Town of Alton Maine

History of Alton

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts purchased the land which makes up today’s Town of Alton from the Penobscot Tribe of Indians in the late eighteenth century. It later ceded the land to Waterville (now Colby) College. Lots were then sold to individual settlers, or given to them in exchange for homesteading the land.[1]

The first settler in what is now called Alton arrived in 1818. More settlers and homesteaders continued to come, and within twenty-five years, the population of Alton had grown to 200.

Alton was incorporated as a separate town by an Act of the Maine Legislature in 1844,[2] with the first town meeting being held on May 7, 1844. Three selectmen were elected to govern the Town at this time, and this form of government is still used today. 

The Bennoch Road (today’s Route 16) was built in the 1820s, and quickly became the central road in town. It followed the gravel ridge (or esker) which runs north and south through the town, and began at Pushaw Falls and ended near Lagrange Village. Other roads were also built during this period, however, many of those no longer exist. 

In 1860, a hotel was opened on the Bennoch Road, supplying a stopping-off point for food and lodging for the teams of horses hauling freight and wood supplies between Bangor and points north. The hotel flourished until the Bangor and Piscatiquis Railroad (later the B & A) built a rail line through Alton in 1869, which ran somewhat parallel to the Bennoch Road. 

By the 1860s, a second wave of settlers had come to Alton, and the population increased to 531 individuals. The increase in population was primarily due to the fact that several sawmills were in operation at that time, on Pushaw Stream and Dead Stream, and to the fact that one of the largest tanneries in the country had been built in Alton.[3]

The tannery was built in the early 1850s, located at the falls of Dead Stream. At the time it was built, it was the largest tannery in the country.[4] During the tannery’s heyday, the population of the western area of Alton increased to over 400 people. After the tannery had been closed for several years, it then burned to the ground in 1878. The foundation of the tannery can still be located today, on the western side of Dead Stream, where it crosses the Tannery Road.     

As the population of Alton increased, so did the number of schools, and at one time, the Town had as many as five one-room school houses. While the tannery was in full swing, the school in that area of Town alone had 114 pupils. After the tannery and the sawmills closed, Alton’s population declined, as did the number of schools and school-aged children. 

In Alton’s earliest years, there was no church in town, and those wishing to worship together did so in private homes. Later on, services were held in local school houses, and in the Good Templars Hall, built in 1873. A Methodist Society was organized in 1894, and the construction of the first church in town was begun, with the help of many townspeople. The church is still in use today.  

In 1903, the Alton Grange was formed, and it soon became the focal point for much of the social life in Town, with membership increasing to over fifty. Town socials, in which local residents provided live music, were held at the Grange Hall, as were school plays and town meetings.[5]

In 1910, rural mail delivery began in Alton. In 1912 the local phone system was built (by residents of Alton), and in 1931 electrical power, through the Rural Electrification Act, was brought to the upper portion of the town, the lower portion having obtained electricity a few years earlier. 

Until fairly recently, many residents of Alton earned their living through family farms, and it has been reported that in the 1930s, residents of Alton did not feel the effects the Great Depression as much as people in other areas since nearly everyone in town had crops and livestock to help support them. Other individuals during this period worked in the timber industry, or in the mills of neighboring towns.  

The railroad station in Alton was located where the line intercepted the Tannery Road, not too far west of the Bennoch Road. Local residents relied on the railroad for years in order to travel and to get their products to market.  The railroad discontinued the line for economic reasons in 1933 and closed the station, which was a great loss for the town. The old railroad grade still exists, and is used as a trail by the local snowmobile club.

At one time, especially during the latter part of the nineteenth century, nearly all of the good, well-drained land in Alton was cleared and used for agriculture, and until fairly recently, most land along the Bennoch Road was cleared land for hundreds of yards. Even today, many residents remember a time when much of the land in Alton was cleared and still being used by local farmers. 

Today there is only one family farms still operating in Alton, although in the early 1900s, there were over fifty such farms. Most of the old farm buildings that used to be located in town no longer exist, and much of the property formerly used for farming has been divided into smaller house lots.

Another significant change in the town’s landscape is due to the fact that much of the land along the esker (following the Bennoch Road) has been significantly disturbed as a result of gravel extraction, leaving behind many large open pits  Much of the extraction that has occurred took place in the 1960s, when the nearby section of Interstate 95 was built. There are currently still several operating gravel pits in Alton.

As will be discussed below, the population of Alton experienced a large rate of growth in the 1970s and 1980s, but appears to now be leveling off, and is expected to grow moderately in the next ten years. The population of Alton in the year 2000 was 816.  Most residents of Alton currently commute to work in neighboring communities, where they work in a large variety of local industries and occupations. 


[1]  Much of the history set out here was obtained from Alton Then and Now, written by local historian William Sawtell.  The Methodist Women’s Society of Alton engaged Mr. Sawtell to compile a history of the town back in 1988, and copies of his book are can be obtained from the Women’s Society.  -   A great deal of useful information was also found in a history of Alton published in the Town’s Annual Report in 1944, the year of the Town’s 100th anniversary.  - A paper entitled Brief History of Alton, written by University of Maine student Joyce Smith, was also helpful in compiling this review.

[2] The name “Alton” was chosen for the town at this time, the township having been previously known as the “Birch Stream Settlement”. It has been suggested that Alton was probably named after the small English town of Alton, located near the English port of Southampton, a departure point for many new immigrants to America.

[3] In 1860, Luther Lewis’ mill on Pushaw Falls had a yearly output of 900,000 feet of sawed lumber, and Daniel Milliken’s sawmill on Dead Stream produced 100,000 feet of logs and 500,000 shingles. In the same year, the local tannery had an output of leather goods worth $126,000 (a large sum in those days), from 15,000 hides and 30,000 sides of leather.

[4] The operations at the tannery was conducted by Daniel Milliken and other members his family. During this period, Maine’s production of tannery goods was amongst the highest in the nation.   -  In 1881, the executors of the Milliken estate sold all of the property the family owned in Alton property to J.P. Webber for twenty thousand dollars. Today, descendants of J.P. Webber are still owners of large tracts of land in Alton.

[5] The Grange finally closed its doors in the early 1980s, although the old Grange Hall (located across from the Methodist Church on the Bennoch Road) still stands.