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An Introduction to Saco History

saco_falls_233_225For centuries in pre-historic times, the dramatic falls of the Saco River near where it now crosses Main Street attracted summer visits from the Native people for seasonal fishing and hunting. By the early 17th century, the safe harbor and abundant natural resources attracted European visitors. In 1617 a company of adventurers led by Richard Vines weathered a winter at the mouth of the river in a place still known as Winter Harbor. After subsequent visits, permanent settlers arrived in 1631. Both sides of the river were considered as one town, known first as Saco, and after 1718 as Biddeford. For the next century the town remained sparsely settled because of the devastation of frequent wars with the Natives and the French.

The fortunes of the small settlement changed in 1716, when William Pepperrell, a young merchant from Kittery, purchased 5000 acres and timber rights to an additional 4500 acres on the east side of the Saco. Pepperrell sold off parts of his holdings to millwright Nathaniel Weare and mariner Humphrey Scamman to help expedite his lumbering operation. The eastern settlement's principal roads, Main Street and the Portland, Buxton, and Ferry Roads, were laid out in 1718.

The village grew steadily throughout the 18th century. In 1752 Sir William Pepperrell, then an English Baronet, donated four acres of land near the falls to the town for use as a village common, a burying ground, and a site for a new meetinghouse. The settlers on the eastern bank separated from Biddeford in 1762 and named the new village Pepperrellborough in honor of the town's benefactor. The town grew rapidly in size and wealth as farming, lumbering, and ship building bloomed and prospered. By the time of the Revolution, the growth of international commerce in the town required the government to establish a customs house near the wharves.

mills_226_140In 1805 the town dropped the weighty and difficult to spell name, Pepperrellborough, in favor of the simpler ancient name, Saco. The 19th century brought modern industrial capital development to Saco. The first corporation, a nail factory, was established in 1811. The factory was such a paying venture that it was followed in 1825 by the first of many cotton milling factories. In the next 25 years, Saco could boast of dozens of industries from cotton mills and machine shops, to iron foundries and cigar factories. With the development of massive cotton mills on the western falls of the river, the sister cities of Biddeford and Saco became leaders of manufacturing in the industrial age.


Civic life took on new ceremony with the building of a handsome Town Hall in 1855. The pressures of growth and increasing needs for services led the citizens of Saco to incorporate as a city in 1867. In the second half of the 19th century, an influx of immigrants from Europe and Quebec added cultural diversity to the city's other assets. Despite setbacks during the Civil War, the Panic of 1873,and the Crash of 1929, the city's people and industries prospered for most of the next hundred years.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the city's history came from the closing of the York Mills in 1958. For a century the York had been the city's largest employer and largest taxpayer. Thanks to diversification of the city's economy and the hard work of its citizens, Saco has withstood the changes of the 20th century and is thriving once again. The rich history of Saco has left a priceless legacy in the beauty and variety of the city's buildings. The architecture of Main Street reflects almost every period of change and development in the city's history, from the eighteenth century to the present.

-Prepared by Thomas Hardiman, former curator, Saco Museum