The head of navigation on the Kennebec River has attracted the interest of human beings for thousands of years. European settlers were known to have explored here as early as 1607 and a trading post was operating by 1628. The first permanent settlement did not occur, however, until 1754 when a supply base known as Fort Western (named for an English friend of the colonial governor) was established by James Howard in the employ of a Boston land company called the Kennebec Proprietors.
Development took place on the slopes of both banks of the Kennebec River; to the east the section that included Fort Western was called Hallowell and a second settlement was known as the Hook and then Harrington. The two villages jostled a bit for pride but came together after a bridge was built near Winthrop Street in 1797. The origins of the name Augusta are a bit murky but the best guesses trace it to a woman named Pamela Augusta Dearborn who was the daughter of a Maine veteran of the American Revolution and a representative to the Continental Congress from the Kennebec District, General Henry Dearborn.
Lumber powered the Augusta economy during its days as part of Massachusetts, so much so that Continental soldiers were paid in pine boards for their service in the Revolution. After Maine entered the Union as the 23rd state in 1820 Portland was the state capital. But the legislature began meeting at the more centrally located Augusta in 1827 and the government moved in for good in 1832. An amendment to the Maine Constitution in 1909 ended any grumblings about capital relocation by affirming Augusta as the capital city forever.
Unlike many small American capital cities Augusta did not become a government town. The Kennebec River was dammed and its water power supported 11 lumber mills, a cotton factory and grist mills. A United States Arsenal was built in 1827 and the state hospital founded in the 1830s. In the winter tons of ice was harvested from the river to bolster a thriving ice industry. By the end of the 19th century there were paper mills and a boom in magazine publishers. Millions of Americans knew the town of Augusta as the postmark where their folksy home and garden magazines were produced.
As if to stay out of the way from Augusta commerce the government section is located several blocks south of the downtown core that is centered on Water Street. Augusta has endured its share of floods and fires but none so damaging as “the most destructive fire that ever occurred in Maine,” as the New York Times called it, on Sunday, September 17, 1865. The fire broke out in a new building on Water Street, to which its occupant had moved in only the previous day, and burned out the entire business district.
Most of today’s Water Street still teems with buildings erected in the aftermath of the Great 1865 Fire, stone and brick structures sporting the Italianate ornamentation that was so prevalent in America at mid-19th century. This is where our explorations will concentrate but first we will begin across the river where Augusta began more than 250 years ago...
Old Fort Western
16 Cony Street at Kennebec River
Fort Western was not your typical fort in the military sense. It was financed by the Kennebec Proprietors, a speculative land outfit out of Boston looking to populate Maine’s interior. The blockhouse was constructed in 1754 at the head of navigation on the Kennebec River and garrisoned with Massachusetts men protecting a storehouse that was supplied by sloop four times a year. Material was then offloaded and taken by flatboat 17 miles upstream to Fort Halifax. The post was abandoned in 1767 but Fort Western remains the oldest surviving wooden fort in New England. James Howard, who led the troops guarding the fort, purchased the building and his family operated a store here for many years. The buildings were restored in 1919 and have been open to the public ever since.
Old Augusta City Hall
1 Cony Street at Kennebec River
Augusta christened its new town hall building here in 1896. A year later on May 1, 1897 America’s March King, John Philip Sousa, played a new composition he had written the previous Christmas for the first time in front of an audience at Augusta City Hall. The march had no name at that time but two weeks late in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania it would premiere as Stars and Stripes Forever, becoming his most famous march. The city government moved on in 1987 and after a $5 million makeover the three-story brick building behind a small Ionic entrance re-emerged as a 31-unit assisted living center for seniors.
WALK ACROSS THE KENNEBEC RIVER AND TURN LEFT ON WATER STREET.
183-187 Water Street at southeast corner of Bridge Street
Most of the Augusta commercial district went up in flames on the morning of September 17, 1865. Before the sun had set 81 buildings were destroyed. Arson was suspected but no cause was ever determined. The three-story brick Williams Block is the only building that predates the conflagration. The windows and cornice are dressed in Italianate finery.
180-186 Water Street at southwest corner of Bridge Street
This is handiwork of John C. Tibbetts, the most important architect to ever hail from Augusta. Above the compromised street level you can look up to see ornate window hoods and a bracketed cornice, hallmarks of the Italianate commercial style in the 19th century.
188 Water Street
Francis Henry Fassett was born in Bath in 1823 and was working by the age of 14, first as a general store clerk and then as an indentured apprentice to master carpenter Isaac D. Cole. He was said to have picked up his architectural training by traveling and looking at buildings. He went on to design some 400 houses and buildings across Maine and is credited with shaping much of Portland’s streetscape. This three-story Italianate commercial block, although altered on the ground floor, is a Fassett creation, one of the few that has not been torn down in Augusta.
Bussell and Weston/D.W. Adams Store
190 Water Street
This is one of the earliest buildings in Maine constructed as a department store, built for the Bussell and Weston Company in 1909. Look up to see then-modern Chicago style display windows. The building is best known as the long-time home of the D.W. Adams Store. Delbert W. Adams was born in 1868 in Caribou, Maine, the son of some of the earliest pioneers in Aroostock County. He began clerking in dry goods businesses at the age of 19 and eventually became a traveling salesman, peddling women’s dresses as far way as Salt Lake City. He became a partner with Henry N. Whitman in their own emporium in 1900 and in 1910 was operating across the street, trading only in “strictly first class goods at a fair margin of profit.” The Adams business formula worked well enough that he bought out his competitors at Bussell and Weston in 1920 and moved here, becoming the largest dry goods firm in the county. He also owned stores in Gardiner and Rumford.
241-249 Water Street
Sebastian Spering Kresge’s first business enterprise was a single hive of bees he nursed into a colony of 32 hives as a young boy. He would keep bees as an adult hobby because, he said, “My bees always remind me that hard work, thrift, sobriety and earnest struggle to live an upright Christian life are the rungs of the ladder of success.” At age 21 Kresge began exploring the business field working in door-to-door selling, insurance, bookkeeping, and baking before settling into the sale of tinware for five years on straight commission. He entered into other retailing partnerships with $8000 he had carefully saved, working in stores in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Michigan. By 1899 he was on his own in Detroit. Kresge put a large number of items on open counters where they could be examined and appraised. The slogan over his door said it all: “Nothing over 10 cents.” Kresge would eventually become Kmart but on the way it operated in this 1930s Art Moderne-style building.
261 Water Street
Maine native Peleg Orison Vickery, a publisher and politician, established the Fireside Visitor magazine in 1874. The periodical contained fictional stories and served as a mail order catalog. A later partner, John Fremont Hill, went on to become governor of Maine. Fireside Visitor lasted for over 30 years and was joined by other successful publications such as Farm and Hearth as the company established branches in New York City, Boston and Chicago. Boston architect John C. Spofford contributed the classically-flavored design for this 1890s headquarters for the Vickery & Hill Publishing Company.
265 Water Street
Local architect Charles Fletcher tapped the Romanesque Revival style for this three-bay, six-story commercial building in 1890. In 1992 the space became the home of the Children’s Discovery Museum which stayed until 2009.
10. United States Post Office
295 Water Street at southeast corner of Bridge Street
Publishing became an important industry in Augusta in 1868 with the founding of a printing and mail order house by 19-year old E.C. Allen. Allen was operating from his own building on Water Street three years later and soon William Howard Gannett and Peleg O. Victory joined him in the mail-order magazine business. At its peak there were 17 periodicals published in town with a total circulation of about three million magazines. There was so much mail coming in and out of Augusta that a massive new post office was required in 1890 to handle the volume. Constructed of gray Hallowell granite in the brawny Richardsonian Romanesque style, when the post office opened the Portland Transcript was moved to gush that it was “one of the most picturesque public buildings that the government has bestowed upon any city in the Union.” Based on the work of Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson, it features such elements of the style as powerful arches, recessed entryway, turrets and towers and rough-faced stone. The designer was Mifflin Bell, Supervising Architect of the Treasury, and he didn’t plan it large enough. The facility had to be enlarged within twenty years; it remained on duty handling mail until the 1960s.
Journal Building/Gannett Building
325-331 Water Street
William Howard Gannett published his first magazine, actually an eight-page advertisement for patent medicine, in 1888. He called it Comfort. Gannett moved his operations into this building, designed by local architect Arthur Wing, in 1899. His son Guy Patterson Gannett was just starting at Yale University at the time. The younger Gannett began his career working for the magazine but was soon off into local politics and investing in Portland newspapers. By the time he returned to Augusta to purchase the 104-year old Kennebec Journal in 1929, Gannett owned a string of Maine newspapers. Today the five-story Romanesque-styled commercial building is occupied by the Architecture Program of the University of Maine at Augusta.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO WINTHROP STREET AND TURN LEFT. CLIMB THE HILL TO STATE STREET. ON YOUR LEFT IS...
Kennebec County Courthouse
95 State Street at southeast corner of Winthrop Street
The Kennebec County Courthouse was constructed in four stages beginning n 1829 with a Greek Revival core and ending in 1907 with a Renaissance Revival update in 1907. James Cochran did the original design work for the house of justice that also doubled as the home of the Maine Supreme Court for 140 years.
ON THE OPPOSITE CORNER IS...
Lithgow Public Library
45 Winthrop Street at northwest corner of State Street
Llewellyn Lithgow was a Christmas baby in Dresden, Maine back in 1796. He became a merchant and made enough money to sell his business and retire when he was 40. He came to live in Augusta in 1839 where he was active in the church and the community until his death at the age of 85 in 1881. He left the town $20,000 to get the ball rolling on a public library. Joseph Ladd Neal, a Maine native living in Pittsburgh, drew up plans for a Richardsonian Romanesque building and the cornerstone was laid on June 14, 1894, the same day as one was placed in the ground for Augusta’s Masonic Temple. The festivities that day drew crowds from around the state. The library opened on February 3, 1896; the final price tag was $51,850.
CONTINUE ON WINTHROP STREET TO THE NEXT BLOCK AND TURN RIGHT ON PLEASANT STREET.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
middle of the block between bridge, Pleasant, Winthrop and Summer streets
Jacob Bailey conducted the first Episcopal services in Augusta at Fort Western in 1763 but an official parish was not established until 1840. The following year a small wooden meetinghouse was in place that was enlarged in 1858 and served the congregation for over 40 years. In 1884 $25,000 was raised to purchase land on Pleasant Street for a new church. Richard J. Upjohn, brother of the St. Mark’s rector, designed the church using grey granite from Norridgewock and siting the sanctuary in a grove of old elm trees. Other buildings on the property include an 1820 Federal-style house that has been used as a Rectory since 1873.
TURN RIGHT ON BRIDGE STREET. TURN RIGHT ON STATE STREET.
Hamlen House/J.W. Ellis House
62 State Street
This two-story, center-hall house was built by Lot Hamlen in 1803. Hamlen, a painter and glazier by trade, did work for the town surveying lumber. This was the first house built on a large tract of land owned by Joseph North between Winthrop and Bridge streets. A later owner, J.W. Ellis, fixed up the property and when it went into the National Register of Historic Places the house did so under his name.
All Souls Church
70 State Street at northwest corner of Oak Street
The All Souls Unitarian congregation grew out of the South Parish of Augusta in 1827. Its first meetinghouse was dedicated as the Bethlehem Church on October 18. That building was hauled down in 1879, sold for $90 and replaced with this building at the cost of $10,000. After going through a series of names the congregation has been known as All Souls since 1917. One element of the church which has not survived, however, is its steeple fronting State Street.
TURN LEFT ON OAK STREET. TURN LEFT ON FLAGG STREET. TURN LEFT ON CHURCH STREET.
South Parish Congregational Church
9 Church Street between Flagg and State streets
The South parish has its toes back in the 18th century when the congregation was assembling in a building on Market Square constructed in 1782. Dating to 1865, this granite Gothic church is the oldest in Augusta.
CONTINUE A FEW MORE STEPS BACK TO STATE STREET AND TURN RIGHT. TURN RIGHT ON BRIDGE STREET AND WALK BACK DOWN THE HILL AND ACROSS THE KENNEBEC RIVER TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.