Text Box: A Brief History of Sunday River
Up Bull Branch

Bull Branch always has been the name of the main upland tributary to Sunday River. It also was the backbone of early settlement in Riley Plantation. 

If you walked upstream from the point where Bull Branch joins Sunday River to its beginnings on the upper levels of Old Speck Mountain, you would have walked over five miles and climbed 1,920 feet, more or less, in elevation.  Speck Pond’s runoff flows down Pond Brook into Bull Branch creating one of its three chief tributaries, Goose Eye Brook from Goose Eye Mountain, is the second contributor and Miles Notch Brook is the third tributary which adds push to Bull Branch.  Two other brooks in the same watershed are named for early settler families – Sargent and Eames. The combination of flow and elevation is what attracted pioneers to Bull Branch. The years were 1790 to 1820 and they needed water power.  Veteran and legendary mill builder, Samuel B. Locke, visited the Branch to build at least one mill in the water power era.  Locke was also under contract by Bethel to construct water powered saw mills along Sunday River.

Public lands into private hands

We can only speculate that some years before 1790, either the State of Massachusetts or Phebe Ketchum had hired surveyors to go into this land of “milk and honey” which was an uncharted, tangled wilderness of murderous wood insects, wild animals and frigid winters to survey the courses of rivers and streams and to establish lot lines for property boundaries. 

Sunday River Sketches was the name Martha Fifield Wilkins gave to her collection of meticulously prepared notebooks.  These spelled out important historical and anecdotal notes of the early years along Bull Branch. (In 1977, Randy Bennett turned the Fifield notebooks into a published chronicle.)  On page 51, she wrote “I have never found out (who did the survey work), but there were definite bounds and separate ownerships as the maps will show.” Her comment is an insightful observation that provincial or state contract explorers, surveyors and probably fur trappers as well had covered the Riley territory years before the first settler arrived.

Of the very early settlers on Bull Branch, two names stand out:  Luke Reily and Moses Coburn.  Luke was an immigrant from Newry, Ireland and Moses Coburn was a veteran of the Revolution.  He enlisted from Dunstable, Mass., at the age of fourteen. Then we learn more details about other settling families and end with the Stillman and Augustus Littlehale family.  The latter having operated the Ketchum post office until it closed in 1913. 

Above: The Stillman Littlehale house (Ketchum Post Office) as it appeared in 1905 – located on the west side of the twin bridges over Bull Branch, it was within one-quarter mile from the state’s Public Reserved Land sign. The buildings burned sometime after 1916.

The big question is – how did Luke Reily find out about lots for sale in Ketchum?  How did a proprietor attract potential buyers to invest in a piece of wilderness land?  (Law and the custom of primogeniture gave the parents’ estate to the eldest son – good reason for the younger children in a family to look for their own land as soon as they reached adulthood. For this reason the Barker brothers of Methuen, Mass., for instance, and young immigrant men may have chosen unsettled land as the best option available to them.

Photo caption in the Sunday River Sketches (page 94) reads: Old dam on the ledge, Bull Branch, Ketchum, Me. Isreal Fifield b. 1827, was drowned at the foot of this dam, July 11, 1842 and is buried in the Riley Pl. Cemetery. Photo by Fred A Fifield.

One of the difficulties in locating some of the landmarks that were photographed for the Sunday River Sketches is the writer’s perception of ground distance.  The old dam shown on the right was built on the “Big Ledges” within Bull Branch and upstream from today’s twin bridges by a good mile.  At the upper end of the ledge Orlando Isreal Fifield had built a saw mill around 1826-1829.  The dam lasted longer than the mill. The author wrote, “At freshet time the stream becomes rapid and dangerous as it goes over the ledge where sudden drops make thunderous falls. Logs are floated down and at times, pitch over in great jams”. 

Ruth Crosby was another fan of the turn of the century era when the ledges were a favorite spot for summer vacationers to picnic.  She described how men in the party would find stranded logs than could be rolled into the stream and would pitch over into the deep pool.

On the opposite bank from this site, other saw mills had been built and “large crews of men who lived in wangin (logging crew cook house and barracks) stayed there months at a time…”

(Author Wilkins created an ambiguous picture in describing the ledges’ location by saying that they were near the mouth of Bull Branch. So close to Sunday River that the ledge was commonly called the Sunday River ledge.  Rough pasture land made up the landscape then and one could see for much greater distances than is the situation in 2009.  The ledges are

relatively near the mouth of Bull Branch.  Another ledge field lies nearer the mouth of the Branch and downstream from today’s twin bridges.)

Above: The “twin bridges” over Bull Branch – photo November 2008.  After crossing the bridges, the road continues a short distance then a branch to the right runs north to the ledges. Many log and trestle bridges were made by the Littlehales and Fifields only to be swept away by spring floods.  A note in Sunday River Sketches says that in 1942 only a footbridge crossed where her photo was taken.

Summer visitors find Bull Branch

During the years of private ownership of land surrounding Bull Branch, tourists, sportsmen, hikers and campers took advantage of the area’s natural beauty and resources for swimming, picnicking, hunting, fishing and camping.  Beginning in the 1860’s and well before the automobile era, primitive roads and use of horse drawn wagons kept down the number of people who came into Riley for pursuit of leisure and recreation.

 After World War II, the number of people who “discovered” the secrets of Bull Branch and its environs quickly multiplied.  One particular group of accidental tourists who found great enjoyment in Bull Branch was the summer influx of participants at the National Training Laboratory, later NTL Institute that convened in Bethel each summer starting in 1947.  Members of the so called “NTL labs” came from all over the world, had a high level of curiosity and adventure and soon discovered the treasures of Bull Branch.  Their summer fun led to more and more people making the journey up the Sunday River valley.  Thus, a century before skiing turned much of the public’s attention to winter, visitors and vacations looked forward to their summer recreation play-time in the valley - Swan’s Corner, Artist Bridge, Letter S Pool and Bull Branch.

Public ownership, recreation and conservation

Bull Branch’s northern and western watershed is largely contained within the Mahoosucs Public Reserved Land jurisdiction. The MPRL is 27,000 acres at the end of the Mahoosuc Mountain Range in western Maine. This public reserved land includes the Appalachian Trail, Mahoosuc Notch, Old Speck Mountain, Speck Pond and the Grafton Notch State Park.

In 2004, Land for Maine’s Future and the Mahoosuc Land Trust opened a campaign to give public protection to the land around and including Bull Branch.  This resulted in Maine acquiring 1.2 miles of frontage along Bull Branch and .75 miles frontage along Sunday River. The Maine State Planning office says, “Keeping this land wild helps to protect water quality in Sunday River, which is considered one of the most threatened watersheds in Oxford County due to runoff pollution from logging and increasing development (largely based on commercial skiing) in and around Newry.

Two state-owned roads pass through the property, offering seasonal vehicular access to hiking trailheads, picnicking sites and the swimming hole. Hurricane Island Outward Bound Center, which has an outdoor education center located close by, routinely uses the property in spring and early summer to teach kayaking, canoeing and rescue training in the Class 3-4 whitewater.”

Interestingly, sometime during the years after the deep pool in the Bull Branch ledges became a popular swimming hole, it picked up the name- “Frenchman’s Hole”. This is how the State of Maine now refers to it in state documents and in publicizing the swimming hole as one example of the state’s efforts to give the public a unique place to swim.