Smells from a polluted Androscoggin river used to strip paint from houses


A view of the Androscoggin River from the South Lewiston Bridge in 1973, with a layer of scum floating downstream. Charles Steinhacker/US Environmental Protection Agency

What do I smell?

Rare oriental perfumes?

Or is it spices for a feast?

Where do tigers live from?

You idiot, you jerk, you weirdo:

”It’s neither, but –

Just the stench of Androscoggin,

Worse than any bloody trench.

So grab a clothespin for your nose

This gassy smell is not pink.

— July 11, 1941 Lewiston Evening News

It’s almost impossible to overstate the summery stench that once defined the Androscoggin River.

Exiting the Oxford Paper Co. in Rumford into the Androscoggin River in 1973. Charles Steinhacker/US Environmental Protection Agency

It smelt of “stagnation and death,” wrote observer John Gould. He called the 1950s Androscoggin “a stinking mess of dirt and debris”.

Decades in the making, the smells were an obvious consequence of the proliferation of paper mills dumping toxic stew into the once pure waters as well as growing communities dumping untreated waste straight from outlet pipes into the flowing stream.

It didn’t help that dams had sprung up along the river where rocky rapids once existed to mix and purify the turbulent waters.

The result? Mud covering the bottom of the river, scum floating on the surface, chemicals, trash and bacteria in between, combined with low water levels and hot summer air, have created an annual hazard that by the mid-1930s had become harmful.

“It smelled like heaven in Lewiston in the summer,” said David Cohen, a lawyer who grew up in the city in the 1940s and 1950s.

“There was just a putrid smell” of the river “absolutely disgusting”, with its “disgusting color, obviously just full of chemicals and garbage, and at the falls, there was just this dirty foam all the time”, has said Cohen in an oral. recorded history for the Muskie Archives at Bates College.

Effluent discharged into the Androscoggin River at Jay by International Paper Co. in 1973. Charles Steinhacker/US Environmental Protection Agency

A pharmacy manager in Rumford, Leo Good, said customers would sometimes order an ice cream but toss it aside, too sickened by the stench to eat.

Machinist Cleo Lacombe complained that “everything I eat seems to taste like the smell of the river”.

During one particularly noxious summer in the early 1940s, “the gassy smells were so bad that thousands complained of sore throats, the paint in the house was darkened overnight, the silverware in the restaurant acquired heavy layers of tarnish and some people complained that the silver coins in their pockets were tarnished by the fumes”, the Lewiston Evening Journal reported.

An Auburn woman showed a Lewiston Evening Journal photographer in 1939 how fumes from the nearby Androscoggin River had discolored the paint on her house on River Road. Lewiston Evening Paper

In 1942, the newspaper noted that “once again the river visits the communities along its banks with its nauseating aroma”.

He said residents were reacting with a condition known as “clothespin noses” in response to children selling clothespins that could be used to pinch someone’s nostrils.

During a 1944 visit by gubernatorial candidate Horace Hildreth, the politician witnessed “gas-emitting sponge-like slimes” floating along the river and called it “the most blatant pollution I have ever seen”.

William Provencher, president of the Lewiston Community Association, called the smell a “health hazard” in 1947 and said it gave the community a bad name.

A sign warning of the dangers of drinking and swimming in the water was posted next to the polluted Androscoggin River near the New Hampshire border in 1973. Charles Steinhacker/US Environmental Protection Agency

“It’s a shame to tolerate the stench, and Lewiston and Auburn are quickly becoming the laughingstock of other Maine communities,” said George Hauckmanager of a Montgomery Ward department store in Lewiston in 1941.

In 1948 the Portland Evening Express, in a sympathetic editorial, declared the “vile Androscoggin” such a problem that he sent “strangers out of town holding their noses and swearing never to return”.

So much filth flowed into the river that the Androscoggin had become “a veritable open sewer, from Berlin to Merrymeeting Bay”, the Portland newspaper said.

While no one questions the reality of the stench, some have said it’s better to ignore than mention it.

Maine Attorney General Ralph Ferris reprimanded the Lewiston newspapers in 1948 for their in-depth coverage of the issue.

“If the newspapers didn’t play the smell,” Ferris said, “Lewiston would be better off.”

He said stories about the stench of the river “give the town bad publicity”.

The Portland newspaper said everyone knew all along what it would take to fix the problem: money.

“The remedy is for communities in the valley to stop dumping raw sewage into the creek and for paper mills to process their waste,” the Evening Express said.

The Oxford Paper Co. in Rumford polluted the air and dumped waste into the Androscoggin River in 1973. Charles Steinhacker/US Environmental Protection Agency

He said people who live along the river have rights that should not be ignored ‘simply because paper mills find it easier and cheaper to dump raw waste into the stream’ than to clean it up. first.

Efforts to dump sorbents in the river made the smell more tolerable from around 1950, but it was little more than putting perfume on a pig.

As recently as 1970, Newsweek named the Androscoggin as one of the 10 dirtiest rivers in the country, the kind of dishonor a bragging state like Vacationland could do without.

It was not until strict new environmental standards set out in the Federal Water Quality Act of 1972 came into effect that the river improved markedly.

Residents of the Androscoggin River Valley can be thankful they no longer have to buy clothespins for a summer walk.

Pink eye, corns and prickly heat,

Liver congestion:

They’re new to me, and it must be

The smell of the river.

My lettuce, my cukes and my lima beans

They were all fine:

But they went bankrupt with wilting and rusting –

It’s the smell of the river.

I’m losing weight, my hair isn’t growing,

My stomach is all trembling:

This H2S made a mess.

It’s the smell of the river.

We found a cockroach in the sink,

My wife is very hesitant:

And big black ants are crawling on the plants.

They were driven out of the river.

We went riding the other night

And everything was fine.

But I had to sit where the old bus stopped

When he caught the smell of the river.

The clapboards creak, the roof has gone bad

I think I will try to sell:

The paint peeled off, the pipes annealed.

It’s the smell of the river.

I now see the dawn. I have no hope.

I shiver, shake and shiver.

I can’t talk – I’m going to walk,

Look for me in the river.

— August 14, 1941, Lewiston Evening Journal

Scum floating in the Androscoggin River downstream from a paper mill in Berlin, New Hampshire, in 1973. Charles Steinhacker/US Environmental Protection Agency

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