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First Baptist Church of New Sweden, Maine

New Sweden Maine Pioneers Made Railroad Men Rich

William Widgery Thomas

William Widgery Thomas

The story of New Sweden, Maine, is often told as an inspirational tale of pioneer immigrants who triumphed over hardship, carving from the wilderness well-tilled farms and thriving villages. The New Sweden history can also be viewed a different way: as one of a government giveaway to railroad men and timber barons who needed cheap labor to get even richer.

Both are true.

On June 25, 1870, a little colony of handpicked Swedish farmers set out on a month-long journey from Gothenburg to the primeval wilds of northeastern Maine. Propelled by crop failures and the difficulty of surviving on tiny plots of farmland, they made the hard journey to America. They were led by William Widgery Thomas, son of Portland’s mayor and a former envoy to the united kingdom of Sweden and Norway. Thomas was convinced the Swedes would succeed where others failed. No settlement had taken root in the uncommonly dense forest of Aroostook County.

The deal was this: The pioneer immigrants would pay their own passage, which amounted to more than $4,000 for the group of 51 men, women and children.  They would clear the land, build on it, and work on railroad and road crews. After five years, they could keep their 100-acre farms.

The pioneer immigrants did succeed. Their descendants still live in New Sweden, still celebrate Midsommer and St. Lucia Day, cook Swedish meatballs and perform Swedish folk dances. Their survival resulted from thrift, ingenuity, perseverance and toil – and by withstanding the predations of the railroad men – who had gotten a much, much better deal than the pioneer immigrants from Sweden.

New England’s Last Frontier

Aroostook County was New England’s last frontier, a vast territory of boreal forest and mighty rivers. Even as the industrial revolution transformed the Northeast with railroads, factories, mills and workshops, Maine’s northernmost county remained a severe, isolated wilderness. As late as 1835 Aroostook County was unsurveyed and unexplored.

New Sweden horse-drawn potato digger

New Sweden horse-drawn potato digger

That was changing by 1870 as the commercial possibilities of Aroostook County tantalized Maine’s coastal capitalists and timber barons. All that was needed to exploit the logging wealth of Aroostook County was transportation, and in 1870 that meant one thing: railroads.

On June 25, 1870, the pioneer immigrants set sail in a steamship from Gothenberg, Sweden, forced by a heavy storm to stay below decks for two days until they reached Hull. They crossed England by rail to Liverpool, then boarded another steamship. Eleven days later they set foot in Halifax, where they slept in a vacant warehouse. Four days after that they arrived in St. John, where they set out in flatboats towed by horses, making slow and difficult progress. Near Florenceville, on July 19, nine-month-old Hilma Clase, the daughter of Capt. Nicholas Clase, died. They embalmed the infant’s body and carried her with them to their new home.

After six days’ journey by flatboat they arrived at Tobique, the site of a Native Canadian reservation near the Canada-U.S. border. The pioneer immigrants were greeted by Parker Burleigh.

Parker Burleigh was a land agent and member of the board of immigration. He was a large landowner in Aroostook County and son of a prominent New Englander, Moses Burleigh, who helped frame Maine’s constitution. Parker Burleigh was also an incorporator of the Aroostook Railroad Company, which had received a pledge of $2 million in land from the state. Another incorporator of the railroad was Elijah Hamlin, brother of the former U.S. vice president. Hannibal Hamlin, considered one of the worst vice presidents in U.S. history, used his office to grant favors and have fun. Abraham Lincoln dumped him from the ticket after his first term.

Parker Burleigh had good reason to travel to the Canada-U.S. border to meet a group of poor Swedish farmers. His railroad had never been built, partly because of a lack of capital and partly because of a lack of labor. During the 1860s, the state government had tried to entice Americans to come to Aroostook County by promising them 160-acre lots. A decade passed and few settlers stayed. They left for the West, now opened up by the railroads.

Maine in 1870 had lost 1,364 people in 10 years, the only state other than New Hampshire to lose population. Something had to be done to repopulate Maine. William Widgery Thomas and Parker Burleigh decided to bring poor Swedish farmers to the wilderness.

“The Honor and Hospitality of Maine”

Thomas loved all things Scandinavian, including, presumably, his wife. He would spend the next two years in New Sweden, helping the settlement take root. But first he needed to persuade the Maine Legislature to authorize and finance his plan.  Parker Burleigh, who held many government positions throughout his life, helped him lobby the legislators. On March 23, 1870, a law was passed authorizing a Board of Immigration to bring the settlers over and appointing Thomas commissioner.

Two months later, Thomas set sail for Sweden, where he personally screened the farm families who would come to Maine. The men were all farmers, and some were skilled tradesmen. Thomas’s description sounds like a eugenics manifesto: “All were tall and stalwart, with blonde hair, blue eyes and cheerful, honest faces; there was not a physical defect of blemish among them.”

They knew little about Maine and came with no contract. The Swedes accompanied Thomas “with simple faith in the honor and hospitality of Maine.” That faith would be sorely tried.

After a night spent in a barn in Tobique, the pioneer immigrants drove a long train of wagons along a newly cut road and arrived at a large parcel of wooded land divided into 25 100-acre lots: Township No. 15, Range 3.  They called it New Sweden. On their first day, they buried the infant who died, Hilma Clase.

Burleigh had arranged for the state to pay contractors to survey the land and start clearing the wilderness. That night, Thomas and the 51 exhausted newcomers slept in the six cabins hastily built by the contractors.

A Dollar a Day

Thomas immediately set the pioneer immigrants to work at their “settling duties”: felling trees, cutting roads and working on a branch of the European and North American Railway. “The American forest rang from morn til eve with the blows of the Swedish axe,” Thomas later wrote. Those who could be spared from public works built houses. They were paid a dollar a day for their labor, which they could exchange for provisions and tools at a state “store,” with transportation costs and 10 percent added to the price.

Within six days they cleared and burned two acres and sowed them with turnip seed.  By Sept. 15, they cleared 16 acres and sowed them with winter Logo bangor and aroostookwheat and rye. Five days after that, they started digging the cellar for a large public building, 30 by 45 feet with a 65-foot tower. They called it the Capitol and finished it a month later.

At first the pioneer immigrants lived in shelters of poles and bark. They built identical cabins of peeled logs, a wilderness version of Levittown. Designed by Parker Burleigh, the cabins were 18 by 16 feet, a story and a half high. When winter came, they insulated their cabins with earth, moss and cedar strips.  Handmade shingles covered the cabin roofs.

Aroostook shingles, light-colored and flexible, were in demand on the coast, and New Sweden shingles quickly gained a reputation as the best in the county. They were used as a medium of exchange among the region’s logging camps, farms and trading posts, and they were at the center of a tale about the hardship, perseverance and ingenuity of the Swedish pioneers:

Kjersti Carlson’s husband was sick and her children were crying for bread. She cut down some cedar trees, sawed them and shaved them into shingles. Then she walked eight miles with a load of shingles on her back to Caribou, where she bartered them for food and medicine.

For years, the shingles held an honored place in the Capitol at Augusta, along with a poem lauding Kjersti Carlson’s fortitude.

The colony grew to 114 settlers by the end of the year. A hundred more Swedes arrived the next spring, and Parker Burleigh’s son Albert took over the job of surveying the land for them. Much more would be heard from Albert Burleigh, a Civil War veteran and a large landowner, like his father.

By the end of 1873, all state aid was cut off to the pioneer immigrants. The next year brought hardship, as the Swedes battled forest fires, crop failures and a predatory railroad that tried to take the farms they’d worked so hard to clear.

Why They’re Called Robber Barons

John Alfred Poor, a Portland lawyer, had more than handmade shingles to barter to realize his dream. He had political influence, and he wanted to build a railroad between St. John and Bangor. He would call it the European and North American Railway.

In 1864, the European and North American Railway received an enormous government giveaway, aided by one of its incorporators: Vice President Hannibal Hamlin’s brother Elijah. The railroad was given 734,942 of the state’s remaining 1 million acres of land in northern Maine. It would ultimately sell 690,000 acres, realizing a profit of $233,000.


The timberland grant was the most controversial in Maine’s history. Gov. Joshua Chamberlain, a hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, signed the final deed into law on May 13, 1868. Little noticed then was a change from the original grant four years earlier, one that would have profound implications for New Sweden. The original 1864 deed had left separate the land for the pioneers to settle, keeping it out of the grasp of the railroads. That was “mysteriously” reversed in the 1868 deed.

The E and NA did get built, but it did little to stimulate commerce in Aroostook County, as it barely touched Aroostook soil. But all unsold unincorporated lands in the county went to the railroad, where it was exempted from state and county taxes until it was finished. The railroad received other help: a $1 million loan from Bangor, a $60,000 loan from St. John, and a $10,000-per-mile subsidy from New Brunswick.

Despite all that largesse, the E and NA was in financial straits by 1869, and so it mortgaged all its property to former Vice President Hannibal Hamlin and another financier. Legal and financial machinations would ultimately result in the railroad’s takeover by Hamlin and his partner.

To the dismay of New Sweden, the railroad claimed the remaining public lands in 15 towns – including land that had already been cleared by the Swedish pioneers and was now producing potatoes, wheat, rye hay, buckwheat, shingles and lumber. Years of litigation resulted. The state took the side of the Swedish settlers. Ultimately, the state won.  The Swedish farmers could keep the land they’d worked so hard to clear.

Still Another Scheme

First Baptist Church of New Sweden, Maine

First Baptist Church of New Sweden, Maine

By 1889, Parker Burleigh’s son Edwin had been elected governor of Maine. He owned the Kennebec Journal and, like his brother Albert, owned large tracts of timberland in Aroostook County. It was said Edwin never lost a dollar on a transaction.

The Burleigh brothers were interested in constructing the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad into the wilds of Aroostook. In 1890, Albert proposed a scheme build a railroad from Houlton, the county seat, to the St. John River. Burleigh wanted the towns and villages along the way to underwrite the railroad. Newspapers got behind the “Burleigh plan” and in 1891 the Legislature authorized the Aroostook towns to pledge $500,000 for the railroad.

The BAR was promoted as a potential boon to the potato farms that had flourished in New Sweden. Potatoes didn’t travel well, and there was no way to transport them to U.S. or British markets. In the early 1870s, hardly any potatoes were shipped from New Sweden – or from Aroostook County.

But the railroad’s founders had their eye on a bigger prize: the transport of timber, which would enable lumber mills and paper mills to flourish. Lumbermen dominated the BAR’s first board of directors. A county historian would later observe that the Bangor and Aroostook turned the region’s timberlands into “a gold mine of almost fabulous value.”

The Burleigh brothers and Frederick Cram, a Maine railroad man, formed the Aroostook Construction Company. A small, interlocking group of directors controlled the railroad, the construction company and ancillary businesses such as telegraph operations and real estate management. The construction company also held all the assets of the railroad, which carried an extraordinary amount of debt: the BAR’s bonded indebtedness was seven times its capital stock, though it was widely accepted that railroad bonds should not amount to more than 40 percent.

All that suggests the owners – the Burleighs and Frederick Cram especially — were enriching themselves at the expense of the Aroostook towns and other bondholders.

The Bangor and Aroostook

Unlike other railroad ventures in the county, the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad did get built. Albert Burleigh was its first president. On Dec. 16, 1893, a BAR locomotive chugged through a blizzard across a new bridge built across the Meduxnekeag River, rounded a curve and sounded its whistle as it came into sight of the Houlton Depot, where it was awaited by flags flying and a large cheering crowd. A year later the main line reached Caribou, a branch to Fort Fairfield was completed and connections were made to other towns.

The railroad enabled the potato farmers of New Sweden to ship their produce reliably to market. Two million bushels of potatoes were shipped on the BAR by 1880. The railroad also helped the rich timber barons – including Albert Burleigh — get richer by spurring development of mills. Burleigh and a partner founded the Fish River Lumber Company, which included the two largest mills on the Fish River system.

Schemes of the Land Barons

By 1893, the people of Aroostook County were awakening to the reality of the railroads. Albert Burleigh proposed that the state buy timberland to divide and resell to farmers, offering to sell his own “on reasonable terms.” It was denounced as a “scheme of the land barons,” put to a vote and defeated.

Burleigh’s proposal to extend the line to Ashland was denounced as a plan to sacrifice the region to “the schemes of a few wealthy land-owners.”

In 1909, a bill was filed in the Legislature to approve a branch of the BAR to the remote Allagash region. State Sen. Carl Milliken objected. He filed an amendment that would “prevent the Aroostook Construction Company, which is composed of stockholders of the Bangor and Aroostook, from building the branch line, then unloading it to the railroad company at an exorbitant figure.”


Twenty-five years after the founding of New Sweden, a celebration was held to mark the anniversary. William Widgery Thomas was hailed as the father of the colony, which had attracted roughly 1400 more Swedish immigrants to Aroostook County and 3,000 more to Maine.

Thomas recounted how the Swedes cleared 7,630 acres of land, built nearly 700 buildings, and manufactured 190 tons of potato starch, 21.5 million feet of shingles and 2.2 million feet of lumber.

Thomas waxed eloquent over their contribution to their new home: They found work in the slate quarries in Piscataquis County, in the tanneries and sawmills of Penobscot and in the stores and worships of Maine’s cities and towns. How wonderful that Swedish girls became servants and young men found work in the factories, mills and workshops of New England, he said.

And perhaps best of all, he said, “I seriously doubt if there would be a foot of railroad in northern Aroostook today had it not been for the impetus given to this region by New Sweden.”

U.S. Rep. Charles Boutelle agreed: “I want to thank you and my friends from other portions of Aroostook not only for what they have done to build up this county but for that grand self-reliance, that superb public spirit and generosity which has caused the people of this county … to step forward …and pour out unstintedly their means and devote their best energies to the accomplishment of the most remarkable railroad enterprise.”

This story owes much to “Aroostook: A Century of Logging in Northern Maine” by Richard Judd and Patricia Judd, and “The Story of New Sweden” by William Widgery Thomas.

What happened next:

The Bangor and Aroostook was sold to Iron Road Railways in 1995 and declared bankrupt in 2002. In 2003, the BAR lines were sold to Rail World, Inc., which became part of the newly-formed Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway. It was a runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic locomotive that derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 6, setting off an explosion that killed 47 people.


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