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Kavanaugh and Cottrill: Newcastle’s 18th Century Entrepreneurs


Often an entrepreneur is a pioneer, pushing into a frontier, possibly creating something new under the sun. Conceiving an idea, organizing a business and assuming risk are part of what makes an entrepreneur. Certainly there is a component of individual, if not legendary, character. Rather than debate whether Bill Gates is a good example, let us look at the lives of James Kavanaugh (1756–1828) and Matthew Cottrill (c. 1764–1828) of whom some historians refer to as the leading entrepreneurs of their time and place.

Maine in the Federal period was not exactly the Land of Promise. Liancourt, the French Duke of Rochefoucault, came here in the late eighteenth century. He described the entire District of Maine as “exceedingly wretched” and possibly the worst part of America. No doubt missing French wine, he bemoaned Mainers’ proclivity for spruce twig beer, at least when they were not into their grog.

Surveying what France had lost, the Duke came from the wilderness of lower Canada to eventually cross the Damariscotta River where travellers today pass from Main Street, Newcastle, onto Main Street, Damariscotta. He chatted with the ferryman who took him across and learned that soon there was to be a bridge. The ferryman, nearly out of breath as he worked against the swift current, managed to convey his excitement and showed no concern that progress would make his job obsolete. “Not so, sir, as I hope to be the collector of tolls when all is said and done.”

Indeed, a bridge was in the works. Various attempts for legislative approval waned before construction could begin. Many historians attribute this project to the vision of James Kavanaugh, an Irishman who immigrated to Maine by way of Boston.

Kavanaugh was twenty-four when he first laid eyes on Boston. His young companion was Matthew Cottrill; both claimed they came from County Wexford. They left behind centuries of English oppression where a young Irishman had no hope to ever vote, own land, or sing in his native language. County Wexford was a beautiful part of southeastern Ireland, but it offered little future to young men with dreams or the pluck to fulfill them.

Boston in 1780 did not offer much welcome to the young Irish Catholics either. Among the ropewalks and waterfront commotion, they heard rumors of small pox, they saw French soldiers, and they learned that, because of a post-war depression, large numbers of families were preparing to leave for Ohio, Pennsylvania and northern parts of New England. They surely felt some sentiment against them and sought the company of those who shared their ethnicity. Moreover, there was no church, priest, or Mass in the entire city where they could find blessing.

Prejudice aside, the two surely made some acquaintances and found sufficient hospitality and encouragement to look Downeast for opportunity. Undaunted by the prospect of another passage, they set sail for Maine and made landfall near Bristol. Proceeding up the Damariscotta River, James and Matthew arrived in Newcastle, a large district that spanned lands between the Sheepscot and Damariscotta Rivers and incorporated since 1753, was settled sufficiently to prove earlier descriptions of being “well situated for Agriculture, Commerce, Fishing and Trade.”

Kavanaugh and Cottrill opened a general mercantile store and so began years of partnership. History does not illuminate what start-up funds Kavanaugh and Cottrill used to set up their first American enterprise in 1788. Clearly, the area was experiencing an expansion, both in population and in wealth. Just as today, there were opportunities to borrow on credit for those with clear focus, entrepreneurial spirit and a solid business plan. A lumber trade with the West Indies drove the economy in many coastal communities and shipbuilding was an important industry as well. The two men prospered sufficiently to pay one thousand and eighteen pounds for Vaughan’s Mills and the surrounding land known as Lithgow Farm in the spring of 1795. These 576 acres included two sawmills. In this pre-industrial era, mill privileges were gold.

Each endeavor seemed to serve as a platform for the next. To the two sawmills and a gristmill, they added a fulling mill at Vaughan’s Mills, enabling the manufacture of cloth. Providing lumber for shipbuilding was lucrative and soon they were able to establish their own shipyard. In 1797, Liancourt noted the 300-ton ship, the Hibernia, under construction at the Kavanaugh-Cottrill yard when he passed through. Two years later, Kavanaugh, Cottrill, John Farley, Waterman Thomas and William McCobb formed the Damariscotta Bridge Corporation. The General Court of Massachusetts granted them and their heirs the right to collect tolls for seventy years as repayment for their investment.

The bridge forever changed Newcastle. Its opening was celebrated with a procession, fife and drum corps, and a party at a nearby tavern. The toll was reduced forty-six years later when citizens were calling the downtown part of Newcastle “The Bridge.” (In time, the eastern side evolved from being part of Nobleboro to incorporation as the Town of Damariscotta.)

Kavanaugh next saw the need for a road linking Vaughan’s Pond (now Damariscotta Lake) to Damariscotta Mills and he offered the town some of his land for the purpose. The town responded by appropriating funds to lay out the road—another example of collaboration that enhanced Newcastle’s development.

Civic improvements in which Kavanaugh and Cottrill engaged added to their prosperity and community standing. Both Kavanaugh and Cottrill married in Boston, and, bringing their brides to the shores of the Damariscotta, further entwined their association here. The two men gave land and money to erect St. Mary’s, the first Catholic Church in the village.

After having built 25 ships involved in the West Indies lumber trade in a day when a cargo could bring $40,000 or more, their profits were sufficient to pay off their mortgage on Lithgow Farm in 1800. Only then did they plan to erect handsome homes for themselves.

Soon after, another Irishman, Nicholas Codd, arrived in the Newcastle area and established his own reputation with an extraordinary talent for beautiful architecture. The story that Codd was shanghaied has become legend. Historians have suggested that Codd, also born in Wexford, perhaps trained in Europe before he arrived in Boston where he was listed in the City’s 1898 Directory as a housewright. Nonetheless, it was quite possibly Kavanaugh and Cottrill who brought Codd here for their own purposes.

By engaging Codd first, Matthew Cottrill established a Main Street presence with the construction of a two-story house perched on a brick foundation on what is now Main Street, Damariscotta. Two fluted Doric columns support the front portico that faced Cottrill’s sail loft and the arched window above offered full vantage of the activities of their shipyard. It was not the first house built on Main Street, but in 1801 and even today, the Cottrill house is the finest example of Federal architecture in town.

Not to be outdone, Kavanaugh had Codd build him a larger mansion overlooking their mills. The mass and design of the two homes reflect the dynamics of the partnership of the two merchants. Although the two houses shared similar proportions, the Mills house was bolder and more elaborate, with two sets of Doric pilasters, a balustrade around its roof and an octagonal cupola from which the Kavanaughs could see river, pond and stream. A special prayer room accommodated Father Jean de Cheverus (1768-1836) when he made his annual visits to the Catholic community in Newcastle.

Soon after the completion of the Kavanaugh House, Nicholas Codd helped build a church to replace the wooden St. Mary’s, another philanthropic project of the Kavanaugh-Cottrill partnership. Matthew Cottrill is credited with placing one of the last bells to be cast by Paul Revere, Sr., in the tower of the brick structure, named for St. Patrick “in honor of Irish piety.”

One May, James Kavanaugh observed that his mills prevented schools of alewives, shad and salmon from ascending the stream into the pond. He ordered them scooped up in nets and deposited in the pond and then had his men build the first fish ladder to allow the fish to make their natural migration to spawn in the fresh water. This led to a legislative act to preserve the fish passageway and protect the species.

Matthew Cottrill did not always follow the example of Kavanaugh. He became one of the original trustees of Lincoln Academy, along with General Henry Knox of Thomaston, and Moses Carlton of Alna in 1801. He sent his son John there while Kavanaugh did not subscribe to its construction and instead sent his sons to Boston for their education.

Kavanaugh and Cottrill sustained many losses with the War of 1812 and there is strong evidence the partnership dissolved a few years later. Although Kavanaugh was said to be the initiator of most endeavors while Cottrill supported his friend’s ideas, it was, in the end, Matthew Cottrill who survived the depression in better financial condition. James Kavanaugh sold some of his real estate holdings to Cottrill for $6,000 and Cottrill continued solo with the shipping business. Still, as Kavanaugh saw his businesses and finances decline, he witnessed significant advances within a generation. His son Edward entered law and politics and achieved what his father could not. In fact, Edward Kavanaugh, the eldest son of James and Sarah, became the first Catholic to represent Maine in Washington and served Maine as its first Catholic Governor.

Within a decade of their arrival in Newcastle, James Kavanaugh and Matthew Cottrill established themselves as prominent merchants, shipbuilders and community leaders. Their individual successes contributed to the overall economy of Newcastle, Damariscotta and Nobleboro. Judging from their legacies, wealth was not their sole objective. Religious faith grounded them with a belief that their accomplishments on earth were only part of their purpose.

Entrepreneurism is not only about making money, but about seizing opportunities and effecting change—in today’s language, “making a difference.” In business, in educational and social matters, and possibly in environmental contexts, James Kavanaugh and Matthew Cottrill can be remembered as model entrepreneurs of Maine.

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This article appears courtesy of the author Martha C. Frink and originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of The Midcoast Review. I would like to thank Martha and the magazine for their permission and support.