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New book details Moses Burnham and Moosehead’s first steamboat

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Moses Burnham arrived at The Forks from Littleton, New Hampshire in 1836 as one of the incorporators of the Moosehead Lake Steam Navigation Company, the group that launched the first steamboat at Moosehead Lake in the spring of 1836. He took over an existing hotel at The Forks bridge, formerly operated by Edward G. Sturgis, of the Vassalboro Sturgis family.

Burnham came at the height of an economic surge in timber speculation, which spurred creation of the Kennebec Boom Company, the Moosehead Dam Company, and the Kennebec Log Driving Company — shaping the timber industry in the upper Kennebec for more than a century.

An 1842 portrait by the important itinerant artist E. E. Finch is the only known image of this man who had such a prominent role at The Forks. The portrait, paired with another of his wife, was sold at auction in 2005 as part of the Horton Foote Collection. Burnham kept the hotel by the bridge at The Forks for 25 years, and eventually owned much of the land in the villages of The Forks and West Forks. Yet, very little has been written about him — until now.

“In The Forks of the Kennebec,”

Photo courtesy of Northeast Auctions
Moses W. Burnham
by E.E. Finch in 1842

Burnham left the upper Kennebec abruptly in the fall of 1861 under suspicion that he was involved in the murder of his employee Mitchel Berry, whose body was found in the river below Bingham Village. Before his departure, he quickly sold his properties to Joseph Clark and Philander Coburn, brother of Abner Coburn, who remained major landowners in the upper Kennebec for decades.

Research on Burnham has resulted in a full-length book on early settlement and development at The Forks, from about 1817 to 1840, and new details about the steamer Moosehead. “In The Forks of the Kennebec,” author Marilyn Sterling-Gondek of Bingham and Topsham, has transcribed excerpts from the handwritten trip journals and correspondence of Col. John Black, agent for the Trustees of William Bingham, and Col. Caleb Jewett’s records of individuals who worked to build the Canada Road in 1818-19.

Col. Black’s papers provide valuable eye-witness details about events and individuals that shaped The Forks, including its first roads, ferries, bridges, and mills. His schedule of township sales in the Kennebec Million Acres includes some of the most active timber speculators in the 1830s, including David Webster and John Bradley of Fryeburg, and Samuel E. Crocker and Mason Greenwood, prominent merchants of Portland, all of whom are briefly profiled. The Forks was a major gateway to their timber operations in and around Moosehead.

The book, written in support of the Old Canada Road Historical Society in Bingham, is available from the society and online at https://store.bookbaby.com/book/the-forks-of-the-kennebec1.

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