When you stop to think about it, the 19th century in America was a century of war. There was the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the Civil War (1861–1865) and the Spanish American War in 1898 — and with all these wars came the need for explosives. Making gunpowder a hot commodity at the time.
In addition, the 19th century was a time of western expansion for the United States and a time of industrial growth. Railroads were blasted through mountains, roads were built on the frontier, quarries were needed for granite being used in buildings across the nation, and as people made their way westward, farmers needed stumps and rocks removed to make fields ready for crops.
Gunpowder was necessary for all these things and large quantities of this black gold, made from charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter), were profitably being produced right here in Windham. It all began in 1823 when William Fowler of Southwick, Massachusetts bought 25 acres of land and water rights and mill privileges near Gambo Falls on the Presumpsot River. A year later, his brothers Edmund and Lester Laflin, also of Southwick, began producing gunpowder there.
Sadly, the two men drowned in a tragic accident on Sebago Lake in 1828. Their widows carried on the operation of the mill until 1832 when Oliver Whipple of Lowell, Massachusetts purchased the property. He made extensive repairs over the next four years and purchased additional land and water rights on both the Gorham and Windham sides of the river. Now the mill was ready for serious gunpowder production and business began thriving.
In 1855, the Gambo Mill was sold to G.G. Newhall and Co. for the sum of $10,000 and the name was changed to Oriental Powder Co. This began a period of massive prosperity for the mill. During the Civil War, the mill at Gambo Falls produced more than 2,500,000 pounds of gunpowder per year and provided about 25% of all the powder used by Union forces during the War Between the States.
But with prosperity came risks. Working at the mill meant making fine wages, about 50 cents to $1 more than could be made elsewhere, however, the dangers were greater as well. Explosions were a constant threat and several precautions were put in place to protect millworkers. For example, men were made to wear boots and shoes made with wooden pegs as substitutes for nails to prevent sparks. After their shifts were finished, workers were required to leave their work clothes at the worksite after taking a shower and changing into fresh clothing to avoid bringing powder residue home with them.
Mill buildings were situated a good distance from one another so that if an accident should happen in one building, it would be contained from the others. Materials were transported between buildings on plank walks in wooden wheelbarrows with wooden wheels. No iron nails were used when making the wheelbarrows. They could ignite, so copper and bronze hardware were used instead.
Despite these precautionary measures, explosions did happen. It is said that at the sound of an explosion, every doctor and undertaker in Windham and Gorham would head for the mill, and unfortunately, there was enough business following an incident to keep them all busy. This did not curtail men from flocking to the gunpowder mill for jobs. Some would line up for employment even before the dead and injured were removed from the site of an accident.
The Oriental Powder Co. went into a financial slump in the early 1870s and into bankruptcy in 1872. Ezra Newhall, son of G. G. Newhall, took over supervision of the company at that time and brought it back to profitability. This was due in large part to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 when the Russian government made a number of contracts with the company totaling more than $250,000.
Gunpowder production continued at the mill until the beginning of the 20th century.
In 1905, the Oriental Powder Co. was sold a final time and the manufacture of black gunpowder ceased. New explosives such as dynamite were becoming the norm and the death knoll quietly sounded on an industry that had once been a vigorous part of our town.
Gambo Falls on the Presumpscot River between Windham and Gorham powered the Oriental gunpowder mill.
Source and etching of mill from The Gunpowder Mills of Gorham-Windham, Maine written by Maurice Whitten. Etching was done prior to 1871.