MILLINOCKET, MAINE—I am standing in the middle of Millinocket’s main street, my back to oncoming traffic, but I’m not worried because there is no oncoming traffic. This “magic city,” once a bustling commercial center supporting a huge Great Northern Paper Mill (the largest in the world) employing thousands, has gone dark. The magic is elsewhere, and 90 percent of the downtown businesses are closed.
I hadn’t planned on delving into Millinocket’s history. I came up to Maine in a feisty Kia Rio test car, with my whole family and a couple friends of my daughters, to go whitewater rafting. My daughter was also planning to hike up Mount Katahdin—no easy feat, as it turned out.
The same thing that makes Millinocket a good place to build a paper mill is what also makes it an outdoor recreation standout. The forests are thick and productive, and the Penobscot River is wide and fast running. It was perfect for foresters who wanted to float their logs to the mill. “Town has sprung up in the wilderness as in a single night,” reported the Bangor Daily Commercial in 1900. Prospects most bright.”
And they were bright, for 100 years. But environmentally destructive log rolling ended in 1971, and the river turned out to be perfect for rafting, too. The rafting company we engaged, actually pioneered the sport here—before that, Maine was a good place to bag a moose or catch some fish.
Today, the rafting companies are growing, but just about everything else in Millinocket is stalled. The River Driver’s Restaurant, owned by the New England Outdoors Center, is full and echoing with the stories of raft spills. And the Appalachian Trail Café does a huge breakfast with room for your backpack.
But you can buy old school buildings for $125,000, and a house for $50,000. Nearly every storefront is for rent and will “build to suit.” The clock at the old Wilson’s Jewelry is still ticking, but time seems to have forgotten Millinocket. The population has dropped by almost half since 1970, and the mill finally closed for good in 2008—after declining for decades. Its final owner, Cate Street Capital, sold off its paper-making machines one by one.
“We had everything,” a 75-year-old ex mill worker told the New York Times. “You could make as much money as you wanted.” Unfortunately, that view is widespread in Millinocket—nostalgia for a Maine that isn’t likely to come again. Paper mills have closed all over the Pacific Northwest, and in Maine—where there are no spotted owls to blame. Locals seem suspicious of the tourism business, claiming it doesn’t pay as much and is seasonal (although many rafting companies offer snowmobiling and hunting in the winter).
People like to think they're mobile, but they're really not. Oddly, right after Maine I visited northeast Indiana, which has a totally thriving economy and full employment--making RVs. The Amish communities that make up a quarter of the population are among the residents making six-figure incomes. They're hiring! But would Mainers relocate to Indiana?? I doubt it.
I had a great time in Maine. The rafting companies tend to be off the highways, on heavily rutted dirt roads, and I feared for the Rio at various times—especially when it had to ford a stream—but it proved a tough little vehicle.
The Penobscot is Class V rapids, and our whole boatload got dumped out of my raft at the notorious Cribworks. It wasn’t all that bad, and I’ve had this happen before. If you don’t end up as a “swimmer,” you didn’t really have fun. The eclipse happened while we were on the river, and I borrowed a pair of glasses to watch it.
My daughter fell on the trail, gashed her leg, and got hailed on, but she and her friend made it to the top of Mount Katahdin. The northern end of the Appalachian Trail is the huge Baxter State Park, and Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby has proposed a new park (there’s already a national monument) from her extensive land holdings—but the move is also opposed by locals.
From my admittedly outsider perspective, I think Millinocket should embrace outdoor tourism as its best bet. Millinocket is remote, 72 miles from Bangor, and it’s tough to see it becoming a big manufacturing center there. It worked for the paper mill, because it was close to something—the river, and lots of trees.
A ray of light? The new owner of the mill is Our Katahdin (OK), which paid Cate Street $1 for it. This is good news, since OK is a volunteer economic development outfit whose board president is Sean DeWitt, a Maine native who is a director at the respected World Resources Institute. But OK has a huge task ahead. It wants to repopulate the mill and the town with startup businesses. “Our goal is to generate financial returns and community impact through investments in the bio-based, digital and tourism economies,” OK says.
I’m glad that OK is active, and its presence is felt in town through posters and old newspaper front pages posted in vacant storefronts. Did you know that a schoolboy Donn Fendler was lost in the vast woods around Millinocket for eight days in 1939—and then found alive? He became a Green Beret, lived to be 90, and died only last year.
I want to believe that Millinocket is in good hands. I’m glad the group is embracing the tourism industry, though biotech and digital businesses seem a bit of a stretch for such an isolated location. But Millinocket could reinvent itself as a place people want to live.
Russell Walters, a co-owner of Northern Outdoors, told me Millinocket’s status as a one-industry town has hampered its revival. But he thinks there’s an “awakening” going on there and in other hard-hit interior Maine towns. “It’s a slow awakening, but groups and individuals in these towns are starting to invest their time and energies in the outdoor recreation business,” he said.
I talked to a woman at the New England Outdoor Center downtown--another of the new businesses, and she agreed with Walters that the residents are coming around. She also credited Lucas St. Clair, son of Roxanne, with doing a lot to ease suspicions about the possibility of a new national park.
In the Forks, where Northern Outdoors is based, the company operates year-round. “We have to do that to retain good staff,” he said—people like our excellent and kind tour guide, Ryan Roderick, who prepares school lunch menus when he’s not on the river.
Walters told me Millinocket was even worse off two years ago, which is hard to believe. I hope the next time I come through, I’ll see a thriving community, and that backpackers and river rats will be thronging the streets.