A Brief History of Sunday River

It’s Life and Times : Wilderness, Hard Work, Tranquility, Ski Boom

April 4, 2009


Looking forward from their colonial experiences, Sunday River may have seemed to be a land of opportunity for the dozen or so hardy families who risked their meager fortunes in the wilderness of western Maine mountains and river valleys. 

Julius Caesar famously wrote that all Gaul was divided into three parts.  Massachusetts  divided Sunday River into three parts: eventually named Bethel, Newry and Riley.

Colonial residents gave most of their attention to the Revolution, but slowly in the years from 1780 to 1800 more families straggled into the Sunday River valley.  In  Bethel’s case, Massachusetts used a land grant to pay off and old debt long owed to militia.  A New Jersey widow invested her inheritance, it seems, to buy most of what would become Newry and Phebe Ketchum got the township of Riley by loaning Massachusetts some dollars.

The 19th Century saw a rise and fall in the fortunes of all three town sections of Sunday River.  The nation’s Civil War seemed to be the turning point in a growing population.  Many who went to serve found new homes often far removed and more appealing than their old homesteads.  Other sons and daughters drifted away to seek a more promising life in the cities and in the West.  On the other hand, Sunday River attracted “city people” during summers and visiting faces in some cases became permanent faces. 

In 1880, a map of the area shows 36 houses in the Sunday River valley:  nine in Bethel, seven in Riley and 20 in Newry.  From 1880 to 1960, probably the biggest change in house count came from the Riley sector.  There were some changes in Bethel and Newry but the net total did not change by more than two or three. 

During this same period, farming declined and logging in Riley increased.  As a  final word on farming, one must not overlook the tremendous need for hay to feed horses and oxen.  Logging required tons and tons of hay for horses during the winter.  A drive to Bethel for food and clothes, required a horse and that meant a good supply of hay and pasture year round. The sawmills and dowel mills disappeared and logging drives down Sunday River ended.  Rob Bean (where the Matterhorn Ski Bar is in 2009) farmed into the 1950’s and produced milk.  Stan Roberts and after him Franklin Harrington, ran a large poultry farm and sold eggs. 

In December 1959 the Sunday River Ski Area began operations on the side of Barker Mountain.  For the next 20 years it is difficult to say that it materially improved the local economy.  What it did do was induce ski minded people to build vacation homes or camps near the ski area—Viking Village and the Investment Enterprises development that came to be known as Coombs Village.  This turned pasture and wood land into subdivided house lots which in turn increased Newry’s real estate value.  By 2006, these two village subdivisions held more than 64 full time and seasonally occupied homes in areas that had the case of Coombs Village had once been cow pastures.

After 1980, when Sunday River Ski Area was sold to Leslie Otten,  the ski area’s development, construction of condominiums and two hotels plus the magnetism created for new residential developments in the valley has increased Newry’s real estate and personal property value by millions and millions of dollars.  The Bethel sector of Sunday River valley began seeing the affects of ski bonanza optimism in the 1990’s with  condominium and detached home developments.  However, up to the year 2009,  the resident population of Newry and Bethel as well as the impact on the schools has not increased as of the 2000 census. 

The Newry census is remarkable for its stability:  population, 344; households, 142; and 90 families residing in the town—but, those figures cover all of Newry  not just the Sunday River valley.  In the 2000 census, there were 1,075 housing units in the town.  By the year 2010, this last figure might reach to almost 2,000.

The Bethel Journals

Donald G. Bennett

PO Box 763

Bethel, ME 04217

Contact me:


Becky Cummings
Donald Brooks
Ruel Swain
Lee Carver
Roger Adams
Nancy Babcock
Sylvia Gray
Jane Bean Young
Alan Fleet
Steve Wight
Randy Bennett
Bethel Historical Society
Doris Fraser
Hugh (Mike) Lynch


References and Additional Reading

Sunday River Sketches Martha Fifield Wilkins, edited by Randall Bennett, 1977


History of Bethel Maine William B Lapham, 1891


I Was a Summer Boarder Ruth Crosby, 1966


Newry Profiles 1805-1980

Paula Wight


Bethel, Maine An Illustrated History

Randall H Bennett