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The Story of the Penobscot River

The Penobscot River is the largest river in Maine and the second largest in New England (smaller only than the Connecticut River). The watershed drains an area of 8,570 square miles with the West Branch of the river originating near Penobscot Lake on the Maine/Quebec border and the East Branch beginning at East Branch Pond near the headwaters of the Allagash River. The river flows seaward and empties into the Penobscot Bay.

The name “Penobscot” was likely derived from a Native American word meaning "rocky place," or "river of rocks."  The native inhabitants of the area of the lower Penobscot were the members of the Penobscot Nation. For thousands of years, the river served as their transportation route and as a spiritual force.

The first European explorer sailed up the Penobscot River in the late 1500's later reporting that he had discovered a city of great wealth, which Europeans believed to be Norumbega, the lost city of gold. When Samuel de Champlain sailed up the Penobscot River in 1604, he was not able to find Norumbega, but instead encountered local tribes and began the trading of furs.

Eventually European settlers came to the region, establishing their settlements along or at the mouths of rivers to utilize the waterway for trade and transportation. It was the area’s lumber resources that truly spurred development as we have come to know it along the river. In fact, Bangor was considered the lumber capital of the world with over 200 sawmills churning out billions of feet of lumber that was then shipped all over the world using the river. Dams were built to capture the energy of the river and as time passed our history became one rich in textile mills, leather plants and, of course, the pulp and paper industry.

Industries certainly benefited from the river. However, as the population expanded, crossing the river remained a challenge. The primary mode of crossing remained by ferry well into the 1920’s as the volume of automobile traffic increased dramatically. In 1929, the construction of the Waldo-Hancock Bridge, named for the two counties it connected, was approved by voters to the tune of $1.2 million. The beloved bridge remained in place until corrosion and deterioration was discovered in the main suspension cables and bridge deck in 2003. New strengthening cables were designed, manufactured and installed without having to completely close the bridge to traffic. The new design was modeled after the Washington Monument and included the now very popular Penobscot Narrows Observatory, the tallest Bridge Observatory in the world open to the public.

Despite the deep heritage and tradition of industry along the river, global competition and increased energy costs have increasingly challenged this way of life. In 2014 the 84-year-old paper mill in Bucksport became the latest mill on the Penobscot River to close its doors. Overall, the 21st century has seen the role of Maine’s rivers, including the Penobscot, changing dramatically. Improvement of water quality and removal of dams has allowed the river to transform into an increasingly important resource for recreation and tourism. Together, we must work to find a realistic and sustainable balance between these sometime competing priorities – the importance of our past and the reality of present time.


In the United States, most adult Atlantic salmon ascend the rivers of New England beginning in spring and continuing through the fall, with migration peaking in June. Although uncommon, adults can grow to be as large as 30 pounds.

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