Town News

Sally Doten


A Bridge in Time, Rose Burke

Once again Janet has asked me to reflect on our community’s past.  When I considered things from my childhood, there was one day that stood out.  It was a perfect Sunday afternoon and Dad had taken us downriver in his boat to look for pond lilies.  The sky was clear, until we saw smoke billowing above Upper Mills. 

The first thought was that someone’s house or barn was on fire, but it wasn’t until we landed and rushed up the path to my grandparents’ home that we had the answer—the bridge was on fire.  Everyone rushed to the river bank.  I remember the smell of the smoke, the sound of the firetrucks and everyone talking about how the fire started. I remember the fear when two firemen fell when a piece of the bridge gave way, and then the relief when they were rescued and rushed to hospital. Most people had gone home by the time the fire was declared to be out, and we believed the bridge had been saved, but the fire rekindled during the night and the bridge collapsed into the river. 

I remember the images of that day but had to check Doug Dougherty’s book The Milltown Story  to know it was August 6, 1956.  I had turned nine the previous month so I remember our International Bridge and its last Customs Officers, Ken Lister and Walter Babcock, but I didn’t know that the very first bridge across the St. Croix River was right here, between Upper Mills and Baring. And I didn’t know how important those bridges were in our community’s history.  

The first bridge between Upper Mills and Baring was built in 1806, when there was only a ferry connecting St. Stephen and Calais.  Coming down The St. Croix River from the tanneries on the American side, this was the first crossing point, so it was here that my great grandfather Donald Smith and his brother Angus crossed and met their future wives.  

That first bridge lasted until 1825 when it was taken out by a spring flood.  Two years later, in 1827, the first Ferry Point Bridge was built between St. Stephen and Calais, but it did not meet our needs. Upper Mills and Baring were like one community with family on both sides and it was a long way around by horse and buggy.  A bridge had to be built, and this time it was a covered bridge. To pay for it there was a toll, one cent for foot traffic and six cents for a team.

That covered bridge was blown down in the Saxby Gale of 1869, but the deck was still sound so it was patched up and used another eleven years, until 1880, when one morning the toll collector, David McIntosh, arrived at work to find it had fallen into the river.  I am sure there were prayers said that morning by the people who had taken their horses across the previous day. 

There was still a railway bridge that teams could use but that route was cut off in 1890 when it burned, leaving only a rough foot bridge on the dam that served the mills.  

Teams were again making the long trip to cross in Milltown so a meeting was held here in Upper Mills on Dec. 9, 1880 to approve borrowing $500 as our share to replace it.  The total cost was $2,200, half paid by the province, our $500, $500 from Baring, and $600 from private donations.   

That bridge, completed in 1881, was the first “free bridge” and it served Upper Mills and Baring  until it was swept away in the spring freshet of 1923.  This time it was Baring that held a town meeting and raised $1,347 from donations to rebuild their side.  The Province of New Brunswick paid for our half and the bridge that I remember opened on August 9, 1923.  Three days short of 33 years later I saw it burn.  Fire departments from both sides of the border fought to save it, but it was the end of an era. 

I recently spoke with Sally Doten who still lives in Baring and this is what she recalled. 

 “I remember the Baring Bridge as just part of the street that happened to end up in Canada. There were two small custom offices, and you dutifully reported in.

Summer was the best time to go to Upper Mills. Itchy Montgomery had a small store in the porch of his home. Irene Doten was my best friend and we thought Canadian ice cream was better than the American made. We crossed over on a regular basis with a dime clutched in our hands to buy orange-pineapple ice cream. The dime bought a small container with a wooden spoon and, oh, how we enjoyed sitting on Itchy’s steps or lawn gobbling down our purchase.

After the snack, we would bike around the corner, past Ken Lister’s, past the old Webb home and the church, and around the corner past Herb and Effy Johnson’s home.  Sometimes we would stop and play with the Nicholson kids.  Maybe they would pick up their bikes and ride with us or just wave as we traveled on. When we rounded the corner by the church, we were in direct line with the bridge and it was downhill all the way. We would fly by customs with a shout and back to Baring and never think to stop and report in. 

At that point in history we were one community. Whether you be a Nicholson, Doten, Moreshead, or Harper, it made no difference; we were neighbors. I wonder what our towns would be like today if another bridge had been built.”

I agree with Sally. It is unfortunate that we have lost our connection with Baring, and the time of going to each other’s church suppers is gone. However, I am only one of many in our area who has family in Maine. Being a border community gives us a unique perspective.  We are affected by international decisions and the value of our dollar, but they don’t skew our values. Here on the border it is people who are important. It is people who make a community and it takes more than a border to separate a community. 

Sources:  The Milltown story (Union Mills, Upper Mills, Burnt Hill, Mohannes) 

by Dougherty, Douglas M. L. , 2004