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City Brook: A Study

by Robert Spencer, Over the Dam

“The whirling bubble on the surface of a brook admits us to the secret of the mechanics of the sky.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Running south from its outlet at the foot of Keoka Lake, a noisy little stream pulses its way one and a half miles through our small valley to feed Bear Pond. Along much of its path, City Brook, also known as Mill Brook, is clearly visible most of the year as it parallels Waterford Road. At the intersection with Sweden Road and Mill Hill Road, it disappears beneath a bridge, dropping precipitously until visible once more to those who cross over a rustic split granite span on Back Street. Then again, at the posted Cross Street Bridge, the flow shows itself one more time before meandering through a flat alluvial plane, a half mile to Bear Pond.

For most travelers on busy state Route 35/37, our brook is of little interest or importance. However, to the village of South Waterford, a cluster of 30 buildings that lie on either bank of this stony rill, it has served as a source of life and vitality throughout much of history. Landforms here were carved into the granite bedrock as a much larger ice age watercourse scoured out a valley between Bear and Hawk Mountains to the east and Mount Tire’m and Stanwood Mountain to the west. Native Americans gathered along its banks to fish and camp. Eighteenth century settlers were drawn to the environs for a source of fresh water and power to produce lumber and flour essential to survival. Nineteenth century industrialists, before and after the Civil War, earned their livelihoods by producing both commercial and consumer goods traded locally and in cities such as Portland and Boston.

Even to many current village residents, such a small stream is unimportant in the scheme of life — nothing more than a source of loud noise during the spring freshet. However, to the fisherman it is a source of recreation and food. To the naturalist it is a source of inspiration, a place to walk in nature, to view birds or take photographs. It remains a regional resource as a source of water for Bear Pond and Bear River, which feed Long Lake. The water from our City Brook is a source of potable water for several million Portland area residents when it enters Sebago Lake.

The age of industrial prosperity is now long gone, victim to growth of large manufacturing plants, which required more powerful rivers, and many other economic changes since the 1870s. Back then, South Waterford was dubbed “Waterford City,” for the noise and bustle brought to the town by nine mills and many supporting shops lining the brook. Invisible to today’s busy passersby are remnants of a past industrial heyday: a large concrete and split stone ruin on the access road to Keoka’s modern dam; two-story stonework that served as the foundation for a 19th century bucket mill; and a simple shingled mill building atop a 1797 stone dam beside the town’s last rustic stone bridge. Further exploration may reveal lost foundations beneath the water surface, a 36” rusty circular saw blade, burnt remains of the Waterford Corn Shop, or an earthen dam long overgrown by bushes and brambles — all vestigial remains of human endeavor of historical interest.

Also of value are the natural ecosystems observed along the water course. There is a littered alluvial plane where Keoka fingered its way south to a lower dam, before the new one was built in the 1950s. South of Back Street lies a wet meadow that reduces potential damaging effects of annual freshets. Just north of Bear Pond, where City Brook merges with Mutiny and Scoggins Brooks, lies a deep gap gouged out of a glacial moraine as melt water engorged the Brook into a raging river 15,000 years ago. The Brook serves as the marshy wetland home of fish, birds and mammals. Such a short stream can teach everyone who allows the time many lessons about our ecology systems: how they work and how they were born.

It is appropriate to begin this study with a quote from American philosopher, existentialist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1802-1882), whose life spanned early days of village settlement and the denouement of its industrial zenith. Emerson spent much of his boyhood visiting his three aunts who lived in Waterford. He likely honed his naturalistic views while exploring City Brook or Mutiny Brook near Aunt Mary Moody Emerson’s home, Elm Vale, which was located across from the cemetery of the same name on Sweden Road.

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