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Saco River History

The Saco River may seem hidden compared to other destinations around Maine but remains a legacy of rich industry, agriculture, and transportation for its surrounding community. The river was named by the Wabanaki, as Saco means “flowing out.” The Saco flows mostly southeast for about 125 miles, originating at the highest peak in the northeast, Mount Washington. As runoff comes down Mount Washington, it fills Saco Lake, a small body of water in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. The river continues and eventually empties into the Atlantic Ocean below Biddeford and Saco, Maine. The Saco has been home to manufacturing and trade since the 17th Century, while providing its people industry, power, transportation, drinking water, and recreation over the years.

Significant Historic Features


Wabanaki people have inhabited land along the Saco River for about 13,000 years. They developed complex understandings of their landscape and the river over millennia, planting corn on the riverbanks in the spring, harvesting fish in warmer months, and moving further upstream to hunt game in preparation for winter. Their mobile lifestyle was prosperous, but radically changed with the arrival of European explorers more than 400 years ago. Europeans were welcomed into Wabanaki communities as they surveyed Native villages at the start of the 17th century. The winters proved sustainable and the protected land surrounding the estuary was clear for cultivation. English guests often misinterpreted Wabanaki hospitality, misunderstanding the obligations that accompanied the privilege of sharing space, leading to dispossession of Wabanaki Homeland.

Manufacturing and Industry

Over centuries, development surrounded the river and with industrial expansion came immigration. The profitable trade of lumbering began with development of Saco's first sawmill in the mid-1650s. Towards the end of the 17th century, the river’s waterpower aided in a thriving local lumber industry. Hydropower stations were enabled by the river's natural rapids, such as Hiram Falls. Nearly 17 sawmills stood at Saco Falls by 1800. Shipbuilders utilized the river’s wide canals for construction and transport, while granite awaited excavation in the many quarries nearby. Metal and ironworkers soon employed mechanical power to bring manufacturing advancement to Biddeford and Saco. By 1825, the country’s largest cotton mill, Saco Manufacturing Company, was established and Cutts Island (later known as Factory Island) would soon be recognized for a longstanding textile manufacturing enterprise. The Pepperell and Laconia Mills saw international reach, and the mills brought an influx of immigrant laborers, including French-Canadian and Irish, whose cultural influence greatly shaped the local community.


Small boats and ferries crossed the Saco prior to the first bridge built in 1758. Dams and channels were constructed in the early 1800s for ease of transportation and the "Old Course," a winding stream, was shortened by 15 miles, creating the "Canal River" through Fryeburg. The historic Hemlock Bridge was built in Fryeburg over Saco's Old Course in 1857 and remains standing today. The river was once used to drive logs downstream toward the lumber yards in Biddeford and Saco. After many dangerous log jams during freezing temperatures, log drives were outlawed in 1967. In the 1870s, the opening of the Boston and Maine Railroad brought accessibility to seaside resorts along the southern coast. By 1879, stations were enlarged to accommodate more beachgoers with four trains per day direct from Boston to Portland.


  • Biddeford History & Heritage Project, Maine Memory Network
  • “The History of the Lumber Industry on the Saco River from the Early Colonial Period to Mid-Twentieth Century,” a chronology by Marjorie G. Hartman on the Research of Richard Roney, c. 1980s, Coll. 2570, Box 1, Folder 1, Maine Historical Society.
  • Clayton, W. Woodford. History of York County, Maine: With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers. 1880.
  • Folsom, George. History of Saco and Biddeford, with Notices of Other Early Settlements, and of the Proprietary Governments in Maine, Including the Provinces of New Somersetshire and Lygonia. 1830.
  • Wells, Walter. Provisional Report upon the Water-power of Maine. 1868.
  • Maine Publicity Bureau. Maine Invites You: 19th Edition (1948). 1948.

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