Thoreau and the Chamberlain Lake Connection
In a letter on file at the Glover Historical Society, Alonzo Chamberlain Phillips records some details of the Chamberlain family story. He writes “The first Chamberlain that landed in this country of the Spencer Chamberlain family located on the east coast of Maine in 1700. One of the boys went up north in Maine, not far from Moosehead Lake, on the shore of a rather large lake and it is put on the map as Chamberlain Lake. There he cleared up a farm and to this day it is known as the Chamberlain Farm. Nothing of any further note is attached to his memory only the naming of the farm and lake. His brother John went to the west coast of New Hampshire into the town of Westmoreland and hired out to a man to work in a sawmill”.
This John Chamberlain, who reputedly shot Chief Paugus at the Battle of Lovewell’s Pond in 1725, is supposed to be the great grandfather of Spencer Chamberlain who settled in Glover, Vermont around 1808 and was a participant in the letting out of Runaway Pond.
Chamberlain Lake is about 100 miles north of Bangor and is now surrounded by public reserved land connected to Baxter State Park on the southeast and to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway on the north. It was well beyond the limits of white settlement in the early 1700’s, when Maine was still part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
This story is interesting in relation to the story of Runaway Pond for a several reasons. It makes a Chamberlain family claim to another bit of history – the naming of Chamberlain Lake and the first white settlement of that area, and it involves a lake that originally flowed north through the Allagash to the St. John River but was later made to flow south to carry logs to the mills at Bangor.
Unfortunately, Alonzo Chamberlain Phillips does not give the first name of the brother who stayed in Maine, or tell us the name of the boys father who first came to Maine. There were Chamberlains among the early colonists of Massachusetts, where they increased and multiplied and eventually spread to many parts of this country. The genealogical connection has not been made between the John Chamberlain who shot Chief Paugus and Spencer Chamberlain of Westmoreland, NH and later Glover, VT. “Paugus” John Chamberlain is descended from the Massachusetts Chamberlains.
The naming of Chamberlain Lake is another open question. The Dictionary of Maine Place-Names states that “some say that the lake was named for the Chamberlain family farm located there, while others say that the farm was named for the lake”. The Lakes of Maine by Daphne Winslow Merrill reports that “Chamberlain Lake may have been named for an unfortunate man once lost on its shores or possibly a local family”.
The 1790 census records a hunter named Moses Chamberlain living at Caratunk. Maine, which is about 65 miles southwest of Chamberlain Lake. In 1810 he was recorded living at Solon, 20 miles south of Caratunk.
The State of Maine Department of Conservation website article on Allagash History tells the story of the exploitation of the timber resources in the area around Chamberlain Lake. Logs transported on the St. John River, that formed part of the border between Maine and New Brunswick, would be subject to duties levied by Canada. There were more than 300 sawmills in Bangor by the 1830’s and their owners stood to profit handsomely if the logs from the great northwoods could be brought down the Penobscot River.
Chamberlain Lake flowed north, but a short distance south and east were the headwaters of the Penobscot. A plan was devised to dam the outlet of Chamberlain Lake and raise the water level enough that it could be made to flow south through Telos Lake and through a canal called the Telos Cut to Webster Lake and the East Branch of the Penobscot. By fall 1841 the dams and canal were built. One of these dams washed out and was rebuilt. Additional dams allowed better control of the waters and the owners were able to charge a toll on all logs moved through the waterway. This was a slightly larger project than the diversion at Runaway Pond. Thousands of acres of timber, owned by some of the largest private landowners in the country, could now be brought to market.
In 1846 Chamberlain Farm was cleared on the eastern shore of Chamberlain Lake by the company of Coe & Pingree to supply hay and oats for the horses and grow vegetables for the lumber crews.
The impact on Chamberlain Lake of the rise in water level was described by Henry David Thoreau who visited the lake on his third trip to the woods of Maine in 1857. “A belt of dead trees stood all around the lake, some far out in the water, with others prostrate behind them, and they made the shore, for the most part, almost inaccessible. This is the effect of the dam at the outlet. Thus the natural sandy or rocky shore, with its green fringe, was concealed and destroyed.” Runaway Pond, in Glover, VT was changed forever by inadvertent draining while Chamberlain Lake had to adjust to an excess of water.
Thoreau and his travelling companion had come by canoe with their Penobscot guide Joe Polis up the West Branch of the Penobscot River and wished to cross over to Chamberlain Lake to canoe part way down the Allagash. Polis was to carry the canoe while the two campers carried their packs and other supplies to Mud Pond, which flowed into Chamberlain Lake. Thoreau writes: “the Indian said this was the wettest carry in the State, and as the season was a very wet one, we anticipated an unpleasant walk”. And, “after a slight ascent from the lake...we entered on a level and very wet and rocky path through the universal dense evergreen forest, a loosely paved gutter merely, where we went leaping from rock to rock and from side to side, in the vain attempt to keep out of the water and mud”.
“The Indian with his canoe soon disappeared before us; but erelong he came back and told us to take a path which turned off to the westward, it being better walking, and, at my suggestion, he agreed to leave a bough in the regular carry at that place, that we might not pass it by mistake. Thereafter, he said, we were to keep the main path, and he added, ‘You see 'em my tracks.’ But I had not much faith that we could distinguish his tracks, since others had passed over the carry within a few days”.
“We turned off at the right place, but were soon confused by numerous logging-paths, coming into the one we were on, by which lumberers had been to pick out those pines” (the largest and most valuable trees) “which I have mentioned. However, we kept to what we considered the main path, though it was a winding one, and in this, at long intervals, we distinguished a faint trace of a footstep. This, though comparatively unworn, was at first a better, or at least, a drier road, than the regular carry which we had left. It led through an arbor-vitae wilderness of the grimmest character. The great fallen and rotting trees had been cut through and rolled aside, and their huge trunks abutted on the path on each side, while others still lay across it two or three feet high. It was impossible for us to discern the Indian’s trail in the elastic moss, which, like a thick carpet, covered every rock and fallen tree, as well as the earth. Nevertheless, I did occasionally detect the track of a man, and I gave myself some credit for it. I carried my whole load at once, a heavy knapsack, and a large India-rubber bag, containing our bread and blanket, swung on a paddle; in all, about sixty pounds; but my companion preferred to make two journeys, by short stages, while I waited for him. We could not be sure that we were not depositing our loads each time farther off from the true path”.
Later, “the walking rapidly grew worse....we found ourselves in a more open and regular swamp, made less passable than ordinary by the unusual wetness of the season. We sank a foot deep in water and mud at every step, and sometimes up to our knees, and the trail was almost obliterated, being no more than that a musquash (muskrat) leaves in similar places, when he parts the floating sedge. In fact, it probably was a musquash trail in some places. We concluded that if Mud Pond was as muddy as the approach to it was wet, it certainly deserved the name. It would have been amusing to behold the dogged and deliberate pace at which we entered that swamp, without interchanging a word, as if determined to go through it, though it should come up to our necks”.
They had lost their way, but Joe Polis found them and they set off again while he returned to carrying the canoe. “We then entered another swamp, at a necessarily slow pace, where the walking was worse than ever, not only on account of the water, but the fallen timber, which often obliterated the indistinct trail entirely. The fallen trees were so numerous, that for long distances the route was through a succession of small yards, where we climbed over fences as high as our heads, down into water often up to our knees, and then over another fence into a second yard, and so on; and going back for his bag my companion once lost his way and came back without it. It was a mossy swamp, which it required the long legs of a moose to traverse, and it is very likely that we scared some of them in our transit, though we saw none. It was ready to echo the growl of a bear, the howl of a wolf, or the scream of a panther; but when you get fairly into the middle of one of these grim forests, you are surprised to find that the larger inhabitants are not at home commonly, but have left only a puny red squirrel to bark at you. Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl: it is the imagination of the traveller that does the howling”.
“Making a logging-road in the Maine woods is called ‘swamping it,’ and they who do the work are called ‘swampers.’ I now perceived the fitness of the term. This was the most perfectly swamped of all the roads I ever saw. Nature must have cooperated with art here”. Meanwhile, Joe Polis, proceeding on the correct path with the canoe, reached the lake and then walked in to find them in the swamp. Thoreau says “it was at least five miles by the way we had come, and as my companion had gone over most of it three times, he had walked full a dozen miles, bad as it was. In the winter, when the water is frozen, and the snow is four feet deep, it is no doubt a tolerable path to a footman. As it was, I would not have missed that walk for a good deal. If you want an exact recipe for making such a road, take one part Mud Pond, and dilute it with equal parts of Umbazookskus and Apmoojenegamook; then send a family of musquash through to locate it, look after the grades and culverts, and finish it to their minds, and let a hurricane follow to do the fencing”.
This was Thoreau’s introduction to Chamberlain Lake. They camped on the shore that night, across from Chamberlain farm. “The smoke of our fire on the shore brought over two men in a canoe from the farm, that being a common signal agreed on when one wishes to cross. It took them half an hour to come over, and they had their labor for their pains this time. Even the English name of the lake had a wild, woodland sound, reminding me of that Chamberlain who killed Paugus at Lovewell’s fight”.
So there, on the artificially raised shoreline of that wild woodland lake, after a day of hard but not-to-be-missed walking, Thoreau, student of New England and Native American history and the self-appointed “inspector of rainstorms and snowstorms” in his native Concord, is reminded by the not-uncommon name Chamberlain (once denoting a chamber attendant of a lord or king) of the old story of John chamberlain and the shooting of Chief Paugus at Lovewell’s Pond in western Maine one hundred and twenty five years before. This may be as definite a connection as can ever be made.
They canoed north on the lake to the upper reaches of the Allagash and on their return stopped at Chamberlain Farm. “We landed on a low and thinly wooded point there, and while my companions were pitching the tent, I ran up to the house to get some sugar, our six pounds being gone; -it was no wonder they were, for Polis had a sweet tooth. He would first fill his dipper nearly a third full of sugar and then add the coffee to it....Here was a clearing extending back from the lake to a hilltop, with some dark-colored buildings and a storehouse in it, and half a dozen men standing in front of the principal hut, greedy for news....The Chamberlain Farm is no doubt a cheerful opening in the woods, but such was the lateness of the hour that it has left but a dusky impression on my mind. As I have said, the influx of light merely is civilizing, yet I fancied that they walked about on Sundays in their clearing somewhat as in a prison-yard”. (Quotes are from The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau, first published in 1864.)