Last week I wrote about Turnpike Drive and I’m returning to it again because this is one of those topics that has sent me both down the rabbit hole and up the side of the mountain.
But I am forcing myself now to stop searching The Camden Herald archives for the words “turnpike” or “blasting” or “rock slide” or anything else for the rest of the weekend.
I have one of those personalities that doesn’t know when to stop researching and I often find myself distracted along the way by something that fits into a different research puzzle I’ve been working on. I tend to exhaust the people around me with my unbridled interest in obscure historical details. I feel a type of euphoria when I’m able to connect the dots and put something into a larger historical context.
Last week I attended one of the Historic Resources Committee meetings and was reminded of how much fun it is to connect with other people who see things the way I do. I don’t mean that we agree on the issues facing us today. We don’t.
But we all share the habit of wanting to know what came before us and how it came to be and who played a part. We all appreciate a fuller picture and we delight in the details of the people and personalities and bedrock outcroppings of the past. The Turnpike and Megunticook Mountain is one of those places where most of its best stories I suspect have not been told.
Sometimes I think we all find ourselves relating more to the people of Camden’s past than its present. These people felt more interesting. More authentic. More in touch with the natural world. Their problems were existential and the range of solutions they considered was vast.
But with so much change, we also seek a certain amount of stability — granite markers and landmarks that can be referred to in survey after survey. There are very few things in Camden that can be used as enduring control points over the past 250 years.
We’ve changed where the rivers and streams enter the harbor. We’ve changed the shape of the bedrock on Main Street. We’ve buried most of the shoreline of the inner harbor beneath buildings and boardwalks and sea walls.
And it turns out, we’ve even remodeled the mountain.
On certain topics, there is a wealth of unexplored but well documented history, but on others, it seems that we’ve just repeated the same few things over and over again, with each historian just restating what they read before. This is more or less the case with the Turnpike. Very little information repeated again and again.
If you want to know what has been said over and over about the Turnpike, you can read what John Locke wrote in 1859, four years after he arrived in Camden and discovered that none of the inhabitants had bothered to write much of anything down since they began arriving nearly 100 years earlier. From that point on, everyone from The Camden Herald to the local attorneys quoted Locke as the gospel.
We are surely indebted to him for getting the ball rolling, but his accounts are based off town meeting notes that he described with some frustration as being very basic.
He cautions us that the complete history of the town will have to be written by future historians. He says of his writing that “we shall content ourself with merely writing a few memorials which we have obtained at sundry times from the lips of elderly witnesses, or gleaned from old records, books and papers.”
This is how we learn of “Sambo,” the manumitted (freed) slave who was featured in Locke’s book for being the only worker willing to risk his life during a particularly dangerous moment rolling boulders down the cliff of Megunticook to form the road that we all enjoy today.
The accent that Locke chose for “Sambo” was the same as the one for James Richards’ supposed African cook. The stereotypical drawl we now know is historically inaccurate, and we are not going to recreate it here. Locke quotes him as talking to his “master” and bravely stating that all he asks is that if he dies in the venture that he is given a decent burial.
The name “Sambo” itself is a derogatory term with questionable origins. “Sambo” is the name given to many African slaves by people other than their parents.
I don’t blame Locke, but you can’t help but feel a little uneasy realizing how little we know about the people who built the road and how some of its success depended on undervaluing some people’s lives.
Daniel Barrett hired freed slaves at a time when half the country still held people as property.
From the archives, we know the Turnpike was widened and repaired a few times over the years with multiple articles over many decades saying that the Turnpike was “almost finished.” Most notably, major improvements happened around 1918 and again in the 1970s, always involving blasting.
I mentioned the other day to someone that I was surprised that we didn’t end up with rocks rolling into the road from time to time and was informed that it’s actually relatively common. Oh my… maybe what you don’t know can’t hurt you?
The Camden Herald archives confirmed there have indeed been several notable rockslides. The most serious that I have found was in 1975 when the whole area had to be roped off because of an unstable section of roughly 75-100 feet. A young hiker was seriously injured and Bob Oxton directed the rescue operation.
But if you ask the Camden Public Works Department, you’ll also hear the stories of the more minor events that didn’t make the news. Just a month or two ago, they were clearing debris off the road and notifying the State.
Blasting and breaking of rock is such a part of Camden history that I wish I knew more about the techniques over time. If there were one person I wish I could have met from Camden’s past, it might be William Barrett, the son of the same Daniel Barrett who was famous for the wild lifestyle he lived on the side of the mountain. He could tell me all about the blasting and moving of rocks around Camden.
Bill inherited the Barrett land by the lake and Turnpike when his father died. His brothers got the original Barrett homestead where the 12 children had been raised — now Aldermere Farm, Lilly Pond and the surrounding area.
The house where Bill Barrett lived stood for many years in what is today the parking lot for the Maiden’s Cliff hiking trail. It wasn’t until 1968 that the old house came down as part of general improvements to the Turnpike area — much to the dismay of the Camden-Rockport Historical Society and others who wanted to save it. A photo can be seen in the Dec. 5, 1968, edition of The Camden Herald.
Bill suffered a serious blasting injury, which left him with part of a rock permanently lodged in his forehead. He reported to The Boston Globe around 1890 that he had been working off his tax debt to the town of Rockport and was ordered to blast a rock that nearly killed him. The recovery, aside from the physical side effects, left him with the nickname of Crazy Bill Barrett.
“I had to take to the woods and live on wild animals and herbs to help my head. I have been in the woods a whole year at a time… it was tough at times living in the wilds of Maine going sometimes for days without even crackers in the way of bread, and sometimes having to eat raw meat, but during the time I discovered a root and made snuff of it that cured my head trouble.”
Well, wouldn’t we all like to know the magical root that Bill Barrett found on the side of the mountain to cure his head troubles. I suppose that’s why a lot of us go out to hike in the mountains — to cure our head troubles with a big or little dose of Mother Nature.
Sometimes people who research can fall into the habit of looking too much at history books to try and solve this metaphorical puzzle rather than looking for clues in nature. Since the documented history before the 1870s is very scant, there’s probably a lot more value in observing the natural scenery.
I’ve driven the Turnpike a thousand times or more over my life but I had never really looked carefully at the rocks perched alongside.
I pulled off to the side of the road in one of the parking areas carved out on the Lincolnville side of the road and flew my son’s little drone up for a different look at the historical puzzle above and below me.
This time, there was nothing metaphorical about the puzzle. Rompecabezas, rather than puzzle was the word that instantly came to mind. As a Spanish teacher, I sometimes default to my second language when a phrase or word seems more appropriate than the English word. Rompecabezas translates literally to “head breaker” and that was immediately the sensation I got as I looked at the images coming up on the viewfinder of the drone.
The patchwork of broken rocks piled all around me, many of them showing obvious feathering marks from the splitting techniques used more than two centuries ago, was most definitely a historical rompecabezas in both the metaphorical and literal sense.
My goal had been to see if I could see signs of rocks shifting along the mountain, and you certainly can, but more unnerving than that was the unmistakable sound of tumbling rocks.
I’m sure most of it is stable most of the time and that statistically your chances of being hit by a falling boulder from Megunticook Mountain are quite low, but there’s a reason why so many of the early writings about the Turnpike refer to it as terrifying and not just beautiful like we say today.
There is a poem written by “Mary of Rockport” from September 1874 that speaks of recurring vision she had as a child passing by the mountain where she sees the mountain’s cliff forming and then an Indian in his canoe. It is worth quoting in its entirety, but since I’ve again written something much longer than I intended, I will choose just a passage to end with.
“But time rolled on, he passed away,
But left behind him a name;
For this path hewn out from the mountain side
Is his monument of fame.
And again I stand in this lonely pass,
With its grandeur deep and wild
This Vision of fancy comes back to me
As when I was a child.
And I dream again the same wild dream.
I pause and hold my breath,
And I think of many a wild legend
And the fabled pass of death.”
Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and member of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board.