Continuing currents: the rise and fall of Waterville

Unlike schools in metropolitan areas, it is safe to say that few people choose Colby because of what its city has to offer. Waterville, Maine is a small city that owes a lot of its initial growth to its location on the Kennebec River, which was a main route for ships going between Quebec and southern Maine. Once a center for shipbuilding, lumber, trade and paper, immigrants and Mainers alike flocked to this riverside city in search of jobs.  Stephen Plocher ’07 wrote a comprehensive summary on the history of Waterville for his honors thesis, and an abridged version for the City of Waterville’s official website. He outlines Waterville from its creation through its developmental rises and falls.

The role that Colby plays in  Waterville’s community development is a significant one. Programs like Colby Cares About Kids bring Colby students into Waterville and the surrounding towns as volunteers, and with the efforts currently underway, the coming years should bring positive change and expansion to downtown. The student housing complex to be constructed on Main Street will bring business to local stores, and encourage Colby students to get more involved in the local community.

On June 23, 1802, Waterville’s 800 inhabitants had their first experience with redistricting as Waterville split from Winslow. Later, what was known as West Waterville would split to become Oakland, and Waterville would be declared a city in 1888. A center for trade due to its location on the Kennebec River, Waterville offered many jobs in lumber and shipbuilding. A steamboat to Boston from Waterville cost only one dollar. Railroads replaced river travel in the late 1800s, and Waterville beat out Portland, among other cities, to become the center of the Maine Central Railroad Car and Locomotive shops, bringing hundreds of jobs to the area.

Waterville is home to two colleges. For many years it has brought students, families and professors to the area. The Maine Literary and Theological Institution, later to become Colby University and then Colby College, opened in 1813. It was not until 1894 that Kiest Business College opened, which is now known as Thomas College.

Waterville was a destination for immigrants in the 1800s. Syrian-Lebanese immigrants came in the 1860s, as they fled a revolution between Christians and Muslims in Syria. French Canadians came to Waterville from Quebec, bringing hockey and their language with them. They opened St Francis de Sales Catholic Church, which became a bilingual parochial school. Jews from Poland and Russia formed the Beth Israel Congregation in 1902.

Stores and recreation centers popped up all over town as Waterville’s population continued to grow. The city was home to an opera house and multiple theaters. In 1923, the Sisters of Charity built the first hospital, and it was followed shortly after by Thayer Hospital and Waterville Osteopathic Hospital. The Thayer and Sisters hospitals would later combine to become Maine General. In the 1940s, Waterville had a ski slope with the longest rope tow in Maine just off upper Main Street. The South End Arena housed ice hockey games in the winter and outdoor boxing matches in the summer.

In the 1960s, Interstate 95 snaked its way into town, with two different exits on either side of Waterville. With it came new restaurant chains and discount stores. The local stores in Waterville simply could not compete with these chains, and many were forced to close. People who worked in Waterville began seeking housing in more rural areas. Over the next 40 years, the population of Waterville dropped from about 18,500 to 15,500. Many factories and mills that had been in decline since the Great Depression in the 1920s were forced to close. Maine General, Colby, and Thomas were left as the few large employers in Waterville.

Despite this backwards movement, the city of Waterville has always been resilient when faced with challenges. Revitalization efforts included the formation of the Urban Renewal Authority to beautify and improve the structures of downtown Waterville. A main goal of the authority was to improve traffic flow downtown. Older buildings were demolished, but a lot of the city was left empty, leading to the nickname Urban Removal. The Waterville Opera house began hosting the Maine International Film Festival, and the Sterns building was transformed into the Waterville Regional Arts and Community Center in 1996.

Meanwhile, not too far away, a man who would bring prosperity to Waterville found a vacant mill in Dexter, Maine, about 40 miles north of Colby. Harold Alfond, a Massachusetts native, was on his way to creating positive change in central Maine. Leaving his position as President of Norrwock Shoe Company in Maine, a business he founded with his father in 1940, Alfond then opened Dexter Shoe Company. He was incredibly successful in this endeavor, and he is often credited with developing the first factory outlet store, selling factory damaged products for lower prices. Alfond eventually sold Dexter Shoes to Warren Buffet for $433 million. The money went to the Harold Alfond Foundation, founded in 1950 the first private foundation in Maine. Together with his wife Bibby, Harold Alfond has given millions to institutions around New England and particularly in downtown Waterville. The Alfond Youth Center, a combined boys and girls club and YMCA, is just steps from campus. Additionally, Colby’s athletic center, senior apartments and stadium all bear the Alfond name.

In October, President Greene accepted a $10 million grant given by the Alfond foundation towards Colby’s efforts in downtown Waterville. The grant matches a promised $10 million investment by Colby. 

Colby’s development efforts in Waterville aim to bring more business to the area that has seen ups and downs in its economic status. As the plan has yet to be  put into action, its effectiveness remains to be seen.

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