The Sheepscot River begins at the joining of the West Branch and the Turner Branch of the Sheepscot River in Whitefield. The West Branch of the Sheepscot River begins in the southern part of the town of Albion in a swampy area. It flows south through the towns of Palermo, China, and Windsor. Its passes through Branch Pond on the border of Kennebec and Waldo counties. It joins with the Turner Branch in Whitefield. On its 21-mile length, it falls 280 feet in altitude.
The Turner branch of the Sheepscot River begins in a tiny water hole, so small it has no name, in Palermo, then through Somerville and Jefferson. It, too, winds south, and passes through Turner Pond. Turner Pond is said to have been named for Benjamin Turner. Turner Branch then heads east to join with Sheepscot Pond. It travels through Long Pond before passing through the village of Coopers Mills in Whitefield. In Whitefield, it joins with the West Branch. This Turner Branch is 14.5 miles long and falls 390 feet from its source
If you are familiar with Route 32, you know you will pass over both branches about a mile apart as you drive west from Coopers Mills. The two branches join in the backcountry before coming to the bridge on Route 126 just west of the steep hill that dips down from North Whitefield village on its way to the St. Denis Catholic Church. From there, the Sheepscot River flows for 34 miles to the ocean. It will have fallen 120 more feet by that point.
The Sheepscot River and area have been known by many names. Perhaps the most common was “Pahsheapsakook.” (You can see the makings of Sheepscot in this early name.) Fanny Hardy Eckstorm breaks it up: pahshe – divided; apak – rocks; ook – water place, channels. It is a place where the river is split up into many rocky channels. Sheepscot is now the universally accepted name. It is an Abnaki name.
Leonard Cooper came to Newcastle from Rowley, Mass. He settled on the farm and built his own house on Dyer’s Neck. Among his children was a son Jesse, who married Hannah Nickles. Jesse had a son, Leonard (born 1796), named for his grandfather. This is the family that became interested in lumbering and is given credit for cutting the masts to repair the Old Ironsides vessel (see my article on Old Ironsides in my “History Tales of Newcastle, Maine.”) The masts had to be 36 inches in diameter and 96 feet long, and a search had to be made for them. They were cut from trees in the town of Windsor, which is next to the town of Whitefield and the village of Coopers Mills. Young Leonard became acquainted with the area and realized the value of the falls at Coopers Mills. He set up a mill there on the Sheepscot River and the area became Coopers Mills, for him.
North Whitefield was earlier known as Turner’s Corner, for Caleb Turner, who lived there in the early 1700s. I have found no connection between Caleb and Benjamin but I suspect they were on the same family tree.
Sheepscot River flows through the village of Whitefield. Carleton Brook flows into it there. For many years, this area was called Kings Mills, for the King family who used the water power for lumbering.
Alna, formerly New Milford, is at the Head of the Tide on the Sheepscot River. The village is called Head Tide for simplicity. When the town of Newcastle became incorporated the bounds read “beginning at the Narrows, called Sheepscot Narrows at the upper end of Wiscasset Bay, and so extending from said Narrows up the said river eight miles.” This put much of Head Tide in Newcastle. The people who lived in this northwest quarter of the town were not happy to be part of Newcastle. They argued it was too far away for them to get to a religious service in Newcastle. The rest of Newcastle did not want to lose them. They built a church; note the Alna Newcastle church on the hill across the river on Route 194. This quieted them for some years but they still pushed to join what would become Alna. They took their cause to the General Council, which granted their request.
The act for incorporating the town of New Milford (later Alna) was passed June 25, 1794. And an act setting off a part of Newcastle to New Milford was passed Feb. 18, 1795.
Brooks such as the Trout and the Ben add size to the Sheepscot; it is the Dyer River in the center of Sheepscot village, however, that gives the river its big boost. Dyer River is the outlet of Dyer Long Pond in Jefferson. It runs nearly 18 miles through Jefferson and Newcastle to its junction with the Sheepscot River.
Charlotte C. Donnell writes in her book “Sheepscot; Three Hundred Years of Transition” that here at the village of Sheepscot, the river makes a sharp turn to the east, where a submerged rocky ridge creates a considerable fall of water on the outgoing tides and some drop on the up-tides. This is known as the reversing falls. Substantial tidal power has been developed from these falls since about 1760. During the busy days of water power, these natural falls were supplemented by the construction of a dam of four log cribs filled with rocks, between which were heavy wooden gates, the central one so constructed that the gates swung open with a rising tide to let in the maximum amount of water and allowed for the passage of vessels up or down at flood tide. This provided a 14-foot head at the peak of each tide according to local ratings. When the mill burned in 1906, the dam was dynamited and the reversible tide restored to its natural state.
Below the falls is a peninsula referred to as the Town Neck by Cushman. It is the old Sheepscot Farms, and commonly known as the King’s Highway. There, a large branch of water comes in from the east. Known as Marsh River, it covers a large area of marshes and open water that flows through an irregular channel through low-lying meadows and tidal flats.
Deer Meadow brook runs into Marsh River from the north. Beginning at Deer Meadow Pond in Jefferson, it flows 12.25 miles to Marsh River in Newcastle. It is often referred to as Mill River because of its early importance as a mill to grind grain at its falls for the settlers of Sheepscot Farm and those living at the Damariscotta River. After draining a valley to the north, it runs through a narrow gorge with a drop of 15 feet at the falls. It was there that the Walter Phillips Cart Path came to serve both communities. These falls can be easily seen from the Sheepscot Road.
It was on a section of Marsh River, on Route 1 in Newcastle, that, when that road was rebuilt, a section of the marsh was closed off and flooded to form Sherman Lake. This lake was named for Fred Sherman, first selectman of the town. It was a beautiful little lake. A picnic area was built next to it and travelers entering Newcastle from the south could rest there and enjoy the peaceful little lake. But on Oct. 10, 2005, the dam that had been holding the water back broke and overnight it became a part of Marsh River once again.
Wiscasset, our shire town, is the last village on the main land that the Sheepscot River flows by. There are many miles of islands and places to visit between Wiscasset and Reid State Park and the open ocean. But downriver from Wiscasset, the Sheepscot River becomes part of the fingers of water that are so common on our coast.
Wiscasset was settled early as the South Precinct of Pownalborough. Incorporated as the 12th town in Maine on Feb. 13, 1760, parts were set off to Dresden and Alna and a bit of Alna given to Wiscasset before the final boundaries were settled. It became Wiscasset in 1802. Wiscasset is an Abnaki name. One translation for it is “at the hidden outlet.” Wiscasset is at a wide spot in the river with a beautiful harbor. On the opposite shore is Davis Island with its Fort Edgecomb. Wiscasset was noted for its shipbuilding and for its shipping. Many sea captains built their colonial homes there, and there are many historical buildings and sites, like the old jail.