Water cascades gracefully down a sequence of smooth rock steps, producing white foam that persists much farther downstream. When the river is high enough, the sound of the falls renders conversation impossible. If you throw a line and a worm in the pools at the foot of the waterfall, you have a good chance of pulling out a bass.
The place is Mariaville Falls about 20 miles north of Ellsworth. The scenic spot is found a quarter-mile down an unnamed dirt road off Route 181 in the town of Mariaville.
Once the site of an early sawmill, the land now belongs to Frenchman Bay Conservancy, a land trust with the mission of preserving the Union River and Frenchman Bay watersheds.
“One of the reasons that we are so excited to conserve this area is because the West Branch of the Union River is essentially wild and scenic,” said Frenchman Bay Conservancy Director Aaron Dority.
The Conservancy acquired the land in 2012 from the Edgecomb family, which has lived in Mariaville for generations. The preserve has two trails. The first, colloquially known as the Fisherman’s Trail, has been around “forever,” in the words of Ross Edgecomb. Ross has lived within a mile of Mariaville Falls his entire life, and has hunted and fished on the land since he was a child.
The second trail, named the Edgecomb Trail in the family’s honor, formally opened in the fall of 2015. The trails are a combined length of about 1.4 miles and were restored and stabilized for years to come last summer by a crew from the Maine Conservation Corps. Among other changes, the crew added 42 wooden steps and two bridges on the trail with the twin goals of preventing erosion and improving accessibility.
From the trailhead to the waterfall is slightly more than half a mile. The path winds through the woods, with pine and birch trees lining each side. At the edge of the river, some of the tree roots hang out where the soil has eroded — someday, enough dirt will fall away that the trees will cascade into the river, too. Otherwise, the route is free of hazards, save for the occasional poison ivy plant and swarms of mosquitoes down by the river.
Funnily, Mariaville has not always been a pristine nature preserve. Mark Honey, a Hancock County historian, reveals the Falls’ surprising history in several of his books. According to Honey, William Bingham, an investor from Philadelphia, founded a community along the banks of the Union River around 1800. By 1810, the little town had a dam, a double sawmill, a gristmill, a tannery, a boarding house, a general store and roughly 50 families.
“In the 1800s, we had a lot more of a population than we do today,” said Gerry Edgecomb, Ross’s uncle and a Mariaville selectman. “The Union River was a big hub for industry.”
The settlement took its name from Bingham’s daughter, Maria. Both her name and the town’s are said with a hard “i.”
The initial riverside village of Mariaville lasted only a few decades. The area was never well-suited for farming, and lumbering could only bring in a certain amount of income. Neighboring towns like Ellsworth developed their own sawmills, and by 1830, the settlement was in decline. Walking down the Edgecomb Trail, there’s no sign of the former mill, dwellings, or any other structures.
Ken Cline, a professor of environmental law at College of the Atlantic and a Frenchman Bay Conservancy Board member, first became acquainted with the area through canoe trips on the upper Union River. To him, the history of Mariaville Falls was a surprise.
“It’s amazing to me how little evidence there is that there was a town there,” Cline said.
A few years ago, Cline and a group of students visited the area with an archaeologist, looking for remnants of the former village. The group was able to identify the foundations of a former mill on the west side of the river, the only remaining indicator of the formal village.
To Cline, the area’s relative wildness is what makes it a great destination. He’s seen otters, ospreys, eagles and muskrats. At the same time, the Falls’ inclusion in the Frenchman Bay Conservancy has started to put the destination on non-locals’ radar.
“Now that the Conservancy owns it, people from everywhere come,” Ross remarked. “I guess that’s what the Conservancy is about.”
Estimating the number of visitors is difficult. While the Conservancy encourages visitors to sign in at its guest books at each trailhead, Dority estimates that perhaps 10 percent of guests actually do so.
The Conservancy’s holdings total nearly 7,500 acres, including Indian Point in Ellsworth and extending as far east as Corea Heath Preserve, south of Gouldsboro. The group preserves land through both direct ownership — which it achieves via purchases and donations — as well as easements. The latter allow landowners to retain ownership but grant development rights to the Conservancy, allowing it to preserve the land. Mariaville Falls is one of the newer preserves in the group’s 31-year history, and the farthest north.
“It’s a beautiful piece of property,” Dority said. “We’re proud to hold it.”
For more info, call 422-2328 and visit www.frenchmanbay.org.