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History of Biddeford, Maine

By Geo. J. Varney
Published by B. B. Russell, 57 Cornhill, Boston 1886

Biddeford, in York County, includes the site of the earliest permanent settlement in Maine of which we have a conclusive record. In furtherance of Sir Ferdinando Gorges’ plans of settlement, Richard Vines, a physician, passed the winter of 1616—17 at a place at the mouth of the Saco which he called Winter Harbor. Vines performed several voyages for Gorges, and appears to have made this a place of usual resort. The first dwellings were built on the north side of the Pool. Old cellars covered with ancient shrubbery, and partly filled well-cavities until a recent time, told of its early occupancy. Apple trees decayed with age, and the English cherry, dispute the place with oak and sum ach. In describing the boundary of an estate here in 1642, “Church Point” is one of the landmarks referred to,—from which inference is made that it was then or had been the site of a church. Rev. Richard Gibson, resiaing on this coast, appeared in a suit-at-law in 1636. Between 1660 and 1666 a meeting-house was built at Winter Harbor, and it is recorded that in this house the people were seated according to rank. A point of land near the head of the Pool is said to have been occupied by a court house in the period of Maine’s early settlement. The town is situated upon the sea-coast on the southern bank of Saco River, by which stream it is separated from Saco,—of which it was formerly a part. The latter bounds it on the north-east,— on the east is the sea. Keiinebtmkport lies on the south and southwest, and Dayton on the north-west. Its greatest length is 10 miles in a north-west and south-west direction, and it contains, according to the “York County Atlas,” 9,653 acres of land. Its territory was originally granted by the Plymouth Council to John Oldham and Richard Vines in 1630, and was described in their patent as “that tract of land ling on the south side of the River Swanekaclocke (Saco), containing in breadth, by the sea, four miles, and extending eight miles up into the main land.” Vines was an inhabitant until about 1645, when he sold his right to Dr. Robert Child, of Massachusetts, and removed to Barbadoes. Dr. Child sold the same to Major William Phillips, of Boston in 1659, for £90 sterling. Phillips, to make his ownership secure, soon after purchased another title to it from the Indian sachem, Mogg Megone. It was included with the other side of the river in a corporation under the name of Saco from 1653 to 1718, when it was incorporated by itself, receiving the name of Biddeford, a town in England whence some of the inhabitants had emigrated.
A grant for the first saw-mill on Saco River was made by the corporation in 1653, to Roger Spencer, on condition that the mill be completed within one year, and that the townsmen have boards 12d. cheaper than strangers, and that townsmen be preferred as employés. It is to be supposed that this grant included the right to certain timber lands above the falls. John Davis had a similar privilege granted in 1654; but he was allowed two and one-half years in which to finish his mill, and was to furnish boards lOd. per 100 less than current rates to inhabitants of the town. People were admitted to be inhabitants by vote of the town, and some were warned not to settle there. Captain Samuel Jordan, a grandson of Rev. Robert Jordan, opened a store near Biddeford Pool in 1717. His home was secured against attacks from the Indians by a strong stone wall which surrounded it. Major Phillips’ garrison was a few rods below the lower falls of the Saco.
During the first century of the Saco settlements a numerous tribe of Indians dwelt on the upper waters of the river. Squando, their chief sachern, became deeply incensed against the English, because of an experiment made by some English sailors, who overset the canoe containing his squaw and child in the river to see if the infant would swirn,—according to the reports of Indian children. The child died not long after, and Squando determined on war. In September, 1675, warned ly the burning of a house on the Saco side, the inhabitants gathered into Phillips’ garrison. A body of savages soon after made an attack upon the place, wounding Major Phillips, and burning his mill and one of his tenant houses. Failing to effect anything by direct assault, they, on the second day, prepared to burn the garrison by thrusting against it a cart loaded with combustibles. One of the wheels stuck in a mud-hole, swinging the cart about and exposing to view the Indians who were moving it, when a discharge from the garrison killed 6 and wounded 15 of them. At this repulse the Indians left the place for some days; and the 50 persons in the garrison house, lacking supplies, retired to Winter Harbor. About a fortnight later the garrison-house and all the houses up the river from Winter Harbor were burned by the Indians. In 1693, Major Converse, under direction of the Massachusetts government, built a stone fort a short distance below the Falls; but at the first attack in 1703, it appears to have been taken, as 11 of the inmates were killed and 24 carried captive to Canada. The garrison at Winter Harbor had previously surrendered. A month later, while the fort was undergoing repairs, a body of Indians attacked a garrison near by and were repulsed. In 1707, an engagement occurred at Winter Harbor between a fleet of 50 canoes manned by about 150 Indians, and 2 small vessels, manned only by Captain Austin, Mr. Harmon, Sergeant Cole, 5 other men and a boy. One of the vessels was captured, but its crew escaped to the other, which they held. The action lasted three hours, and the English lost but one man. In 1708, the garrison was removed from the stone fort, and a new fort commenced near the entrance of the Pool. It was named Fort Mary. Remains of it are still visible, and the point where it stood is yet called Fort Hill. These were all the considerable engagements within the limits of Biddeford; but numerous perSons were at one time and another killed or captured by the savages all along the river. In 1744 the old garrisons were repaired and several new ones built. The town records show a vote to build a strong frame garrison about the parsonage, sixty feet square, planked up with two-inch plank, and having two flankers. At Winter Harbor, near the shore, four houses situated on a square, were strongly garrisoned, and occupied by a number of families. Captain Smith’s public house was protected by a brick wall on the inside, with flankers at each end. After the peace of 1748 the town suffered no further from the Indians.
The action of the town during the Revolution was highly honorable. Colonel John Smith and some 30 other citizens entered the Continental army for the war, The privateer “ Thrasher,” commanded by Captain Benjamin Cole, belonged to Biddeford. Captain Philip Goldthwaite, inspector of the port, was the only person in town who opposed the war.
During the war of 1812, the British destroyed shipping at the mouth of the river, including some ships on the stocks at Captain Thomas Cutts’ shipyard at the Neck.
The first bridge leading from Biddeford to Saco was built by Colonel Thomas Cutts, Deacon Amos Chase, Thomas Gilpatrick, Jr., and Benjamin Nason, in 1767. It spanned the west branch of the river to Indian Island, and was made a toll bridge by act of General Court in 1768. Colonel Cutts bought out Chase and Nason, when it began to be called Cutts’ Bridge. Previous to this a bridge (paid for by a lottery) had been erected, connecting the island with Saco side, a ferry over the western branch completing the passage until Cutts’ Bridge was built.
A post office was first established in town in 1789, the postmaster being Benjamin looper. In 1855, Biddeford was incorporated as a city, Daniel Somes becoming the first mayor. Its population by the first census, in 1790, was 1,018; in 1850, 6,095; 1860, 9,350; 1870, 10,285; 1880, 12,653.
Rev. Richard Gibson, a clergyman of the Church of England, is believed to be have been the first ordained minister resident in York county. He was on that coast as early as 1636. Rev. Robert Jordan succeeded him about 1640. Both must at some time have officiated in Biddeford. Rev. Thomas Jenner, a Non-conformist, preached in the town in 1641, remaining about two years. He is thought by some to have been the first Puritan preacher in Maine. Rev. Seth Fletcher is the first minister of Biddeford of whose engagemerit any record is preserved. The town employed him from 1666, and he appears to have continued there until the settlement was destroyed in 1675. A parsonage was built about 1685. The first Congregational Church was formed in 1730, and Samuel Willard, ordained in the same year, was its first minister. Biddeford was separated into two parishes in 1797, and a new edifice built soon after; Rev. John Turner was the first minister of this second Congregational Church. The Pavilion Church was organized in 1857, and the Rev. Samuel M. Gould became pastor from the date of organization. The first Methodist meeting-house was built in 1847. The first Catholic church (St. Mary’s) was built in 1855. Christ Church (Episcopal) was organized in 1869. There are now eight church edifices within the village portion of the town, five of them being of brick, and two or three, large and elegant structures.
Biddeford schools have for several years been graded from primary to high. The number of schoolhouses is 21; and the value of the property is estimated at $30,000. The total amount actually expended for public schools from April 1, 1878 to April 1, 1879, $16,246. The value of estates in 1870 was $5,682,402. In 1880 it was $5,877,867. The rate of taxation in the latter year was 2 per cent. The population in 1870 was 12,652. In 1880 it was 10,282. The city hall is a handsome brick edifice three stories in height. The lower story is occupied by stores and the post office; the second, by private and government offices and rooms; and the third, by an excellent hall. The building also contains a public library of about 3,000 volumes.
There are small powers on Swan Pond Creek, in the north of the town, and on Little River at the south ; but the business centre and the manufacturing power is at the falls of the Saco river. The river has here a descent of forty feet, divided into two falls, about oneeighth of a mile apart, the upper being eight feet amid the lower thirty-two. At this point are located seven cotton mills, aggregating 165,000 spindles. Of these, the Laconia Company (organized in 1845) has 75,000 and the Pepperell Company (organized 1850) 96,000. The Hardy Manufacturing Corn pany, incorporated in 1865, manufactures card-grinders, cotton and woolen machinery, gas fixtures, etc. The Saco ‘Water-Power Machine Shop Company was incorporated and went into operation in 1867, with a capital of $300,000. It manufactures cotton and woolen machinery, and gives employment to about 500 men. There are also three boot and shoe factories, three foundries for brass, iron and stoves respectively, loom picker and harness manufactories, several lumber and grain mills, granite quarries, brickyards, and other lesser manufactures. The Boston and Maine, and the Portland, Saco and Portsmouth Railroads each have a station in Biddeford; and steam and sailing vessels ascend the river to within a short distance of the lower fall. Biddeford is a port of delivery in the Saco Customs District. The city has one daily and two weekly newspapers, and one humorous and one religious monthly. The “Union and Journal” is an excellent and well-established paper, now published on Friday of each week by G. A. Hobbs. It is Republican in politics. The “Biddeford Weekly Advance” is a new publication, but receives a goodly patronage. It is a lively paper and has been independent in politics. Saturday is its date of publication. Time “Biddeford Daily Times” is also independent, and is a good local paper. The humorous monthly, the “Monthly Miniature,” is published by Will H. Watson. The “Church and Home” is published by J. J. Hall. The city has two national banks and banks for savings.
The surface of the town is quite hilly. and many portions quite rocky,—granite being the prevailing rock. Yet the soil is good, and the farms are generally productive. Corn and hay are the leading crops. There are many small tracts of forest, having the usual variety of trees. The roads are good, and the town affords many attractive drives. The Pool has become largely patronized as a seaside resort, and has several hotels. At Fletcher’s Neck is a life saving station of the U. S., and at Wood Island, at the mouth of the harbor, is a lighthouse of the same name. It has a flashing red light. The tower is of stone, and the dwelling, a story and a half wooden Luilding. It is connected with the tower by a wooden porch, all being whitewashed.
The eminent men of Biddeford in the days gone by, are James Sullivan, who became judge of the Supreme Court and, later, governor of Massachusetts; Hon. George Thacher, representative in Congress from Massachusetts, and judge of the Supreme Court of that commonwealth; Hon. Prentiss Mellen, United States Senator from Massachusetts, and afterward chief justice of the Supreme Court of Maine; Hon. Samuel Hubbard, judge of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts; and D. E. Somes, a manufacturer of the city, who represented the First Maine district in the National Congress in 1859.