HEAD OF FALLS
Right over there, just across the tracks, in what used to be Head of Falls, the senator was born.”
As he said those words, Tom Nale, the mayor of Waterville, pointed to his left. The few people in the crowd, standing in the November cold, instinctively turned to look. From the square in front of City Hall, where the Veterans Day ceremony was taking place, they could see little: a railroad track, across it a parking lot, and then a short, grassy slope down to the Kennebec River. As I too looked toward the river, I thought about living “right over there” many years ago.
Head of Falls, usually pronounced “hedda falls,” was the informal name given to a small triangle of land along the banks of the Kennebec River in Waterville, Maine. Bounded roughly by a railroad track, the river, and a textile mill, it consisted of about two acres of land onto which were crammed dozens of buildings, most of them apartment houses. Inside were jammed scores of families, almost all of them immigrants. It was the lowest rung on the American ladder of success.
Prior to 1900 most of them were French Canadian from Quebec. As families established themselves, they moved up and out of Head of Falls and were replaced by more recent immigrants. After the turn of the century, as the number of immigrants from what is
now known as Lebanon grew, they gradually displaced the French Canadians, who in turn moved to a section of Waterville called The Plains. By 1933, when I was born, almost all of the families living there were Lebanese immigrants; a few French Canadian families remained, in homes adjacent to the textile mill.
The Head of Falls has since been cleared and turned into a parking lot. If it still existed, it would be described as a slum. But to me and the many children who lived there it was just home. On one side was the Kennebec River, rising in northern Maine and flowing southerly to the coast. The river is now clean, used by rafters, boaters, fishermen, and even some swimmers. Seventy years ago it was a stinking, open sewer; the towns located on the river dumped their sewage into it, and many industries added their wastes. Directly across and just up the river from Head of Falls, in the neighboring town of Winslow, the Hollingsworth and Whitney paper mill daily discharged huge volumes of wastes, as did the textile mill on the Waterville side. As a result the river usually was covered with scum and foam. It looked terrible and smelled worse.
The name Head of Falls comes from a nearby point in the river where it drops sharply. A dam now marks the spot. Just above the dam, a railroad bridge spans the river. It carries a main track of what was then the Maine Central Railroad. As it crossed into Waterville, that track formed one long boundary of Head of Falls, separating it from the town center. In the 1930s Waterville was a rail center, with a large repair shop located less than a mile to the north of the bridge. Large trains regularly rumbled past, shaking every building and covering the area with soot.
The third, short side of the triangle, across Temple Street, was a large textile mill, the Wyandotte Worsted Factory. Since its discharges occurred on the Waterville side, just a few feet up river, the water directly adjacent to Head of Falls was particularly foul. The Wyandotte mill, also since torn down to make way for a parking lot, was noisy, the clatter of its looms filling the air around the clock.
Combined with the whine of the paper mill’s huge saws cutting trees into wood chips and the rumble of the trains, it made Head of Falls a very noisy place.
It sounds bad now, but it didn’t seem so then. That was just the way it was. Not until I left home to go to college, at the age of seventeen, did I realize what it’s like to sleep through the night without the sound and feel of a passing train.