The story of Popeville: The town within a town
Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a little section in the town of Windham that was called Popeville. Located at the intersection of Pope Road and the Pleasant River, this community was a center of industry before being destroyed by a massive flood.
Popeville was named for the Pope family whose patriarch, Elijah Pope, settled in Windham in around 1768. Elijah was a Quaker and a blacksmith and he was a member of the congregation of Friends Church. Many other Quakers also settled in this area of town.
Elijah built a large brick home on what is now Pope Road, where he raised his family and, as his family grew, so did the village of Popeville. In 1800, Elijah’s son, Nathan, purchased a sawmill and its surrounding property and used water power from the Pleasant River for its operation.
In 1841, his sons, Isaiah and Joseph, formed a corporation under the name of Isaiah Pope and Co. and they built a larger 50-foot by 60-foot mill that they used for the production of wool for clothing. Over time, the Pope family grew the business into a small manufacturing center that included the woolen mill, a dye house, a cotton mill, a greenhouse, a shop for manufacturing clothes that were sold to the Boston and New York markets, a cooper shop, and a boathouse. These businesses prospered for quite some time.
In 1859 or 1860, Joseph and another family member, Oliver, purchased a sawmill on the Narrows, which was an 8-mile long pond that was shared by the towns of Windham and Gray and located on today’s Route 115. They needed more water power to continue to expand the business that now included lumbering on a large scale.
They built a tall dam on the property, but unfortunately, the dam was not properly engineered. The Popes should have had a sound foundation made by driving heavy timbers far down into the pond’s soft subsoil, but neglected to do so. This would prove to be disastrous.
On May 7, 1861, after a month-long stretch of heavy rains, the dam gave way and the waters spread downstream towards Popeville. Three hours later, “A sullen roar was heard like the roar of wind among the treetops,” an eyewitness remarked. “Then a wave swept through town carrying with it a huge amount of debris, such as tree stumps, mill logs, cordwood, and whole trees that had been torn up by the roots.”
In a moment, the village of Popeville was destroyed as the wave washed away the sawmill, the dye house, and a bridge. The village store, which was filled with groceries, was badly damaged, as were the woolen mill and the cotton mill.
The Popes did rebuild, but the business was never as successful as it had been in the past and by now, the Civil War was well underway. Being Quakers, the Popes did not serve in the military. Instead, they did their patriotic duty by turning the Elijah Pope House into a stop on the Underground Railroad. In 1900, Elijah’s great-great-granddaughter told a newspaper that she remembered runaway slaves being hidden in the apple orchard behind the old house.
In 1879, the Popes sold the mill property and it remained in business for a few years, but was eventually lost to fire. And with that loss, the village of Popeville vanished forever and is now just a distant memory we read about in history books.
The Elijah Pope House in Windham was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.