All Maine Matters

May 2006



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Profiles in Rural Maine: Onawa, Maine
by Ken Anderson

Like many of you, I had never heard of Onawa before I came across it on the map and chose it as the subject of this month’s profile. Yet, as a crow flies, it’s not very far from where I live, in Millinocket. But I’m not a crow, and driving there is a little more difficult.

On a map, you can find Onawa by looking southeast of Greenville, northeast of Monson, or directly west of Brownville Junction. While it is quite a distance by car, by train Onawa is about as close to Brownville Junction as anything else. Not long ago, that was the only way to get to Onawa.

Well, not quite. American Indians followed a canoe route that left the head of Sebec Lake at Buck’s Cove up Ship Pond Stream, with a short carry past a small set of falls. In the six miles to Onawa Lake, canoes were then paddled or poled up a stream that got progressively smaller, until the canoe finally had to be carried for the last three miles, either along the stream straight to the pond or northeast into Benson Pond, where the carry would be mostly downhill to Onawa Lake.

As the settlement at Onawa was mostly clustered along the railroad tracks, it was referred to as Onawa Siding, but it was a part of the greater entity called Elliottsville, or Township 8, Range 9, more commonly referred to as T8R9. Elliottsville was first granted to the heirs of William Vaughan by the state of Massachusetts in 1812, and the first land was cleared twelve years later by Captain Jordan, Joseph and Eben Sawyer. Coming from Buxton, the Sawyers were the first family to move to Elliottsville, followed by S.G. Bodfish, from Norridgewock, and others.

Named for Elliott Vaughan, Elliottsville was incorporated as a town in 1835, but its population peaked at 102 in 1850. With its population in decline, the town assumed plantation status only eight years later, and finally deorganized, becoming an unorganized territory in 1983.

With fifty to sixty people living there year-round, and as many as eighteen students enrolled in its school, and with two stores and a post office, Onawa became the de facto capitol of the larger geographical and political entity known as Elliottsville.

Four hundred million years ago, Onawa was buried beneath an ocean covering most of the earth. Over a period of millions of years, mud drained down through the water, depositing several thousands of feet of mud and shale on the floor of the ocean. When the water receded from the continent, the earth twisted, folded, and heated up, turning the mud and the shale into the vertical slates that are seen around Onawa today.

About fifty million years ago, molten rock, known as the Onawa pluton, forced its way into the crust of the earth, the heat hardening the slate for several feet around the pluton. As the earth cooled, the many thousands of feet of rock were eroded away by the effects of the ocean and the developing rivers. Finally, glaciers scooped out the softer rock of the Onawa pluton, reducing the surrounding slate into rolling hills. The ring of recrystallized slate surrounding the Onawa pluton remained, forming the mountains we know as Mounts Barren, Borestone, and Benson, which form the walls of the basin that holds Onawa Lake.

There are a few legends involving Onawa Lake in the time before the arrival of the Europeans, most of them involving Onawa as an Indian princess, either in love with a member of an enemy tribe or making war against them. The term “onawa” or “onaway” is a Chippewa word meaning “awake.”

Although probably a coincidental use of the same Chippewa word, Longfellow mentioned Onawa when he wrote his poem, “Hiawatha.”

“Sang he softly, sang in this wise,
Onaway! Awake, beloved!”

For years after the arrival of the Europeans, Onawa Lake was known as Ship Pond, a reference to the trees that grew in the area, tall and straight like the masts on a ship. Before that, it may have been referred to as “Obernecksombeck.” It’s not clear just when it first became known as Lake Onawa but, in 1891, a newspaper referred to the settlement around the lake as “Onaway.”

Hattie Cleaves was the schoolteacher for the settlement in 1891.
In 1880, the Willimantic Thread Company of Connecticut built a spool factory at the head of Sebec Lake in Piscataquis County, an area that grew the fine white birch it needed. This mill expanded to employ as many as eighty men, not counting the many more who were employed cutting birch for the mill. In 1881, the company built a new mill at the lower end of Lake Onawa. Bars were hauled to the Merrick Thread Company mill in Willimantic on a road that went under the railroad trestle. The mill included sheds and dwellings for its employees.

In 1898, this company joined with twelve others to form the American Thread Company. The Willimantic mill is thought to have been the first to have employed electricity in the state.
While electrical power generated in Willimantic was extended to the company’s mill in Onawa, the settlement at Onawa was not put on the power grid until 1976, almost a century later.

But even more central to the existence of Onawa was the Canadian Pacific Railway. From 1871 to 1875, Canada was trying to construct its first transcontinental railway. While the Maritime provinces had less to gain from the railway than other parts of the country, they stood to benefit from increased traffic, especially in the winter when the St. Lawrence wasn’t navigable.
The railway already connected Montreal with St. John and Halifax, but its length made competition with its counterparts in the United States difficult.

So a “short line” was proposed, crossing Maine. By October of 1888, 64 miles of track had been laid between the end of the International section and Greenville, and by December the last rail to the Short Line was laid at Packard Brook, just east of Lake View.

Shortly after completion of the Short Line, a mixed passenger-freight train began running from Brownville Junction to Lake Megantic one day, and returning the next. Consisting of a few freight cars and seating for about forty passengers, the train also carried mail. This mixed train, called the Scoot, became the lifeline for points along its route, such as Onawa.

The Scoot hauled freight to the section men, and carried passenger to and from destinations along the way. Passengers got off to pick berries, to fish, or to hunt along the way, returning on the afternoon run. Any game that was bagged was tagged and taken along on the Scoot.

The Onawa Post Office opened on January 25, 1895.
The first Onawa trestle was built of native timber in 1887. The second, made of steel, was constructed in 1896. Technically known as the Ship Pond Viaduct, the third - and current trestle - was built in 1931.

An immigrant, Axel Rudolph Carlson was an early settler at Onawa. Born in 1879 on a farm near Kalmar, Sweden, Carlson emigrated to the United States in 1900 to join his brother, Fred, at Greenville. He returned to Sweden only once, to get his bride-to-be, Selma Amanda Fossman.

The Carlsons soon settled in Onawa, where Axel became a section foreman for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Their children (Ernest, Mary, and Lilly) were born at the section house in Onawa, as well as two others who did not survive infancy.

One day Axel was riding a velocipede (a three-wheeled handcar) across the Onawa trestle when a strong wind blew him and the vehicle over the side. The handcar caught in telegraph wires, but Axel fell to the ground, a distance of nearly eighty feet. He landed on an ant hill, which he credited with saving his life. Alone but badly injured, Axel was able to climb the steep embankment and make his way to the railway station. His recuperation lasted five months, but he returned to his job, holding it until 1918, when he moved to Brownville Junction and transferred to the railroad’s bridge crew. On his retirement in 1944, Axel often visited Onawa, picking berries in the woods, fishing, and talking with friends who remained there.

The Onawa Train Wreck
Due to some confusion having to do with a train running late, two trains collided shortly after one of the trains had passed Onawa Station on December 19, 1919.

The third section of Train No. 39, carrying 250 steerage-class passengers, was running late. Freight Train No. 78, with its 26 cars, waited on a siding at Moosehead, where it allowed the first two sections of the passenger train to pass. Somewhere east of Moosehead, the third section was running five hours late. The freight left Greenville at 6:40 a.m. By that time, the third section of No. 39 was in Brownville Junction, where its crew and engine were changed. It left Brownville Junction at 6:25, stopping at Barnard 25 minutes later. Meanwhile, the freight continued eastward, its crew mistakenly believing that the third section of No. 39 was running eight hours late, not five. As daylight approached, the third section passed Onawa Station at 7:09, and four minutes later the trains collided on a curve along the side of Little Greenwood Pond. More than twenty people died that day, while the badly injured numbered in the fifties. Both engineers and two firemen were killed instantly.

The Black Guards
During World War I, Vanceboro became the site of a major international incident when a German saboteur blew up the international bridge connecting Maine with Canada. Alert to the possibility of sabotage, black bridge guards were stationed along the railway line, stationed in cars along the spur at Onawa.
Among the black guards stationed at Onawa was a Lieutenant Brooke who was later elected to the U.S. Senate as a Massachusetts Republican, the first African-American to be elected to the Senate by popular vote.

The guards were stationed at Onawa for three years, beginning in 1942, four of them on duty each shift, one at each end of the railroad trestle and two beneath. During these years, the guards outnumbered the native population of Onawa.

Paul Douglas
Paul Douglas was born in Massachusetts in 1892. His mother died when he was very young, and his father remarried a few years later. Because of his father’s drinking, his stepmother left her husband, taking Paul with her to Onawa, where her uncle, Rodney Buxton, and her brother, Rodney Young, were starting a camp. She worked there, cooking, waitressing, and cleaning rooms. As a boy, Paul sometimes worked as a busboy.
Paul later reminisced about the pet fox he had at Onawa. And he came to respect the railroad men, the lumberjacks, and the other working men he had come to know as a child.

As a young man, he sided with the local section men during a major railroad strike. His tendency to fight for the underdog characterized his later political career, which led him to eighteen years in the U.S. Senate, where he was instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicaid and Medicare, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Truth-in-Lending Act, the Hatch Act, reapportionment, and the minimum wage.

The Perrys
Everett and Lucinda Perry came to Onawa from Millinocket in the early 1900s, residing in a dwelling owned by a Mr.. Blaisdell, and which now belongs to the McFarlands. Lucinda’s brother, George Kneeland, once managed the Onawa House, which was a boarding house. The Perrys also took in boarders, mostly men who worked on the pushers, which were special engines that were kept at the spur and used to literally push trains up the steep tracks that headed out in either direction from Onawa Station.

Everett and Lucinda eventually returned to Millinocket, but Raymond and Lydia Perry brought their family to Onawa 1916. Raymond was the son of Lucinda, and a stepson of Everett. In Onawa, they lived in a large log camp above the Blaisdell house, later moving into the house itself, buying the property with help from their son, Lawrence.

In the first years, the Perrys moved back and forth between Onawa and Millinocket often, especially in the winter months, as Mrs. Perry’s parents owned the Millinocket House, where Raymond sometimes cooked.

In all, they had eight children, many of whom were to figure prominently in Onawa’s history. Their children included Eula, who worked at Young and Buxton’s camps, and at George and Mary Falconer’s camp on Borestone Mountain, where a man named Robert Moore operated a fox farm. Lawrence was the oldest of the Perry boys. As a youth, he worked in the camps around Onawa before being hired at an early age as a section worker. Esther was only a few days short of her fifth birthday when her parents brought her to Onawa. She also worked at Young and Buxton camps for a time before marrying Clifton Gerry from Mattawamkeag. The couple lived in Onawa for a few years before buying a farm in Willimantic. Upon the death of her husband, Esther moved back to Onawa, where she met, and later married, George Wallace, from Milo. When the Perrys moved to Onawa, Leon was three. He resided in Onawa continuously for 23 years, marrying Axel Carlson’s daughter, Mary, who had left Onawa when her parents moved to Brownville Junction, returning to Onawa to teach at the school there. Their youngest boy, Edgar, was born in Onawa, and spent his childhood there, as an adult moving to Brownville Junction, Portsmouth, Milo, Sebec, and Dover-Foxcroft.

Eleanor Perry, also born and raised in Onawa, met Sherwood Copeland, from Monson, who was then driving truck on the Monson to Elliottsville road with her brothers, Leon and Edgar. Sherwood bought a piece of land reaching from the tracks to the lake, and built a log cabin on the shore. After their marriage, the couple lived there for a time. Two of their children, Edwin and Ronald, were born at the camp, while their third, Sarah, was born in a house that their father built on land nearer to the track. For years, she and Sherwood were the only people residing in Onawa on a year-round basis.

By the time the Perrys got to Onawa, there were already a number of settlers there, including the Carlsons, the Clarks, the Bonseys, and the Beans. There were also the Burnetts, who took over as station agent and storekeeper, a business that was started by Ned Drew, who moved to Bodfish Valley in his later years. Rodney Young had taken over the store from Ned, who later passed it on to the Burnetts. The building remains today, but as a summer residence and not a store.

The post office supported the store, especially during the winter months, as the section men got most of their groceries in Brownville Junction or Greenville. At one time, there were two stores in Onawa. Located within the old Gilman place, the second store was run by Myron Clark and Guy McCluskey, who sold mostly groceries. The second store closed sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Before the building was moved, another early resident, John Bodfish, lived at a camp on a ledge by the Onawa House. John supported himself doing odd jobs until he became a caretaker at Deerfoot Camp. Frank Tomlin, who owned the Onawa House for a time, practiced dentistry there.

In the early 1900s, four passenger trains came through Onawa each night - two in each direction - while two mixed trains came through during the day. There were no public roads to Onawa at the time, as the current Onawa Road was built sometime in the 1960s.

The Bergs, the Johnsons, and the Moores
Elmer and Mildred Berg came to Onawa from Brownville in 1937. In the winter of that year, Jim Burnett, who owned the Onawa House, took a job on the railroad in Brownville Junction, so the Bergs borrowed money to buy the store in Onawa, moving there in March of that year.

Shortly after he purchased the store, Elmer was appointed postmaster, serving in that capacity for more than thirty years. He also did carpentry work, shoveled roofs, and did odd jobs for the railroad. He was a registered Maine Guide for more than thirty years, and served as a Selectman in Elliottsville.

E. Stanley Johnson came to Onawa from Greenville as a station agent. The author of several articles about Onawa and railroad matters, Johnson was a key figure in the construction of the community hall there. He also organized a boy scout troop, teaching telegraphy to his scouts.

He later bought Sand Beach, later selling it to Ward Herbest and New Jersey Governor Alfred Driscoll.

Henry D. Moore, a wealthy man from Steuben, bought fifty acres of land at the head of Big Benson, where he had constructed a set of buildings for family vacations and business entertainment. Named after the stream that ran literally under the camp, it became known as “Noisy Brook Camp.”

Henry often brought his son, Robert, with him on vacations and hunting trips. As an adult, Robert would later purchase land high on Borestone Mountain, building a log cabin there on the three small ponds, Smiley, Midday, and Sunset.

Robert also operated a fish hatchery on Borestone, as well as a private fishery for entertainment. He established several fox ranges on Borestone, and in Big Bear, California, operating under the name of Borestone Mountain Fox Company.

Robert had an aversion to cutting trees, except, apparently, for his own purposes, and would not permit land under his control to be harvested for lumber. Upon his death, his land was willed to the National Audubon Society, which maintains a wildlife sanctuary there. Interestingly, while people are generally free to hike or even camp in land owned by the paper industry, the Audubon Society charges $4.00 a head to anyone wanting to hike its short nature trail.

Several other members of the Moore family were to migrate to Onawa, at least for short periods of time.

The Community Hall
When she resided at Onawa, Mrs. J. Fithian Tatem held church services on the porch of her cottage. With a goal of building a church, she first offered to donate a hundred dollars. While picking berries along the track, Eleanor Perry and her mother were discussing this offer, they determined that Onawa was more in need of a community hall. A box social was held at the school house, money was raised, and the community hall was built in 1931.

Alfred A. Burke Memorial Chapel
In the early 1900s, Rodney Young came to Onawa to die, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Onawa being considered a healthy place, he established a sporting camp there, which came to be known as the Young Camps.

While studying medicine in Maryland, he had studied under a female physician by the name of Dr. Staunton, who later came to Maine to vacation at Sebec Lake. While there, she hired a buckboard and visited with her former student, finding him operating a camp on land later owned by the Cloughs and the Hartshornes. Mr. Clough was Young’s brother-in-law.

Dr. Staunton returned the next summer as a guest of at Young Camps, and her visits were followed by those of other female doctors, including Drs. Van Gaskin, Handy, Rose and Clark, all of whom were affiliated with the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia.

The visiting physicians were impressed with the area, but not with Young Camps. Before long, they built their own. Drs. Rose and Clark became joint owners of camps that were located on property later belonging to Joseph Tatem. Dr. Staunton established her own camp, as did Dr. Van Gaskin, whose camp later became Gray’s Camp, and still later, D. Esterle’s Camp. Dr. Handy bought a camp called Camp Dougherty from Rodney Young. As Drs. Rose and Clark were Roman Catholics, as was another person in the settlement, an Alice Gagnon, who had a growing family and no church available for the necessary sacraments. The only road to Onawa was the railroad, and the Scoot didn’t run on Sundays.

The two doctors began planning for a Roman Catholic Church in Onawa. Alfred Burke suggested a site in front of his house, and Dr. Clark wrote a check for a hundred dollars, becoming the first donor to the fund in 1933. In short time, $2,000 was raised through teas, games, and other fundraisers, with many Protestants contributing.

Mr. Burke bought the lumber, and constructed the chapel, making the pews in his workshop in Brownville Junction, as well as the altar, the rail, the stand, and the lectern.

The result was a beautiful building but, because of the railroad schedule and the small number of Catholics in the settlement, regular Catholic services were never held there, although priests did come from Brownville Junction and Greenville for special occasions.

In 1957, Alfred Burke died and his son, J. Wilfred Burke found himself the owner of a Catholic Church, as the Catholic diocese had never accepted his father’s donation of the land and building. He was immediately faced with repairs, giving the chapel a new coat of paint and making other repairs.

At that time, Protestants and other sects were meeting at the community hall so, after discussing the situation with Eleanor Copeland and Alfred Hempstead, Burke determined that the Protestants could use the chapel for summer services if they wished. They accepted and, in August of 1970, the first summer service was held. The younger Burke renamed the chapel for his father in recognition of all of the contributions he had made to it.
The chapel remains in wonderful condition, and services are held there during the months of July and August.

It took Eleanor Copeland nearly a decade to get a road to Onawa, and it was to take even longer to get electricity to the village. Long before electrical service was available from any power company, most of the camps were operated on electric generators. A 1975 list prepared by Central Maine Power Company shows that, at that time, they had twenty-three potential clients, only four of whom were year-round residents, and thirteen people who were not interested in electric service. After meetings in Onawa and Augusta, the Land Use Regulatory Commission approved Central Maine’s application for a 4.5-mile extension to Onawa Lake, effective February 3, 1976. By that time, many camp owners had had telephones for quite some time. The project was completed on September 14, 1976, at a cost of $68,000.

My own journey to Onawa was not to be by canoe or by train, but by car. Taking the Elliottsville Road from Monson, I stopped and took some pictures from the bridge over Big Wilson Stream. I turned right on Mountain Road, but missed the turnoff on Onawa Road, as I couldn’t see the sign as I approached it from the north. Before long, I found Old Onawa Road, which was clearly marked, but I soon learned that my Ford Taurus wasn’t going to get me very far on that road. Backtracking along Mountain Road, it wasn’t long before I found the Onawa Road sign.

While it is unpaved, Onawa Road is easy enough to travel, although my wife would disagree with me. As I was approaching Onawa, I came across a man cutting firewood. He stopped to smile, and to wave at me as I went past.

Along the way, I photographed a couple of hand-painted signs, one just past the turn off to the boat landing, along Onawa Road, and another at the end of the public road. Both signs read, PLEASE DO NOT HARM ONAWA TAME FOX. That gave me a warm feeling as, when I was a child, we had a tame fox; not so much a pet as a welcomed guest, free to come and go as he pleased.
I came to the end of the public road, parked my car, and began taking some photographs, and as I did, I came across the man who had waved to me earlier. I learned that he was Leamon McFarland, who now owns the Blaisdell house which sits directly across the tracks from where Onawa Station and two of the section houses once were.

During our pleasant conversation in the rain, I also learned that I had just met fully one-third of the year-round residents of Onawa, as there is just he and his wife, and one other person there throughout the year now, while it gets much busier during the summer months.

We talked about the fox. He told me that there have been more than one, but that he hasn’t seen the most recent one in awhile. He’s not concerned because the fox has often disappeared for weeks or months at a time, only to reappear.

We stood just west of Onawa Memorial Gardens, built on the site of the old Onawa Station, and commemorating the people who have lived and worked in Onawa throughout the years. We stood on the spot where two of the section houses had been, with the community hall to the north of us, the old school building and the chapel only a short walk to the southwest.

Just as most small towns are arranged along the main road, or along the banks of a river, Onawa was settled along the railroad track, with camps also located along the shore of Lake Onawa, which is within site of the railroad track in most places.

From where we stood, Leamon was able to point to the locations of most of the historical sites in Onawa. As described, there were the section houses, no longer standing, and the foundation of Onawa Station, upon which were the memorial gardens, the community hall close to the lake, and the schoolhouse and chapel, within a few steps of one another. His own house, which was once the Blaisdell house, was across the tracks. Further east, along the tracks, was the foundation of the old water tower, and Onawa House, both of which I had already photographed.

Still further east was the Onawa trestle, which is said to be the longest and highest railroad trestle in New England. It was not a long walk, and I now regret letting the rain discourage me from making it. Rather than mailing some copies of our May issue to Mr. McFarland, I think I’ll deliver them in person, and make the trek at that time.

In conclusion, I can only say that either I’m picking the best places in the state or it’s really true that there is something special about every small town, plantation, or unorganized territory in Maine.

There are three lucky people in Onawa.

I relied heavily upon the text “Onawa Revisited,” by William R. Sawtell, published in 1989, for historical information.

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