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by Gregor Smith
On October 6, the City of Waterville will dedicate a new walkway and park at Head of Falls, a once-thriving residential and industrial neighborhood that is now a largely vacant strip of land adjacent to downtown Waterville along the Kennebec River. The $1.5 million project will be the property's most visible enhancement since it was cleared of buildings during Urban Renewal more than four decades ago.
The centerpiece of the new park will be a wide, curving, handicapped-accessible walkway along the river bank, starting at the Two Cent Bridge and proceeding northward to connect with existing trails. Dubbed "RiverWalk at Head of Falls," the hard-surfaced, 2200-foot-long walkway will have a gazebo at its southern end, by the bridge, and an outdoor amphitheater at the northern terminus, with tiered seating for 150 facing the river. Along the walkway will be play areas for children, ornamental shrubs, and informational kiosks and art installations about the river and Waterville's rich and varied past.
As part of the project, the rotating, metal sculpture "Ticonic" was moved in early May from a traffic island in the Concourse to a spot just south of the amphitheater. Named after the falls themselves, the 33-foot-high sculpture by the late Roger Majorowicz was originally installed in November 1997.
Head of Falls has been in use for centuries, first by Native Americans, who established a burial ground stretching from present-day Temple Street to the Hathaway complex, and later by European settlers, who used the falls as a source of power for industry. The Lockwood Cotton Mill opened in 1875 the mill complex is now called Hathaway, since the Hathaway Shirt Factory moved into Mill #2 after Lockwood closed in 1956 followed by the Waterville Iron Works and the Wyandotte Worsted Woolen Mill, and the Hollingsworth & Whitney (later Scott) Paper Mill just across the river.
In 1901, a footbridge was built to make it easier for residents of Head of Falls to get to jobs at the paper mill. The bridge was washed away in 1902, but was replaced with the current suspension bridge in 1903. Constructed by the Ticonic Foot Bridge Company, it was dubbed the "Two Cent Bridge," as one had to pay two cents to cross. Although the bridge is now public property and tolls have not been collected for decades, the name lingers and the structure is the oldest surviving toll footbridge and, at 576 feet, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the United States.
According to local historian and author Earl Smith, whose 2016 novel Head of Falls was set in that neighborhood in the 1950s, "At the peak (1940-60), there may have been as many as 100 families, mostly Lebanese, a few French, living in mostly tenement, a few single family homes. Otherwise, the neighborhood had the Wyandotte Woolen Mill (on the riverbank, immediately north of the Two Cent Bridge), the Iron Works, farthest north at [Head of Falls], and a number of warehouses along the railroad tracks, used by both Wyandotte and the Lockwood Cotton Mills, below, near the bridge."
By the start of the Head of Falls Urban Renewal Project in 1972, the area had become run down and fewer than 20 families were left. The Waterville Iron Works had closed two years earlier, after more than a decade of hard times. The remaining families were moved out and the Wyandotte Mill relocated to southern Waterville countryside at the corner of West River Road and Trafton Road.
During the next three decades, due to a mixture of indifference and disagreement among the city's leaders and residents over what to do with the property, the land sat vacant. Cleared of all buildings, only the footbridge remained, a testament to happier and more prosperous times.
The area was not entirely neglected. A field just north of the bridge was occasionally used for concerts and festivals, and more infamously, as a dumping ground for snow collected from downtown streets. Also, about three decades ago, the city built a paved and lighted, 70-space parking lot south of the bridge to provide all-day parking for employees of downtown businesses and overflow parking for patrons at Opera House events in the evening.
In 2000, the city commissioned a master plan for the redevelopment of Head of Falls. The plan envisioned an amphitheater, an entry plaza at the western end of the Two Cent Bridge, a one-acre park for "both leisure activities and community gatherings," a "riverfront promenade" to connect the bridge to a skating rink, playground, and sports field at the northern end of the property.
The plan also proposed a trail extending southward along the river from the Two Cent Bridge to Bridge Street, a parking area stretched out along the railroad tracks where they parallel Front Street, and, in the field between that parking area and the promenade, three mixed-use buildings housing retail stores, offices, and a restaurant and inn. In 2005 and 2006, using a $500,000 grant from the state and $1.25 million in borrowed funds, the city built the parking area and installed underground water, sewer, and electrical lines to facilitate commercial development of the field.
In 2010, the city constructed an entry plaza at the western approach to the Two Cent Bridge. This included a walkway of pavers, benches, plantings, and an informational kiosk. The following year, extensive repairs to the bridge were completed. These included replacing cables and handrails, as well as the iron grates on both ends of the bridge. The Waterville approach to the bridge was also raised three feet to make it accessible to the handicapped.
The impetus for the RiverWalk came in August 2015, when the Waterville Rotary Club announced a $150,000 grant for the project in honor of the club's centennial. Other large grants and donations followed, including $300,000 from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, $150,000 from Kennebec Savings Bank, $100,000 from the Mitchell Family (that is, U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, his sister Barbara Atkins, their late brother John "Swisher" Mitchell, and other family members), $100,000 from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, $75,000 from Colby College, $50,000 from the Waterville Development Corp., $18,500 from the now defunct Waterville Main Street, $15,000 from Kennebec Messalonskee Trails, and $10,000 each from Inland Hospital and the Hathaway Business Group.
Construction of the new park is proceeding rapidly, and a dedication ceremony will be held on Saturday, October 6. Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who grew up in Head of Falls, will speak. For more information about RiverWalk at Head of Falls, visit www.riverwalkathof.com or call either Waterville City Manager Mike Roy or Executive Assistant Sarah Bowen, both at 207-680-4204.