Looking Over Sebago Lake

The History of the Protection of Sebago Lake, 1908-1925

Transcribed from Portland Water District Annual Reports

Historical Photos


The exhaustive examination of the waters of Lake Sebago, made at the time of the appraisal, showed conclusively that the water is of exceptional purity, and in its natural state has all the elements of an ideal water for domestic and manufacturing purposes.

To discover and prevent possible chances of pollution, the Trustees have caused frequent inspections to be made of the shores of the lake, and to that end employed Dr. William. S. Thompson, of Standish, local inspector. Dr. Thompson has not only the technical knowledge and ability requisite for the position, but is interested in the work and as a member of the Board of Health of the Town of Standish has official authority in that capacity. He has done most effective work for the District, and in his reports has made frequent suggestions which adopted by the Trustees, who have recommended improvements and changes in various localities. In practically every instance the requests of the Trustees have been granted, and the inhabitants about the lake, as a whole, seem to appreciate conditions and to be willing to adopt reasonable regulations to protect the water supply.


The sanitary conditions at the Lake show steady improvement, especially about Sebago Station. At this place the Maine Central Railroad have discontinued their old vaults, and constructed new ones at locations and upon lines suggested by the Trustees.

Dr. W. S. Thompson, of the local Board of Health, has continued to act as sanitary inspector for the District, and has given the matter his personal attention.

On August 25th the entire Board of Trustees made their annual inspection of the lake and examined different locations and personally satisfied themselves that the regulations of the District were being carried out.


Dr. W. S. Thompson, of Standish, has continued to act as Sanitary Inspector for the District, and under his care conditions at Lake Sebago are constantly improving.

In August the Trustees made their annual inspection of the lake with Dr. Thompson and were satisfied that the cottagers, with few exceptions, were observing the regulations of the District.


The steady increase of summer cottages around the shores of Lake Sebago has been the cause of considerable anxiety to the Trustees. Last year, when a tract of land near the intake, and comprising nearly a mile of water front, was plotted into cottage lots and offered for sale, the Trustees decided that prompt action was necessary. Under its charter the District is empowered to condemn land to protect the purity of the water, and, proceeding under this power, all of the land on the lake shore between the Maine Central Railroad and a point well beyond the intake was condemned. This tract embraces nearly two miles of water front and includes all the land lying between the highway and the shore of the lake, and no further danger from this point need be feared. The chemical analyses received from the State Department show the water to be exceptionally pure, as appears by the tabulations found elsewhere in this report. The greatest danger lies in the contamination from increased population near the intake, and additional land should be taken from time to time as fast as the income of the District will permit and the necessity of the situation may require.


Settlement is being made as rapidly as possible with the land owners from property condemned on the shores of Sebago Lake. Most of the cottages upon these lots have been removed, and it is hoped that during the coming summer settlement can be made for the remainder and the cottages removed, thereby eliminating all possible sources of pollution in the immediate vicinity of the intake. In addition to these precautions, the Trustees have prepared for presentation to the Legislature an act forbidding trespassing upon these lands and empowering the State Board of Health to adopt rules and regulation to protect the purity of the water. Hitherto it has been impossible to prevent bathing, even in the vicinity of the intake, and among other improvements the Legislature will be asked to prohibit bathing within two miles of that point.

During the latter part of 1912 some question was raised at to the condition of the water supply, and to satisfy themselves and the public regarding the matter the Trustees secured the services of Prof. Evans, of the State Board of Hygiene, and of Dr. Whittier, of Bowdoin College, both of whom personally inspected the water supply and took a great number of samples for investigation. Their reports showed no occasion for alarm, but in order to be in close touch with the situation the Trustees voted to establish a complete laboratory for testing the water.

The laboratory has been equipped under the direction of Prof. James M. Caird, of Troy, NY, an eminent authority on water works sanitation. Prof. Caird is to furnish a man to make the tests under his supervision, and they will be continued for a sufficient period to absolutely determine the possibility of pollution. No steps and no expense will be spared to make sure of the condition of the water and to protect its purity.


Settlement has been made with most of the land owners for property condemned on the shore of the lake. Many cottages have been removed during the last year and the premises cleared up under the direction of the Trustees.

In addition to this, there have been constructed a substantial fence of closely woven galvanized wire and steel posts from the Maine Central Railroad to the Lakehurst property, a distance of about one and one-half miles. This fence protects the property taken by the District from encroachment by picnic and automobile parties which have heretofore had ready access to the shore of the lake and been a source of danger.

Under the legislation in 1913, bathing has been prohibited within two miles of the intake, much to the satisfaction of the Trustees and to the improvement of the water supply.

Prof. James M. Caird, of Troy, New York, has been in charge of the protection of the water supply throughout the year. Under his direction exhaustive daily tests of the water have been made, during which time nearly five thousand samples were taken. There has also been installed at Sebago Basin an up-to-date plant for the hypochlorite treatment of the water. This plant was placed in operation during the past year to prove its effectiveness, although the daily examinations of the water showed no necessity for its continued use. At times, however, the water showed the effect of the spring and fall freshets, and it is the intention of the Trustees to operate the plant as a precautionary measure during the spring, summer and fall months.

Extracts from Prof. Caird’s report, printed elsewhere, show more in detail the effectiveness and thoroughness of his work. In addition to these precautions the Trustees have continued a thorough inspection of the sanitary conditions under the direction of Dr. W. S. Thompson, Chairman of the local Board of Health of the Town of Standish, who has been of invaluable assistance to the Trustees in the regulation of all questions raised by the cottage owners as to the disposal of waste and drainage.

Under the provisions of the law of 1913 no cottage can now be built within two hundred feet of the shore of the lake without first obtaining from the Trustees of the Portland Water District or their Sanitary Inspector an approval of the plan for drainage. Dr. Thompson has attended to these matters to the satisfaction of both the Trustees and the cottage owners. The Trustees are pleased to report that with very few exceptions the efforts to protect the watershed has met with the hearty approval and co-operation of the cottage owners.

Immediately upon the passage of the law authorizing the State Board of Health to do so, the Trustees requested the Board to investigate and recommend some plan of governing the disposal of waste from the steamers and other craft plying upon the lake, and it is expected that during the coming year it will be possible to adopt and install more up-to-date and improved facilities for this purpose.

The Trustees have offered to install all such devices at the expense of the District, and have the assurance of the owner of the Sebago Lake Steamboat Line that he will be pleased to cooperate toward that end.


All of the cottages upon the land condemned at the lake for protection of the water supply were removed during the year and men immediately set at work clearing up the premises and burning the rubbish.

Prof. James Caird of Troy, NY, the sanitary expert in charge of the water supply, presents elsewhere this report an exhaustive statement of the work done under his direction. The hypochlorite plant at Sebago Basin has been run a greater portion of the time, and exhaustive daily tests of the water and milk supply have been made throughout the year.

In addition to these matters, the department has investigated the history of all reported cases of typhoid fever to see if they had any possible connection with the water supply. In these matters the Board has been in frequent consultations with the local Board of Health and has worked in harmony therewith.

During the year negotiations were taken up with the Maine Central Railroad to prevent the construction of cottages on the shore between Sticky River and Sebago Village. The District has also contracted to purchase from the E.I. DuPont Powder Co. the point of land above Smith’s Mills which was rapidly being filled with cottages. These arrangements now give the Trustees the control of practically the entire shore front of the lower bay with the exception of the beach and wharf near the railroad station, and plans are now nearly completed to install a sterilizing plant at the brook draining Sebago Lake Village, thus rendering harmless the most prolific source of trouble around the entire lake.


Considerable progress has been made during the year in the matter of protection of the water supply. Two small islands in the lake, with cottages thereon, have been condemned and the cottages removed. Several acres of land near the Dupont Powder Works, which had been sub-divided into cottage lots and offered for sale, have been purchased, also the mill of the old Star Match Company on the shore of the Sticky River. These purchases give the Trustees control of practically the entire shore line of the lower bay.

The hazard of a typhoid epidemic in Sebago Lake Village has been guarded against by the construction of a new hypochlorite plant to sterilize the waters of the stream which drains the village and empties into Sebago Lake at the steamboat landing. Land was leased from the Maine Central Railroad Co. and a building is in course of construction thereon, and it is expected that the plant will be in operation this fall, thereby safeguarding the most prolific source of contamination around the lake.


No reported activities related to Lower Bay.


Believing that a more rigorous patrolling and policing of the watershed would be for the best interest of the District, the Trustees early in 1917 purchased a motor boat and provided an inspector who devoted his entire time to investigating conditions around the shore of the lake and enforcing the State laws and regulations of the District, giving special attention to the prohibition of bathing and protection of the banks from polluting material. This additional precaution has resulted in an increased effort on the part of the cottage owners and campers to clean up their premises, and in other ways has been most satisfactory to the Trustees.

The lake steamers have been equipped with sanitary toilets, so that pollution from this source has been eliminated. Every possible effort is being made to keep the pollution reduced to a minimum.


The motor boat patrol and policing of the lake has been continued, and at the request of the District the E.I. Dupont Powder Co. has installed a modern plant for the sterilization of the drainage area near Smith’s Mills. This plant offers protection against possible sources of pollution at this place. There still remains, however, a considerable amount of unprotected watershed in this vicinity, which the Trustees hope to clean up by condemnation proceedings as soon as possible.


The customary patrol of the lake has been kept up during the year, and for the better protection of the watershed one of the large holdings on Indian Island has been purchased by the District and the cottage thereon removed. Arrangements have also been made to purchase of Mr. Howard Winslow his cottage and land near the intake, removing another possible source of pollution.

Chemist – A hypochlorite plant has been installed and is in operation on the stream which drains Sebago Village, so that possible pollution from this source has been reduced to a minimum. A liquid chlorine plant has been installed on a stream discharging into the Sticky River. This stream drains the territory in the vicinity of the Smith’s Mills plant of the Dupont Powder Company.

An inspection of Sebago Lake and its surroundings was made by Dr. L. D. Bristol, State Commissioner of Health, who under date of July 25th, 1918, wrote in part as follows: “As a result of this trip, I am more certain than ever before that the Portland Water District is doing everything possible to prevent pollution of the water at its source, and to supply the people of Portland with water in as pure condition as possible. Basing upon my experience in connection with the purification of grossly polluted water in the West, I believe the conditions surrounding your water supply for the City of Portland are almost ideal.”


Carrying out the adopted policy of the District to remove all cottages on the lower bay at Sebago Lake, the cottage belonging to Mr. Howard Winslow was removed during the year from land near the intake. This was one of the most expensive cottages purchased by the District.

The customary patrol of the lake has been kept up during the season, both by land and by motor boat. The summer cottagers are becoming more accustomed to the regulations of the District, and there is less evidence of pollution than in the past.


In pursuance of the plan of the Trustees to eventually own and control the entire water front of the lower bay of Lake Sebago, the cottage of Henry M. Jones, near the intake, was purchased during the year. This cleans up the entire tract of cottage lots at Lakehurst, which was the nearest settlement to the intake, and insures a greater degree of safety at this important point.

Negotiations are under way for the purchase of still further properties on the shores of the lake. The results of the control of the water front and the sanitary work that has been done on the watershed are well shown and justified by the steady decrease in the bacterial content of the lake water.

Chemist – Special investigation of Bacteriologist concerning higher B. coli communis counts at the Basin than the intake.


The results of the tests of the lake water at the intake during the year were most gratifying, showing a steady reduction in possible pollution and justifying the expenditure that had been made in the past in purchasing land and protecting the watershed. The first five years of investigations of the lake water showed twenty-two samples in each one thousand with traces of pollution. In the year 1921 the improvement was so marked that only two samples out of one thousand showed signs of pollution, and during the year 1922 not a single sample of lake water showed pollution. Encouraged by these reports, and pursuant to the policy adopted by the Trustees to secure and protect all of the land fronting on the lower bay, the Trustees took advantage of a favorable opportunity and purchased the Daniel Dole property, consisting of about fifty-three acres, at Standish, near the ice houses. This property controlled a considerable water front and was especially available for summer cottages, and it was deemed advisable to secure it before it was developed for that purpose.

During the year, the Trustees were advised by the E. I. Dupont Company, owners of the extensive properties at Smith’s Mills, that the entire plant, consisting of sawmill, shook mill, boarding house, moving picture house, nine double tenements and several single tenements, was to be sold at a fraction of its cost and the District was given the first opportunity to purchase the property. These properties had long been a source of danger, owing to a system of water sewage emptying into cesspools, the overflow from which found its way into Sticky River, and thence into the lake. Many of the workmen lived in temporary buildings on adjoining properties with no proper sanitary arrangements, making it extremely difficult to properly protect the watershed. In view of all the circumstances, the Trustees deemed it advisable to purchase the properties, and a contract was entered into whereby the E. I. Dupont Company agreed to sell the entire plant, consisting of about one hundred acres of land, with all dwelling houses and other equipment, originally costing over $300,000 for $90,000. A partial payment was made, and the company is under contract to deed the property to the District in the spring of 1923, as soon as the lumber now on the property can be disposed of. This will clean up the most dangerous locality in the lower bay and cannot fail to have a good effect on protecting the watershed.

At the time the District took over the vacant lots on Indian Island, a few lots with cottages were allowed to remain. These cottages were occupied only a few weeks during the summer by non-residents, who promised strict adherence to the sanitary regulations of the District, and installed proper appliances for the protection of the watershed. During the summer of 1922, however, it was found that some of the inhabitants of these cottages were violating the law by bathing off the shore of the island, and upon complaint made to them refused to abide by the regulations of the District. Inasmuch as these cottages were near the intake and were prolific sources of danger, if the inhabitants were not honestly observing the regulations of the District, the Trustees deemed it necessary to acquire these properties and there were taken by eminent domain proceedings. The damages for these have not yet been settled, but will be submitted to the County Commissioner during 1923.


The Trustees have continued their policy of acquiring lands to protect the watershed, and during the year have taken over all of the properties on Indian Island, so that the District now controls this entire property.

A source of danger has arisen in recent years from camping parties that often trespass upon the shore of the lake, making overnight stops with no proper arrangements for the disposal of refuse. Signs prohibiting trespassing are not sufficient to prevent these encroachments, and the Trustees have found it necessary to establish and maintain during the summer months a daily motor-boat patrol of the lower bay. This daily patrol, together with the supervision by the local sanitary inspector of other danger points, is believed to be sufficient to adequately protect the watershed.


The property at Smith’s Mills, for which a contract of purchase had been made in 1923 with the E. I. Dupont Company, was turned over pursuant to the contract. This effectually removed one of the worst dangers of pollution about the lake.


Protection of the Water Supply – Filtration.

When the water works were taken over by the District in 1908, the Trustees caused a most exhaustive examination to be made of the lake water to determine whether a filtration plant was necessary. For this purpose they retained the services of the most eminent sanitary engineers available, namely, George C. Whipple, Professor of Sanitary Engineering at Harvard University, and a member of the firm of Hazen & Whipple, sanitary engineers of international reputation, specializing in municipal water supplies. Mr. Hazen was also engaged. Both Prof Whipple and Mr. Hazen have written many standard textbooks on water supply subjects, and they are generally conceded to have no superiors in this line. Mr. Hazen has designed many of the largest filtration systems and water supplies in the United States and Canada. He was the first engineer of the Portland Water District in 1908 and designed the new 42-inch main.

The District has also retained the services of Leonard Metcalf, of the firm of Metcalf & Eddy, and he was consulting engineer of the District until his death in the fall of 1925. Mr. Metcalf was also consulting engineer of the Metropolitan Water Supply of Massachusetts, and has testified in nearly all of the important cases in late years on these matters. These eminent specialists made exhaustive examinations of Lake Sebago and its waters, and unanimously agreed that Sebago water in its natural condition was a first class drinking water and did not require filtration. At the same time the Portland Water Company engaged the services of other eminent sanitary engineers, among whom was Prof. William P. Mason, of the Rennselaer Polytechnic Institutes, author of several standard textbooks and an acknowledged sanitary expert. At the hearing on the valuation of the Portland Water Company system, it was unanimously agreed by the experts on both sides and made a part of the record in the case that Sebago water did not require filtration. Dr. Mason on the stand testified as follows:

“I have considered the water as at least as good and in many cases better than filtered water for this reason, that bacteriologically and chemically it compares favorably, shows equally as good, and a pure water as furnished by nature is always better than a equally pure furnished by art, because art might possibly fail in its operation sometime.”

The experts did recommend, however, that the District acquire lands around the shore of the lower bay, and that bathing near the intake be prohibited, and that the watershed be policed to prevent violation of the law, all of which has been done. In accordance with these recommendations, the District has expended more then $200,000 in purchasing land in the lower bay, until they now control practically its entire water front, and the Legislature has prohibited bathing within two miles of the intake.

During the past year the Trustees were informed that the law against bathing was being broken, and they ordered that personal notice be given all within the restricted area that the law must be observed. This aroused the resentment of some of the cottage owners, who claimed they should be permitted to bathe in the lake and that the District should remedy any resulting pollution by the construction of a filtration plant.

A campaign for such a plant is now on, and its proponents urge its necessity in order that the restrictions about the lake may be removed, and suggest that the cost of the filtration plant may be met by selling for cottage lots the land about the lake which the District has acquired, not knowing or forgetting that if the lands which were taken to protect the water supply are used for any other purpose, the title thereto will immediately revert to the original owners.

The Trustees know that the water supply is better protected and is in better condition today than it was eighteen years ago, and that no necessity exists for a filtration plant provided the present policy of protecting the supply is continued. They are fortified in this conclusion by an additional report made to the Trustees by Professor Whipple, who again investigated the water supply at the request of the Trustees in 1918, and reported as follows:

“The present arrangements for safeguarding the source of supply from Sebago Lake seem to me to be adequate. I refer to the elimination of many of the cottages on the lake shore, the fencing in of a large area, the prohibition of bathing, the provision of suitable toilets on the boats and the chlorination of the two influent brooks near the intake.”

The Trustees have, however, caused an investigation to be made to determine the cost of a filtration plane, should the same at any time be found necessary. Such a plant would cost $1,000,000, and the expense of operating it would amount to $50,000 per year, which, with interest on cost, would make an expense of $100,000 per year. As the total water income of the District is only $500,000 this would require a 20% increase in water rates throughout the entire District and impose an entirely unnecessary burden upon the water takers. The Trustees regret the agitation that is being made for a filtration plant, as it tends to alarm the public, and gives the impression that the present Board of Trustees are neglecting to adequately protect the water supply, when such is not the case. The Trustees wish to state unequivocally that the water supply of Portland is being constantly guarded and is perfectly safe, and if the Trustees can be upheld in their enforcement of present regulations, filtration will probably never be necessary.

The Trustees consider the protection of the water supply of such vital importance as to warrant the advice of the best sanitary experts the country affords, and they have not hesitated to secure such advice and have faithfully followed the recommendations made. Should these experts advise a filtration plant to be necessary, the Trustees would unhesitatingly and immediately concur in that conclusion. Until then they do not consider it right to impose any additional burden upon the water takers.