake was visible to the south with hundreds of islands.
What is most striking in the Maine wilderness is the continuousness of the forest with fewer intervals or glades than you had imagined, wrote Thoreau.... (The) forest is uninterrupted . . . No clearing. No house. It did not look as if a solitary traveler had cut so much as a walking stick there.
They had, though.
In Thoreau's day, the sprawling Maine woods was an industrial forest with logging crews cutting and rafting logs down the Penobscot River to be sawn into lumber at one of Bangor's many sawmills. He was here at the beginning of the logging boom that would last well into the 1970s.
On the last day of August, Thor-eau got off the train in Bangor and took a horse and buggy up through Lincoln and on to Mattawamkeag. Seven miles farther, he set out on foot with his new companions through a crop of potatoes growing in a burned-over slash pile, on September 2.
At that place we got over the fence into a new field, planted with potatoes, nearly ripe, growing like weeds, and turnips mixed with them. The mode of clearing and planting, is to fell the trees, and burn once what will burn, then cut them up into suitable lengths, roll into heaps, and burn again; then, with a hoe, plant potatoes where you can between the stumps and charred logs.
Thoreau recognized the potatoes as a first civilizing step in a wilderness he longed to venture into, with its moose and wolves, lynx and bear, its rough-and-ready crews of transient winter loggers who worked the woods in winter, holing up at night and sleeping rough on beds made of fir boughs in crew huts of unpeeled logs that had massive fires burning inside around the clock for cooking and heat, the smoke drifting up beneath chimneys made of logs stacked together like Lincoln Logs and chinked with moss.
Nature in the vicinity of Walden Pond, where Thoreau built his small cabin in Massachusetts and lived a simple life of hard work for two years, had soft edges. The Maine woods didn't. As the journey towards the mountain grew tougher, the great north woods presented him with contradictions.
This was not benevolent Nature. This was something far more raw and unforgiving.
This what you might call a (brand) new country, Thoreau wrote;the only roads were of Nature's Making.
To the casual observer looking down from the mountain, the Maine woods today look similar to when Thoreau and his fellow explorers left the West Branch of the Penobscot River on September 4, 1846, to pole upstream in a flat-bottomed bateau. The forest still seems unbroken and ageless, a bit drowsy. It's an improbable forest - 18 million acres of it that cover over 90 percent of the state, yet located less than a day's drive from 70 million people living in those dense Northeastern cities with their highways looping around and around into each other, flashing past chain stores and strip malls.
I sat down on the ledge in my sunny little courtyard. I wasn't going any farther, today. I?knew this trail up Katahdin. It went up the ridge and topped out on the flat, windswept Tablelands where Lapland Rosebay and pincushion flowers hold tight to the tundra, and where the Katahdin Arctic butterfly lives only there and nowhere else. It feels like the Arctic, too, where winds rise and the temperatures plummet in a minute, even in midsummer.
On the Tablelands, water flows from a spring hidden beneath the rocks, turning the trail muddy. That may or may not be where Thoreau stopped in a swirling mountain fog to ponder what, at that moment in his journey, appeared to be the unforgiving wilderness.
I was deep within the hostile ranks of clouds, and all objects were obscured by them. . . . Occasionally, I?caught sight of a dark, damp crag . . . the mist driving ceaselessly between it and me. . . . It was vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits. . . . Nature has got him at disadvantage, caught him alone. . . . She does not smile on him as in the (valley). She seems to say sternly, why come you here before your time?
There was no trail up the mountain in 1846. No road at the mountain's base, either. No Baxter State Park. No state park uniforms at the gate, counting cars, click, click, click, until the parking lots were full and people were told to go away. No people at all, in fact, just a handful of settlers, the crews of roving lumberjacks and the dispossessed natives of Indian Island going upriver to hunt moose and muskrat.
In 1846 there was no mill in Millinocket, either; no town of Millinocket, even. Just a settler, Thomas Fowler, and his farm along the river near the confluence of the West Branch of the Penobscot River and Millinocket Stream.
Fifty years after Thoreau passed through Fowler's farm, an engineer proposed to investors that they could make a fortune if he could build a dam at the confluence of those two waterways to power a paper mill. Bangor lumbermen and timber owners were granted approval by the state legislature to establish the Great Northern Paper mill, and the town of Millinocket to provide it with labor. Italian stone masons, indebted to the company for their passage to America, were among those who arrived to start building the mill in 1899. The Italians settled across Millinocket Stream, and the town of Millinocket, which until then did not exist, was planned by the mill owners, street by street.
The town started to grow up around the mill, with Katahdin Avenue running from the mill gates at the top of the hill and straight through the business district, the mountain shining with snow in the distance during most months of the year.
"The mills built it all," said Peggy Daigle, the town manager of Millinocket and the point person to figure out how to keep the town solvent.
The mill owned the town and all the vast woods around it. For over a century, the mill and its owner shaped the town and the people in it.
"House lots, roads, sewer, water," said Daigle, ticking off basic town infrastructure that is usually built by taxpayers. "They built it and then handed it over to the town."
The town had little say about it, said Daigle. The mill, whose ownership started changing in the 1960s with mergers and acquisitions, controlled access to the woods, the waters and the land itself. Other developers that wanted in had to go through Great Northern, who did not encourage them or flat-out blocked them, said Daigle.
In the 1970s, Dexter Shoe company wanted to build a manufacturing plant in town, but they couldn't find land on which to build it. GNP didn't want to sell - at that time, the company controlled almost 3 million acres of Maine timberlands.
In the 1970s, no one much cared. GNP produced 16 percent of all newsprint in the country from mills in Georgia and Wisconsin, as well as Maine.
And Millinocket was its heart - a company town right down to its bedrock.
I am not going above treeline, today, but from the ridge, it is easy enough to see a dark seam cutting purposefully through the blue-green forest below; a human-made line that indicates the path of a two-lane highway without actually showing logging trucks rolling out of the woods and right on through the town that paper built without stopping, passing Katahdin Avenue, the street leading past the town's flat-faced mill houses and up to the padlocked gates of the Great Northern Paper mill and a tattered lien notice on a wooden stake.
Magic City, that's what the town was called.
In 1969, when Richard Angotti was a boy, the mill sent a company rep down to Stearns High School and rounded all the boys into the gym."He put numbers in a hat and when you pulled a number out, that was your seniority," said Angotti, who was a mill worker and is now the chairman of the Millinocket Town Council.
Those with low numbers could walk right out the door and right up the street to the mill, said Angotti. The mill was cranking, day-in, day-out. Before the ink was dry on their high school diplomas, they would be pulling in good money in a union job, easy-like.
Trees skidded out of the north woods and piled on logging trucks flew down the Golden Road - the gravel highway the mill had built to feed the trees directly to the paper machines. Everyone had paper money, then; Christly, yes, piles of it, with beers on the house and weekend jaunts to Bangor or up to the lake camp, built on a lot owned by the paper company who were practically giving lakeside lots away in cheap hundred-year leases to mill workers. There were new trucks and camping trailers, motorcycles, rifles, boats, and snow sleds, and by-Jesus, why go to college at all, college boy? Come on home.
From up there on the mountain, the only visible sign that the town of Millinocket used to be called Magic City, without a hint of irony, are the silent smoke stacks of the Great Northern Paper mill that stand above the forest proper as the most visible man-made structure in that vast sea of trees.
I had driven across the bridge over Millinocket Stream to Little Italy early in the morning and climbed up on a length of old concrete pipe to see over the sagging chain-link fence. The footbridge from the neighborhood across to the mill was closed up tight. Across the stream, which was as wide and deep as a river, heavy equipment pounded the concrete and steel of the Great Northern Mill complex into rubble.
A gray-haired man in a gray work-shirt pulled up in a beater of a truck and parked in the weedy lot nearby. He nodded at me, I nodded back, then he lit a cigarette and propped his arm on the open window, leaving the engine idling and an ideological rant on the radio turned down low.
For ten minutes, we both kept our eyes on the excavators battering and ramming the big, aching industrial age down into its component parts, then I?walked over to say hello.
Without taking his eyes off the demolition, he said he had heard about the proposal for a new pellet mill at the GNP site. Thermogen, they called it. They were going to put in a brand new building.That was the plan, anyway. It wasn't supposed to bring a lot of jobs, not like the old days, but a few good-paying ones, he said.
Mill ownership in Maine has gotten complicated over the past two decades. The current owner of both the Millinocket and East Millinocket mills is Cate Street Capital, an investment company that owns Thermogen. Thermogen planned to hire 220 people in Millinocket after building a modern facility on the old GNP mill site to make high-quality wood pellets that burned like coal without the pollution problems.
Thermogen was supposed to open in 2013, with the help of significant federal and state tax breaks. That didn't happen. By March of this year, Cate Street and Thermogen shifted gears: they would still make wood pellets in Millinocket, but use a different process.
At the same time, Cate Street Capital, who held the purse for the whole deal, which they were filling with various promises from investors and potential whopping tax breaks, had a money problem. They fell behind in their property tax bills and laid off 212 workers at the East Millinocket paper mill, whose last big contract was printing pages for the soft-porn novel "Fifty Shades of Gray."
In April, the funding behind the Thermogen proposal started leaking away. By late July, a month after I watched the mill being demolished from across the stream in Little Italy, investors in Thermogen would pull $30 million out of Cate Street's purse and put it elsewhere.
Cate Street's response was muted - no big deal, they said, investors come and go. Officially, they still plan for Thermogen to come to Millinocket and initiate an economic renaissance in the area, as they put it.
Mill owners have come and gone, too: there is a whole long list of mergers and sell-offs, and by the 1990s the reinvestment in the mills and mill towns was no longer a priority.
By the time I came back to Millinocket at the beginning of September, the same week Thoreau was here in the middle of the 19th century, the last great paper-making machine from the Great Northern Paper mill -the Number 11- would be sold off to an unknown buyer, supposedly to pay back property taxes to the town of Millinocket.
By September, the town of 4,500 people had 74 tax-acquired properties and tax collector Lorene Cyr had sent out 400 property tax liens, of which fewer than half had been paid. Cate Street still owed $630,000 in back taxes and it wasn't likely they would pay up this year's tax bill at the end of September, either.
The mills were gone and both Millinocket and East Millinocket were looking at cuts so deep that they weren't sure where or how it would all end.
Katahdin Avenue, the main street running up to the mill gates, seems as quaint as a SnowGlobe, now, with daisies growing out in front of the solid brick adminstration buildings standing strong behind the loosely padlocked gate, and the rumpled, rain-soaked notice of a town lien on the property stuck half-assed next to it on a wooden stake. For now, the future of Millinocket, with a population that Daigle said was predicted to shrink down to 2,300 people in coming years, was looking as dark as the inside of a pocket.
The man in the truck pulled away and drove slowly past an arthritic brown dog that had come out of nowhere. The dog barely glanced my way before slowly wandering off into the weeds.
It was this particular anniversary - Thoreau's account, published 150 years ago, of his trip to climb Mount Katahdin in what was then a forbidding wilderness and is now too-popular-for-its-own-good Baxter State Park - combined with the once shiny-as-a-bright-penny mill town of Millinocket reaching the end of the industrial age 20 miles beyond the park gates that had brought me here.
That and a controversial, wide-eyed proposal to put a national park on Baxter's eastern border on what, not long ago, was 100,000 acres of industrial forest land. Bought by Roxanne Quimby, a conservation-minded philanthropist who started out as a back-to-the-lander in the '70s making candles with her beekeeping boyfriend, Burt, and ended up pulling in 300 million when she sold the company she founded, Burt's Bees, to Clorox in 2008. She proposed putting a national park on the former industry lands, a campaign that has been taken up by Quimby's son, Lucas St. Clair, who is trying to get the unwilling locals to accept the idea.
Angotti isn't interested.
He tells me that mill ownership over the past century didn't allow the town to evolve into a diverse economy, but he doesn't think a national park is the answer, or even part of one.
"That was paper company land," he said. "We always had access and they're going to charge us? Well, make it free to Mainers, I told him, just like Baxter Park."
But Angotti's antipathy to the park idea is more generalized than just free access. He wants the town to be free from a mill owner that monopolizes the town and its path forward, and he wants the town to determine its own future. But from Angotti's perspective, that is still a manufacturing future.
From the steps of the municipal building, he waves his hand in the direction of the traffic passing up the highway that leads to Baxter State Park. It's a steady stream, with a lot of out-of-state license plates.
"Do you see them stopping? Do you see them spending any money?" he says. "I don't."
I heard it, again. Something lumbering in the woods, down the slope and to the left, not more than a hundred yards away.
The bees happily buzzing the mountain laurel had made me dreamy. I was awake now, and curious. What could be that large but a moose? I parted the bushes and looked past them into the woods. It was very dark after the bright light in the opening - tree trunks silhouetted against dim light, the forest floor almost featureless. I could make out the slope of the land, dipping down into a gully, then up again, steeply, across the slope.
There was nothing there.
Perhaps it was just an old tree finally giving in to age and rot. Falling, falling, a long time falling, then snapping with a thunk and rolling down the mountain.
I heard it again; something large, moving and stumbling. Not close, but not far away, either.
Then something huffed, sounding exactly like a black bear before it decides to charge.
Next week - Magic City, Part 2