2015-04-10 / Community

A Window on the Past

Cape Elizabeth origins, Part 3: Portland Water Company
By Craig H. Skelton
South Portland Historical Society


These old wooden water pipes are on exhibit at the South Portland Historical Society Museum. They were dug up by South Portland Public Works in Ferry Village many years ago and Ge Erskine saved these four pieces and donated them to the museum instead of sending them to the dump. (Courtesy photo) These old wooden water pipes are on exhibit at the South Portland Historical Society Museum. They were dug up by South Portland Public Works in Ferry Village many years ago and Ge Erskine saved these four pieces and donated them to the museum instead of sending them to the dump. (Courtesy photo) Many readers will recall memorizing in grade school, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned: “Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five; … Hardly a man is now alive, who remembers that famous day and year.” It was about 100 years after the event that inspired the poem when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned it and I think it fitting that his words “…Hardly a man is now alive…” best characterizes what I am about to tell you.

It was a hot and dry summer day and some children were playing with fireworks on the Fourth of July and sparked a fire in a boat house on Commercial Street. The fire spread to a nearby lumber yard and from there, with strong onshore winds, moved across the entire peninsula of Portland. The fire of 1866 left 10,000 people homeless and consumed 1,800 buildings. Given the enormity of the fire, it is miraculous that only two people lost their lives that day. Longfellow likened his old hometown to the city of Pompeii which, as you may remember, was devastated when a nearby volcano erupted.

In the mid-1800s, Portland and its surrounds got their water from wells that, due to growth, were barely adequate for the domestic supply and not at all adequate for fire protection. You would think, however, that on the Portland peninsula, being surrounded by water, short work could be made of a fire. However, when an attempt was made to draw water from the harbor, the low tide at the time complicated efforts to run pipes across the mud flats.

A group of citizens in 1862 had started efforts to improve the water supply in Portland, and the great fire of 1866 put an end to all debate on the subject. While the ashes cooled, the newly formed Portland Water Company laid pipe all the way from Sebago Lake and, on Thanksgiving Day in 1869, the first water service was turned on.

Smoldering on the other side of the Fore Rivee was a growing desire by some citizens to improve the domestic water supply and fire protection of their neighborhoods. Keep in mind that we were Cape Elizabeth at that time and our town consisted of neighborhood clusters along the shore such as Ferry Village, Knightville, Pleasantdale and Ligonia, and beyond that lay farms and forest.

It was the owners of farmland that knew efforts to extend water to the Cape Elizabeth side of the river would cost them money and benefit them not. Extension of water pipes beyond the harbor side neighborhoods would not be economically feasible because of the cost to run pipes to one or two farmhouses spaced a mile or more apart.

There had already been a growing movement of citizens on both sides of the issue dividing the community based on the differing needs of urban and rural areas of the town. As old grievances reemerged, a group that became known as the anti-watermen vocalized their discontent about a planned agreement with the Portland Water Company for extension of service to the Cape Elizabeth villages.

The book, “A History of Cape Elizabeth, Maine,” (available from South Portland Historical Society, 767-7299), by William Jordan Jr., gives a detailed account of the ongoing debate between residents of inner and outer Cape Elizabeth. The primary arguments put forth by those living in the villages was the close proximity of houses and the advantage to be gained from the introduction of hydrants not only for fire protection, but a corresponding reduction of insurance rates. The villagers were quick to point out that farmers in the rural areas had the advantage of being able to relieve some of their tax burden by working on the roads, a benefit not shared with urban dwellers.

On Friday the 15th of April, 1892, it was put to vote the question of entering into a contract with Portland Water Company. According to Jordan: “Pursuant to the contract, the Standish Water and Construction Company proceeded to construct a system of water mains to supply South Portland [Ferry Village], Willard, Town House Corner, Turner’s Island, Pleasantdale, Ligonia, and Cash’s Corner, with Sebago Lake water for domestic purposes, the extinguishment of fires, and the supply of shipping. The company also installed 50 three-nozzle hydrants, four public drinking fountains for either man or beast, and three public fountains for the exclusive use of humans. A stand pipe with a capacity of 600,000 gallons was erected on Meeting House Hill.”

The contract, it is said, also stipulated that only laborers from Cape Elizabeth were to be employed in the construction. Water service was turned on Aug. 27, 1892 and a family home having one faucet would pay the princely sum of $8 per year for the privilege.

Craig Skelton is a guest columnist and member of South Portland Historical Society.

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