A Tale of a Town under Water

Captain Jeff Hinman highlights many points of interest during the Flagstaff Lake Scenic Boat Tour, such as the “Indian Maiden” resting in this mountain range, with her head to the left, arms crossed, and toes, to the right, pointing heavenward. Photo by Sheila D. Grant.

The villages of Stratton and Eustis share a highway, a history, and a lake. Both lie along Route 27, a segment of the Benedict Arnold Trail and one of the state’s many scenic byways. Both villages used to have vibrant forestry-based economies, but in recent years (before the pandemic) it was tourism dollars keeping many of the townsfolk financially solvent. Another thing both communities share is the uneasy history of neighboring communities that no longer exist, wiped away by progress.

Where the residents of Flagstaff, Bigelow, and Dead River plantations once farmed, lived their lives, and buried their dead, now is found Maine’s fourth-largest lake. The foundations and histories of local families are submerged 20 feet below its surface.

Flagstaff Lake was created by Central Maine Power Company (CMP) when the Long Falls Dam was constructed in 1950. The lake acts as a repository for spring run-off from the Upper Dead River Watershed and is drawn down later in the year to provide a more steady flow of hydro-power to the Kennebec River. This plan had been approved in 1924, and CMP began acquiring properties in the three townships as the land became available. But for years residents didn’t think the dam would ever become a reality.

Bigelow Plantation’s population had dwindled, and the community disbanded as an organized plantation in the early 1920s. However, by the late 1940s, when construction began on the dam, there were still 75 people living in Dead River Plantation, at the foot of Mount Bigelow. Flagstaff was a thriving community with two general stores, blacksmith shops, a sawmill, a church, a newly constructed school, a Masonic hall, a barber shop, and a pool hall. Over one of the general stores, there was a dance floor and space for movies to be shown upstairs.

The home of Mae Savage, before and after dam construction. Contributed Photo

“I was born and brought up with the idea that it will never happen,” Duluth Wing told me, when I visited with him in 2012. He was 84 at the time. He has since passed away, in 2013. Duluth was a former resident of Flagstaff who lived in Eustis until his death. In the lean years before, during, and after the Great Depression, selling one’s land to CMP (and being freed from paying taxes, while being still allowed to live, farm, and hunt on the land) seemed a good deal to many residents. “My father had three or four pieces of land. He sold everything but his home.” The attitude that “we aren’t going to fix it because it belongs to CMP” was prevalent, leading to some poorly maintained roads and buildings, he said.

The Flagstaff Memorial Chapel was built using materials from the original church in Flagstaff Plantation. Photo by Sheila D. Grant.

Life went on as always until 1947 when, “CMP sent in survey crews to establish where the water would come,” said Duluth. “They went through the woods and around each farm to determine the high-water mark. We began to think, ‘Maybe they are going to do something.’ By 1948, they moved in about 4,000 men to clear 18,000 acres of land.”

Those were dark days for many residents of Flagstaff. Lawyers were advising residents to hold out for a court settlement rather than selling properties. Residents were threatened that their land would be taken by eminent domain, for the public good, though that approach was never enacted. Cutting crews eager to clear piles of brush sometimes set illegal fires, which caught and spread, threatening the homes of residents still clinging to their lives in Flagstaff. No homes were lost, but it was still a fearful time.

Jeff Hinman offers narrated pontoon boat tours. Photo by Sheila D. Grant

Rather than relocate the church, CMP offered to build the Flagstaff Memorial Chapel in Eustis, using the pews, pulpit, church bell, and other materials from the original church in the new building. And the cemetery had to be relocated.

“They told us originally that people would need to be quarantined because some of the people in the cemetery had died of diphtheria or other things and were still contagious,” recalled Duluth. “But when the time came, CMP hired a man from Skowhegan, who took the contract to move the bodies up to Eustis, and he hired every Tom, Dick, and Harry to dig. They had a hearse, and they’d take the pine box and the tombstone and come up to Eustis and stop in the store to get a Coke on the way by. It was very informal, and the risk of infection was just a rumor.”

Ask the locals to learn about relocated buildings from the plantations, now located throughout Stratton and Eustis. This building, now a residence across the street from the White Wolf Inn & Café on Route 27, was once the Bigelow Plantation Schoolhouse. Photo by Sheila D. Grant.

Most families sold their land and buildings and were given the option of buying buildings back and having them relocated. To this day, Stratton and Eustis are dotted with relocated structures. Unwanted buildings were demolished and burned. A few families, including Duluth’s uncle, held out to the end and got their court settlements, though it is unknown if they fared better financially. What did happen, though, is that when the waters rose for the first time in Flagstaff Lake, there wasn’t time to clear those buildings.

“There were two primary homes and a lot of sheds and outbuildings still there in the spring of 1950, and some of them were floating around,” said Duluth, who was an adult at the time. He had married his wife, Betty, in 1948, “so we lived there for a couple of years.” Duluth worked for the Maine Forest Service for 38 years. In 2012, he was still taking care of his own 80 acres, including a tree farm, and doing odd jobs including road maintenance, roof repairs, and building new steps. Betty passed away in 2018 at age 90.

Looking west down Main Street, Flagstaff Plantation, before the dam was built. Contributed Photo.

At the time of the relocation of Flagstaff, it didn’t bother Duluth much, but when we spoke, some negative feelings lingered.

“All young people are pretty cruel and just want some excitement,” he said. “I didn’t feel very bad about seeing all this activity and bulldozers and lots of men and things going on, where the older people were pretty sober about seeing their old farms cleared of everything, and knowing they were going to have to clear out. These people built their homes, cleared their land, had their gardens and their animals—it was the only home they knew. And they lied to us in a sense. We were told that the reason for the lake was to generate electricity, so we assumed they were going to put generator wheels in the dam. They never did, after we left our homes because they wanted more electricity. We all thought, ‘We’ll do it, if it’s for the good of everybody.’ Today, people wouldn’t do that.”

Flagstaff Plantation disappearing under the lake. Contributed Photo.

In the early spring and summer, Flagstaff Lake is full of water, but after Labor Day, draw-downs begin, and the lake becomes shallow. Winter ice can be unreliable and subject to pressure ridges. In all seasons, recreational users should exercise caution. During 1978, which was an exceptionally dry year, the lake receded into its former riverbed, revealing the remnants of Flagstaff Plantation. Some locals walked down the muddy streets to get a look at the old foundations, while others didn’t want to see their town that way.

Once the time of COVID passes and travel is deemed safe, Flagstaff Plantation is best visited through a stop at the Dead River Area Historical Society in Stratton. Photographs, written materials, and artifacts from the three plantations are carefully preserved there. Or stop by the Flagstaff Memorial Chapel in Eustis, adjacent to the relocated Flagstaff and Dead River Cemeteries. Two memorials moved from Flagstaff also rest in front of the chapel.

For an even more thorough grasp of the history and the lay of the land, contact Jeff Hinman, Master Maine Guide, and captain of Flagstaff Lake Scenic Boat Tours (www.flagstaffboattours.com). Jeff’s narration of the area’s history, current uses around the lake, and knowledge of fisheries and wildlife make this an excursion both scenic and educational. In addition to having a sharp eye for wildlife (pointing out eagles, loons, and moose along the way), Jeff knows where old foundations jut up out of the lake and where the villages lie beneath the tranquil surface.

There is something both beautiful and melancholy about crossing those waters, with the many peaks of the Bigelow Range towering above, and the history of a town resting quietly below.

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