Reading the Preserve for Clues to the Past

What can the landscape of the Cathance River Nature Preserve tell us about its past? Quite a bit, if you know what to look for. CREA hosted a walk on how to ‘read’ the Preserve for clues to the past, in which local historian Dana Cary and wildlife biologist and forester Steve Pelletier served as interpreters of the landscape. The following post includes and expands upon information shared by Dana and Steve during that walk.

The walk began with music designed to evoke a time, pre-settlement, when the area was inhabited by the Abenaki people. Flautist Candy Hine played a Native American flute made of yew wood.

Her flute was handmade by Hawk Henries of the  Chaubunagungamaug band of Nipmuck, a people indigenous to what is now southern New England. It is likely very similar to flutes that were made in the Northeast, largely from native elderberry, for over 6,000 years. The sound of its delicate notes, floating in the morning air, were very possibly part of the sound landscape near the Cathance River over many thousands of years. Listen below to Candi playing “Ancestral Home” by Carlos Nakai.

When the Abenaki inhabited this area, they likely used inland places like the Preserve to harvest wood, nuts, berries, and game. They may have grown the ‘three sisters’ (corn, beans, and squash) in sunny openings in the forest, but did not likely live on the Preserve. It is believed that they summered principally along the shores of Merrymeeting Bay and visited the area to access the abundant supply of anadramous fish (shad, alewives, smelt, and salmon) in local waterways. 

Much of what we know about the Abenaki is based on traditions passed down through generations of tribal members, as there is little evidence of their use of the land pre-settlement. While they did manage the land, they lived very lightly upon it.

Post-settlement, this area was generally divided into lots of roughly 100 acres each. The land that now comprises the Preserve was owned in 1761 by Samuel Winchell, Robert McFarland, John Winchell, and Stephen Staples (yellow highlighted area on map). Samuel Winchell (1711 – 1783) was the 4th generation of his family in America, born in Windsor, CT. He married Sarah McNess in Harpswell in 1738 and came to Topsham in the 1740s. Later, he became 1/4th owner of the sawmill located at Cathance Falls (now Head of Tide Park). The adjoining parcel was owned jointly by John Winchell and Stephen Staples. John, Samuel’s son, was 21 years old at the time the property map was made, while his co-owner Stephen Staples was 22. Property ownership started early then!

The initial road in town (road marked in red on map) ran from the Androscoggin River, along the southern border of Adam Hunter’s six lots, and through the Preserve to the Cathance River. South of the old road is property of Robert McFarland and a lot set aside for the first settled minister. This lot may have been used only for firewood as lot 26 is also labeled as the ‘Ministerial Lot.’

Historical evidence and ownership patterns suggest that the Preserve has never hosted a permanent residence, but has been used primarily for its timber and mineral resources.

In the late 1700s, the property likely supported much white oak and white pine. Both species were highly valued for shipbuilding, especially large uncut stands of tall white pine that produced straight masts and spars.  Ships were built close by in Merrymeeting Bay, on the Androscoggin River in Topsham and Brunswick, and in Bowdoinham on the Cathance River, so the native species on this property were likely highly desirable to the shipbuilding trade. Somewhat ironically, white oaks were also favored by people and wildlife because they have a sweeter acorn than red oaks. Despite their value as a food source, so much land was cut and cleared of white oak that little or none can be found in the Preserve today.

Multi-stemmed white pine left by prior harvests for its ‘poor’ form.

By the mid-nineteenth century, most valuable timber had been harvested. Along the Barnes Leap Trail, the hulking remnants of a twisty pine remain, left untouched by past harvests because of its poor form. Poorly formed white pines (i.e. those that don’t have a single, straight trunk) are usually a result of the white pine weevil. The weevil is a forest insect that attacks the leader (top stem of the tree) of white pines. The tree typically responds to the injury by producing two or more stems which grow in tandem into multiple trunks.

Most land in the area was likely cleared of virtually all timber to provide firewood, wood for making charcoal, and to allow grazing of livestock. Early photographs of Topsham show a landscape virtually denuded of vegetation. This remained the case until around the 1860s.

It’s hard to miss the abundance of exposed ledge when walking around the Preserve. Less evident, unless you dig a hole, is the absence of a plow layer in the soil. Tilling of land typically creates a uniform layer of dark topsoil around eight inches deep, compared to a much thinner layer of topsoil in untilled land (that is, in the glaciated Northeast). The general lack of a plow layer on the Preserve suggests the land was never farmed.

Remnants of barbed wire suggest past grazing activity.

Stone walls can also be evidence of farming, as farmers must remove all rocks from the fields to protect their plows. The absence of stone walls in the Preserve reinforces the notion that it has never been farmed. Piles of rocks in fields tend to be evidence of past grazing. Farmers cleared some stone to promote growth of pasture, but it wasn’t necessary to remove all rocks. The Preserve is host to many piles of rocks, but their proximity to quarries and test pits indicate they are related to past mining. Nevertheless, the existence of remnant barbed wire that has grown into large old trees along the Barnes Leap Trail suggests the property could have been grazed by sheep, cows or other livestock in the distant past.

After the Civil War, many residents migrated from New England to the West, drawn by reports of good farmland. As residents departed and populations declined, farm and pasture lands were allowed to re-grow. Eventually, new industries arrived to shape the landscape in different ways. 

By 1870, feldspar mining was a major industry in Topsham, leaving its mark on the Preserve in the form of numerous quarries, test pits, and piles of excavated rock. Feldspar, one of the three minerals that make up granite, is valuable when it occurs in pure form.

Rusted cable from past mining.

Rusted cables near quarries provide mute evidence of past mining operations. A flat, ledgy area near one such quarry likely served as a staging area for a small crane and cables that were used to lift stone out of the excavation. Similarly, nearby openings in the vegetation downgrade from the quarry are likely remnants of the road that horses and wagons used to haul away the stone.

This outcrop was created by excavation. The top represents the original grade, pre-excavation.

Several small quarries are located along the Highland Trail east of the Ecology Center. Some were test pits, others were productive mines. The deepest quarry in the area, located just outside the Preserve and filled with water, is believed to be around 250 feet deep. There are other areas close by where significant amounts of stone were removed (30 to 40 feet below grade) and large piles of excavated rock created, substantially altering the original form of the landscape. The passage of time and establishment of plants in these areas has made it more difficult for the untrained eye to notice these signs of past use.

Initially, feldspar was sent to New Jersey where it was ground into a fine white powder that was used to make ceramic products – everything from dishware to electric insulators. In 1872, a mill was built at Head of Tide Park so the feldspar could be ground locally, likely to reduce transportation costs. Head of Tide Park on Cathance Road in Topsham has informational displays about the history of the feldspar mining in the area, including excellent archival photos from this era. The fine powder was sent to manufacturers first by ship from Bath, via the Cathance and lower Kennebec Rivers, and eventually by rail from Cathance Station, located close to the mill.

Old drill holes, evidence of past mining.

The feldspar industry had limited impact on property ownership as mineral rights were sold separately. But old quarry sites are scattered throughout the Preserve, noticeable in some places by their water-filled openings, unusual residual bedrock formations, changes to the original grade, drill holes, and large rock piles. 

The water-filled quarries that remain today can provide habitat, but the habitat isn’t always ideal. Many have unnaturally steep sides and can serve as traps from which animals can’t escape.

In addition to the impact of feldspar mining on the landscape, it also influenced human populations. Mining attracted many immigrants to the region, especially Italians who were skilled in stonework, many of whom stayed and made their homes here.

The feldspar industry eventually declined in the 1940s as plastics and other less expensive materials became readily available. The property was sold to the Portland Star Match company (founded in 1870) which owned it for 20 to 30 years, harvesting birch and poplar – the preferred wood for matches and toothpicks. In 1908, Diamond Match purchased Portland Star Match’s manufacturing plant on Commercial Street in Portland, along with all of Portland Star’s timberlands including those in Topsham.

This property and surrounding acreage was then assembled into what would eventually become Highland Green by a local real estate trader named Emery Booker. He acquired the lands and transferred them to U.S. Gypsum between 1940 and 1950. U.S. Gypsum (USG) owned a manufacturing plant in Lisbon Falls which produced fiber (particle) board. Timber harvesting during this period was indiscriminate, as wood chips of virtually any species met the company’s needs.

USG owned the property into the 1990s, transferring the acreage to the Bangor-based D&D Trust in 1995.  The Trust owned the property for less than one year, during which time it harvested the forest heavily. 

Google Earth photo showing skid trails from 1990s harvest.

Older photos from Google Earth show evidence of the cut in the form of visible skid trails. The harvest can be characterized as a liquidation harvest – removal of virtually all commercially valuable timber with little regard for long-term forest management.

Ecology Center clearing and former log yard.

The clearing around the Ecology Center has clues to how this area has been used in recent decades. The prevalence of younger ‘pioneer species’ (trees that thrive in full sun) around the edges, raspberry thickets, goldenrod growing on a pile of fill, and drainage ditches –  these features all suggest that the cleared area around the Ecology Center served as a log yard during the clearcut. It may have been selected for this purpose due to its location relative to old woods roads and possible past use as a staging area for past quarry and timber activity.

The liquidation harvest left its mark, including the presence of deep ruts left by skidders. Today, most foresters try to avoid harvests at times when the soil is saturated (e.g. spring) to avoid these types of ruts. 

Skidder ruts from past logging.

These skidder ruts can be good and bad. Due to soil compaction, they tend to collect water, providing moist microhabitats in the forest. However, when they fill with water in spring, these small pools can distract frogs as they journey toward traditional breeding areas. Frogs may lay eggs in these ruts instead of their traditional spots, but the ruts may not remain wet long enough for the young to complete their development.

As in the past, in the centuries since settlement, the 1990s harvest re-set the forest’s clock on the Preserve. Large openings were created that had to re-vegetate, once again, with trees and shrubs. Wandering through the woods today, it’s hard not to be impressed by the apparent resilience of this forest which continues to regenerate despite repeated harvests over the centuries.

Maine’s forests will always grow back given the basic requirements of soil, light, water, and nutrients, but past use does affect their growth and condition.  Characteristics such as species mix, age, shade tolerance, and density are clues to how the land has been used in the past.

The forest has regenerated since the 1995 cut, but the presence of many fast-growing, pioneer species that are intolerant of shade attests to the severity of the cut. When large openings are created in the forest, slower-growing trees that enjoy shade are overcome by these pioneer species. Today, over 25 years later, shade-tolerant trees such as hemlock are finally beginning to return to this forest, coming up in the understory.

Following the harvest, D&D Trust transferred the property to Husson College and the University of Maine Foundation as joint owners. These educational institutions were the last owners of record prior to the property’s sale to Central Topsham Associates in 2001.

Topsham citizens initially objected to the size of the proposed Highland Green development and its proximity to the Cathance River, concerned that it would alter the river’s water quality and natural character. Negotiations between a citizen’s group called Topsham’s Future and the developer resulted in a compromise – an eighteen-hole golf course was reduced to nine holes, and John Wasileski established the Cathance River Nature Preserve on portions of the property within 1,000 feet of the river. The Preserve remains privately owned, but is now protected by a permanent conservation easement, held by Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, and has been enjoyed by many thousands of people since then.

An interesting side note – the area to the rear of the Topsham Fairgrounds (and perhaps including Highland Green), was seriously considered as a site for the University of Maine. In 1865, a committee of 16 members (one for each county) met at the exhibition hall of the Sagadahoc Agricultural and Horticultural Society to discuss possible sites for the university. At its subsequent meeting in August, the Topsham site was proposed and defeated by a vote of 6 to 5. In January of 1866, Orono was voted on as a site and prevailed 8 to 7. Our local war hero and then Governor, Joshua Chamberlain, was then tasked with implementing the committee’s decision. Imagine if the University of Maine was the Preserve’s neighbor!

Many thanks to Steve Pelletier, Dana Cary, and Candi Hine for contributing to this post.