When history comes alive

Exploring below the surface in Biddeford
By NICHOLAS GERVIN  |  June 6, 2014

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A long-forgotten lagoon underneath Biddeford's Pepperell Mill. Photo by Nicholas Gervin.

Our cities are rich with history. For many of us, the word “history” calls to mind dry high school courses on ancient civilizations halfway around the world. But trust me, when you’re standing in a lagoon from 1843 that has long been unused, it’s anything but boring or remote. Suddenly history is alive; for a brief time you truly feel connected to what came before.

I’ve been exploring the unseen spaces of Maine and New England for over a decade now. I’ve found things that were not even on maps and surprised the people in charge of city systems and infrastructure. And while not everyone is physically or mentally equipped to venture deep into the unknown, opportunities do exist to experience urban exploration in a safe, sanctioned setting. I know what you’re thinking: A tour led by some young yuppie reading from a pamphlet while you look over a refurbished structure that no longer holds its true historical character? Boring. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t waste my time writing about such a tour. The Heart of Biddeford’s annual “Secret Spaces and Historic Places” tour, on the other hand, is something I highly recommend.

Led by former mill workers and city officials who have a deeper insight than most, this year’s Historic Places tour granted us access to an underground lagoon, City Hall’s clock tower, the former MERC incinerator site, the former St. Joseph’s Church rectory (currently up for sale), MotorLand Vintage America, and more.

By far, the site on the tour that I found most interesting was the lagoon under Building 10 of the Pepperell Mill complex. In 1843, an influx of Irish immigrants, escaping the famine in their home country, arrived in Biddeford eager to take advantage of its employment opportunities. They were given work digging out this giant cavern and the many elaborate networks of tunnels that still reside under the mills today. All this was accomplished with only picks and axes at their disposal. Greek and Italian stonemasons built massive archways (with no mortar, mind you) for river water to flow through and power the turbines that helped run the mill’s machinery. On Saturday, we were led through the mill, over its first floor of suspended hardwood, down a narrow staircase next to the fiber hopper, and out onto a wood observation deck that overlooks this dimly lit marvel of engineering. The faint sound of trickling water can be heard, as well as the buzz of neon bulbs lighting two catwalks that span the length of the space. The atmosphere of the location, combined with tour guide Pete Lamontagne’s engaging personal tales from over 40 years of working in the mills and the disclosure of the industrial accidents that the Biddeford Mills Museum’s research is bringing to light, made for a bone-chilling 20 minutes.

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A clock, waiting on replacement parts since the 1980s, sits in a tower above City Hall. Photo by Nicholas Gervin.

After pulling myself from the depths of the mill, I climbed to the heights of the City Hall clock tower, where Phil Radding, Biddeford’s director of facilities, greeted me and gave the last tour of the day. Graffiti covers the walls, mostly in pencil, dating back to 1901 and possibly earlier — tell-tale signs of explorers who came before. The skeletal remains of a grand clock that once rang hourly sit in the center of the steeple (some parts were removed in the 1980s when the clock was electrified). A tiny hatch door in the side of the tower lends a view of the city; the number of church steeples and mill buildings (which each had their own calls and warning systems) makes clear why Biddeford has been called “The City of Bells.”

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