West and East Branches of the Penobscot River

The Penobscot River watershed encompasses a vast area of central Maine, practically circling Katahdin and its surrounding mountains.  The North Branch begins about ten miles north of the St. John Ponds, which are the headwaters of the St. John River and flow south to meet the South Branch near Pittston Farm, the only remaining original lumber supply depot in Maine.  The South Branch begins at the Canadian border north of Jackman and flows east through Canada Falls Lake and soon joins the North Branch.   This junction becomes the West Branch of the Penobscot, which flows through twelve-mile long Seboomook Lake and Chesuncook Lake, Maine’s second longest lake.

At Ripogenus Dam the West Branch flows through a wild gorge with many large waterfalls, which formerly was avoided by canoes and lumbermen, but today is one of the State’s most exciting rides in a whitewater raft.  In the past this gorge was the scene of many log jams, which took much bravado, moxie and sometimes dynamite to dislodge.   Below are a series of waterfalls, rapids and deadwaters, as the West Branch passes by Katahdin and reaches Abol Bridge.   Turning more southeast, the river passes over another series of waterfalls and empties into Ambejejis Lake.  Here four lakes – Ambejejis, Pemadumcook, North Twin and South Twin– are joined into one large body of water, which was formerly a challenge to get the logs across.  The West Branch leaves South Twin Lake, passes through Quakish Lake and merges with the South Branch at Medway.

The East Branch of Penobscot starts north of Chamberlain Lake in East Branch Pond and merges with Webster Brook in the northern part of Baxter state Park.   In the 1840’s this was the scene of a daring engineering project.   Lumbermen who cut trees above Chamberlain Lake were forced to send them down the Allagash and St. John, subject to Canadian tolls.  To counter this, E. S. Coe found a natural ravine on the southeast side of Telos Lake.  He built a high dam at the north end of Chamberlain Lake and forced the water to retreat southward though the ravine and into Webster Stream and the East Branch of the Penobscot.  The East Branch then passes through Grand Lake Matagamon and heads south, flowing over four more large waterfalls and joining the West Branch.  This merger forms the Penobscot River, which then flows southward to Penobscot Bay.

One of the most revered river drivers on the West Branch was David Ross, who inspired many stories and even songs that were recited in many lumber camps. The “Bangor Tigers,” as the West Branch crew was called, were famous all over the country for their daring feats and their ability to get the logs downriver in record time.  Henry David Thoreau took several canoe trips in Maine, paddling down both branches of the Penobscot, giving us one of the first and most thorough descriptions of the region.

There were a few sporting camps south of Katahdin at Nesowadnehunk Lake, Kidney Pond, Daicy Pond and Katahdin Lake, Rainbow Lake, Nahamakanta Lake, Debsconeag, Pemadumcook and Middle Jo Mary Lake.   Once the railroad was opened up, several hotels and camps were quickly built at Norcross Station at the south end of South Twin Lake, where sportsmen could board a steamboat to take them up the West Branch to their camps.  On the East Branch there were several camps on that river’s shore, including the Hunt Farm, which serviced lumbermen, as well as hikers who approached Katahdin from the east.