TOPSHAM — It’s about noon on a sunny Tuesday in late June. A couple is sitting at a table at Head of Tide Park in Topsham, their infant nodding off in a car seat on the table between them.

“Nice picnic spot,” says Angela Twitchell, the executive director of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, smiling at them as she walks through the open pavilion where they are sitting. As Twitchell and Pam LeDuc, Topsham’s parks and recreation director, pass by, LeDuc bends down to pick up an empty Twisted Tea can on the ground, left by an earlier visitor.

The couple acknowledge them with small waves, then go back to their picnic, oblivious to the fact that the women were two of the key players in transforming a group of decaying dwellings into a bucolic waterside park that encompasses and celebrates some 300 years of Topsham’s history.

Unless they are avid readers of the local land trust’s newsletter, the picnickers would be unlikely to know it took 12 years, at least 11 funders, multiple land purchases, easements granted by neighbors, rounds of grant writing and applications, and coordination among federal, state and local agencies – including the local fire department – to make it happen. Head of Tide Park looks like it has been part of the Topsham landscape forever, but it has been officially open only for a month.

Water cascades over rocks where the Cathance River meets Merrymeeting Bay at the Head of Tide Park in Topsham. It took 12 years to carve The town’s first waterfront park. Now the whole park is owned by Topsham, with a conservation easement held by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust.

How it came to be is a classic tale of American land conservation, a lot of patience and a vision to see beyond mildewed buildings and into a day like this one, where a family is picnicking, a man on a bicycle stops to sit in the shade, another reads a sign explaining the history of the place and two women launch a kayak to head upstream, into what had been secret to many – the beauty of a place where the tides from Merrymeeting Bay push deep into the land to meet the fresh water of the Cathance River.

GRIST FOR THE MILL

The Cathance gets its name from the Abenaki word for bent or crooked, “Kathanis.” Early white settlers claimed this spot in 1716, building a lumber mill – and fighting regularly with the Native Americans for whom it was a first and true home – and in the meantime, introducing commerce to the area. On and off, that commerce perched on top the Head of Tide in various forms. A mill burned, was rebuilt, burned again. From 1722 to 1725, the Native Americans and settlers engaged in a war. By 1738, a new mill stood at Head of Tide and throughout the decades, men came and went, using the hydropower of the falls.

The Head of Tide Park in Topsham was the site of the first feldspar mill in Maine, which ceased operating in the 1950s. In recognition of the park’s past, an old ball mill, at left in this photo, was placed in the park. The ball mill was used to grind the feldspar ore into a fine powder.

By the mid-1850s, a feldspar company had moved into the area and built a mill to break down stone from local quarries. One of the big grinders now sits plunk in the entrance to Head of Tide Park, a rusted vestige of the days when making ceramics and earthenware meant grinding feldspar from Maine into ore, then sending it by boats through Merrymeeting Bay to Bath and then along the Atlantic coast to factories in New Jersey. It was big business, with Topsham producing an eighth of the nation’s feldspar, according to the Topsham Historical Society. In its heyday, the mill employed 75 people.

By the 1920s and ’30s, using feldspar from Maine had fallen out of fashion. The industry shifted to North Carolina. In the 1950s, Emery Booker, a Brunswick businessman with an eye for a bargain, bought the mill and began selling feldspar as chicken grit. That’s a digestive assist to a creature that has no teeth; grit collects in the gizzard and helps the chicken grind down its dinner. Booker pushed the business along for a few years.

Then came the apartment phase. Sagadahoc County deeds suggest the conversion from old feldspar mill to apartment complex was the work of a local dentist named Charles Pettengill, done in the very early 1970s. “I believe he was a dentist by day and dabbled in real estate in the evening,” said local historian Dana Cary. Pettengill built a few apartments on top of the old feldspar mill. (He left three of the old grinders within the structure, to be found by the park-makers in the next century.) Then a second building went up next door. Across the waterfall that led down to the tidal water were a pair of cabins that also served as rental units. What had been a center of commerce turned into residences; Pettengill was ahead of a trend of converting old mills that swept the Northeast in the 1980s.

Kelly DeFrietas Staples moved into the Old Mill Apartments in 1985, living in two different apartments there through the late ’80s. The second was the one she called the “fun” apartment. “It was all old barn board,” she said. A big open space showed the lines of the old mill. In the middle of it was something she never figured out. “A concrete bench, and they had covered it with carpet. An off-white shag, same as the floor. It was in the middle of the room. Like, what do you even do with this?”

Another friend lived in an apartment with a deck that overlooked the waterfall. Parking was across Cathance Road. Staples said they paid their rent to the landlady, who lived in town, on Elm Street, where the big houses are.

The landlady’s name was Elizabeth (Liz) Kelso. She’d paid Pettengill $16,402 for the Old Mill apartments in 1973. When she died at 81 in November 2005, she put an item in her will that changed the course of history for Head of Tide.

THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE

Kelso had willed a third interest in the proceeds of the sale of the Old Mill Apartments to the Cathance River Educational Alliance. No one knows exactly why, or what vision, if any, she had, for the region.

“She loved the natural area, but it was unclear if she had an idea for it to be a park,” Twitchell said.

A painted turtle basks in the sun on a log in the Cathance River. The Head of Tide Park in Topsham, which officially opened last month, offers access by kayak or canoe to the river.

It’s possible Kelso just wanted to benefit the Cathance River Educational Alliance, which had been formed a few years earlier as the town of Topsham was establishing the Cathance River Preserve, 235 acres surrounding the river. The alliance had a mission to use the preserve for ecological education, and school children from the surrounding area are bused up there regularly for hands-on, nature-based learning. Kelso had lived with a lifelong friend, Macky King, who had been the director of Camp Fernwood in Poland for 58 years and was active in the American Camping Association. They were nature lovers together. (Macky outlived Liz by little more than a year.)

At that point, as the will was read in 2006, Rick Wilson was the executive director of CREA and he saw potential, but needed the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust to step in since CREA is not a conservation organization. “He said, ‘If you guys can figure this out, we are willing to contribute our one-third interest,’ ” Twitchell said.

The land trust was more than willing to figure it out. “The Cathance River is our top priority in Topsham,” Twitchell said. The land trust had other properties on the river already, and had been instrumental in preservation as Topsham faced major development in the late 1990s. That’s when the Highland Green development, a retirement community encompassing 635 acres, was being planned and built. The Cathance River Nature Preserve, which sits within the Highland property, was part of that development.

Rod Melanson, at that point Topsham’s natural resource planner, now the planning director, said the city looked into salvaging what remained of the old mill, and even went to the Maine Historic Preservation Commission to see if it could qualify for preservation.

“They said there was zero integrity left of any historical site,” Melanson said. The town quickly moved on, he said.

“The real push was for a park,” Melanson said. “And we were envisioning public access to water.”

The Kelso property, as it turned out, had little monetary worth. The buildings were full of mold and mildew. They’d been lived in hard for decades.

“Basically they had to be torn down,” Twitchell said. Or burned down – the Topsham Fire Department did a controlled burn on a wintery day in 2008. “There was one appraisal that came in that said it was worth zero,” she added. That was in part because the apartments’ septic system was a 4,000-gallon tank that dumped – treated – sewage right into the tidal area. Getting that tank out wouldn’t be cheap. (The very next year after it was gone, alewives, long missing from Head of Tide, started showing up again, Twitchell said.) Even though the economy was bad, Topsham’s town staff was committed to buying the land and starting the process to make it a park.

“We knew we had a gem,” LeDuc said. “The Board of Selectmen and the TDI board, they saw what potential it had.”

TDI is Topsham Development Inc., which stepped forward to purchase the Kelso property in 2009 for $80,000, holding it in a trust until the town and the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust could raise the money to buy the land. The town and the trust applied for grants, and over time chipped away at the costs of converting the land into a park with two pavilions, sturdy outdoor bathrooms, a boat ramp and signage. The Land for Maine’s Future program contributed $42,000 for the acquisition and remediation of the site. North American Wetland Conservation Act-Small Grants Program contributed $75,000.

In 2010, the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust bought an abutting property, the 1.5-acre Cutler property, adjacent to where those picnickers were sitting, for $121,000 and donated it to the town. Another portion, the Direnzo property, was purchased in 2014, again with help from Topsham Development Inc. as the temporary owner.

The park looks seamless, but truly, it came together like a jigsaw puzzle, with the search for missing pieces moving slowly.

“Projects are by nature very slow-moving things for towns,” Melanson said. “The quick part to this one was the turnaround to get everybody to do it.” Dangling in front of the town was the ultimate carrot: “There was an affordable way to get this beautiful park.”

THE PADDLE PEOPLE

When Twitchell wrote about the new park in her quarterly newsletter, she had to devote a lot of space to simply naming all the people and organizations who helped. She couldn’t leave out the Rensenbrinks (John and Carla), who had been instrumental in forming Topsham’s Future, the group that fought in the late 1990s to protect and preserve the river and establish CREA. Or the Maine National Guard 133rd Engineer Battalion, which built the bathrooms and the pavilions. The list goes on.

TOPSHAM, ME – JUNE 19: Access to launch a hand-carry boat is made possible by steps that descend to a tidal section of Merrymeeting Bay at Head of Tide Park in Topsham, the town’s first waterfront park. In addition to access to Merrymeeting Bay, there is another access point to launch a kayak or canoe on the Cathance River, which empties into Merrymeeting Bay at Head of Tide Park. Photographed on Tuesday, June 19, 2018. (Staff photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer)

Outdoorsman Ron Chase is not on the list, and he’s fine with that, considering himself nothing more than a bit player who attended a few meetings over the course of the last five years, advocating for the park. But as a devoted paddler, he might know the Cathance better than just about anyone else in the area. “That’s his river,” Melanson said of Chase.

The Cathance runs upstream from Head of Tide a little more than 16 miles. On one side of the park, near the pavilion where the family was picnicking, is a staircase and ramp that allows visitors to slide kayaks or canoes down the steep hillside and put into the tidal waters. From that direction, you can paddle all the way into Merrymeeting Bay and Bowdoinham.

On the other side of the park, across Cathance Road, is the park’s parking lot, and just through the woods next to it is a place where you can slide a kayak off the bank and into the river. That’s the approximate take-out place Chase has been using since about 1990, when he took his first run down the Cathance’s secret glory, a 2.5-mile section classified by American Whitewater as a class III-IV creek run.

Chase was an early user of the river. “I think at the time the river had been run a handful of times,” Chase said. “Probably the first times were in the 1980s.”

What makes those rapids so unusual is proximity to the coast married with the level of difficulty. Ask any paddler, including Chase, and the answer is the Cathance rapids are the kind of paddling experience avid paddlers are used to having to drive two hours inland to find. Chase moved to Topsham in 1993 and since then, he’s averaged about four runs a year on the river. It’s still not easy. “I never treat class IV water as a piece of cake,” Chase said.

He, like most of the serious paddlers using the Cathance, uses a put-in spot up near Route 201. “It’s literally right below the northbound lane of (Interstate) 295,” Chase said. That spot remains the same. But on the other end, the place where the spring (and brave late-fall) paddlers are taking out?

He never knew what he’d encounter. Sometimes residents of the Old Mill complex were friendly. “Sometimes they would give you a difficult time about taking out there.”

He and others were there for the paddling experience, so remarkable in spring. But coming out of a river that felt literally wild, filled with snapping and painted turtles, herons winging it from one fishing spot to another, trout here and there, to encounter these dilapidated structures was disorienting. He wondered when those buildings would fall into the river.

“It seemed incongruent,” Chase said. “It was a setting that didn’t make sense. This big, beautiful stream and the waterfall, and then these rundown buildings.”

Now it all makes sense, a gem 12 years in the making.

“It is a remarkable transformation,” Chase said.