Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
Portland had no fire hydrants when the Great Fire of 1866 swept through town, leveling one-third of the city. That’s because the Portland Water District hadn’t been invented yet. At that point, the city still ran on hand-dug, individual wells. There was no central source of water at all — for houses or hydrants.
That changed on Thanksgiving Day 1869. That’s when the district, then called the Portland Water Company, piped the first gallons of Sebago Lake water into town. Thanksgiving was on Nov. 18 that year, making it 148 years ago this week.
By 1908, the Portland Water District was not only serving Portland. It also was bringing clean drinking water to South Portland, Westbrook, Cape Elizabeth, Gorham and Falmouth. That’s a lot of people who could get sick all at once if the water were contaminated. Water purity was a great concern at the time, especially since development around the lake started to boom.
In 1913, the district started restricting any bodily contact with Sebago Lake within 2 miles of its intake line at Sebago Lake Village in Standish. But Indian Island, which sits within a mile of the shore, still had a small summer colony on it as of 1922. This cluster of summer homes was referred to by the locals as the Actors’ Colony. That’s because three of the five summer homes were owned by famous Broadway actors.
That summer, one of the actors, Malcolm Williams — who was married to the equally famous Florence Reed — was caught swimming in front of his place by a patrol boat. Williams refused to pay the $20 fine and appealed the charge in court. He lost his case and the incident led to the district taking all cottages by eminent domain. To this day, that whole end of the lake is completely wild, without a single house. Also, the patrol boat still polices the water, looking for scofflaws.
These days, the District provides water to 15 percent of Maine’s population through roughly 1,000 miles of pipes. They keep 25 million gallons of water in storage reservoirs, just in case, and maintain 5,000 fire hydrants.
Also, you can rest assured, no Broadway actor’s been swimming in your water before you drink it.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.