September 28, 2015

River Road reconstruction to possibly effect historic area - By Walter Lunt

The fate of property fronting several Windham historical sites remains uncertain following a meeting between Maine Department of Transportation officials and the Windham Historical Society (WHS) on Tuesday.
At issue is the possible impact of River Road reconstruction and widening in the oldest section of town between the intersection of Gray and River Roads and the Westbrook town line. About 18 members of the historical society, including Windham’s legislative delegation, quizzed the DOT’s project manager and historic planner about the possible effects of River Road expansion on the Parson Smith and Anderson-Lord Houses (both listed on the National Register of Historic Places), the cornerstone Lot 1 marker, The Hunnewell Cemetery and the Elder home at 57 River Road, recognized as the oldest house in Windham, ca. 1753. 

All are located close to busy River Road. Of particular concern is the possible impact on the decades old search for the precise location of Windham’s Old Province Fort, built in the mid-18th century to house and protect the early settlers who were at war with native tribes in the region. Local historians believe the site is located under the roadway at the top of a hill near the intersection with Anderson Road. Society records, two previous archaeological investigations and an educated historical hunch suggested that the middle of the road might be the spot, according to WHS president Linda Griffin. One dig, in 1982, produced animal bones (possibly a midden, or mounded food remains) and a foreign coin. Griffin said, “This (road construction) may be the only chance we’ll ever have to find the exact location of the fort” and learn how the settlers lived during those troubling times.

Megan Hopkin, the DOT historic planner, told the meeting a process may be in place to make that happen. DOT will conduct an archaeological review of the site during the field work stage of construction. If test pits reveal a possible historic settlement, a more extensive and intensive examination could follow. The procedure would require approval from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. She explained that even if preliminary findings failed to produce results, any artifacts uncovered during road construction would likely trigger a stop-work order that could lead to a full scale archaeological examination.

The Parson Smith and Anderson-Lord “mansions” were built by founding families of Windham and are known for their Georgian architecture. Gothic features were later added to the Anderson-Lord home. Today, descendants of the Lord family still maintain the property. 

Elaine Dickinson of the Parson Smith House and Barbara Lord attended the meeting and expressed concern over the likely loss of buffer and possible dislocation of fences, walls and trees to the front of the properties and neighboring cemetery.

DOT project manager Earnie Martin said that although strict construction guidelines must be met, “I have flexibility and struggle a lot” with the sensibilities of the public. “We don’t want to destroy the integrity of landowners” or their sense of history.

Plans call for shaving four feet off the top of the hill in front of the Parson Smith and Anderson-Lord estates between the entrances to the Anderson-Lord Cemetery on the north side to the Hunnewell Cemetery on the south side of the hill. Residents and historians worry that widening the road with 5-foot shoulders will destroy or force relocation of the healthy historic trees, granite walls, and the Lot 1 cornerstone marker, which identifies the first house lot in New Marblehead (later Windham) in 1735. Although the construction could force dislocations, changes, or compromises, Martin said, “I think we can maintain 5-foot shoulders and still squeeze it through this (historic) area.”

Martin said design plans and field work for the construction have not been completed, so assurances regarding preservation cannot be made. He said a final public hearing will be held in 2016, with construction slated for 2017 or 2018.

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