This was once territory of the Canibas tribe of Abenaki Indians. Called Taconnet after Chief Taconnet, the main village was located on the east bank of the Kennebec River at its confluence with the Sebasticook River. Known as Ticonic by English settlers, it was burned in 1692 during King William's War, after which the Canibas tribe abandoned the area. Fort Halifax was built by General John Winslow in 1754, and the last skirmish with Indians occurred on May 18, 1757.
The township would be organized as Kingfield Plantation, then incorporated in 1771 as Winslow. Waterville was set off from Winslow and incorporated on June 23, 1802, when residents on the west side of the Kennebec found themselves unable to cross the river to attend town meetings. In 1824, a bridge was built to Winslow. Early industries included fishing, lumbering, agriculture and ship building, with larger boats launched in spring during freshets. By the early 1900s, there were 5 shipyards in the community.
Ticonic Falls blocked navigation further upriver, so Waterville developed as the terminus for trade and shipping. The Kennebec River and Messalonskee Stream provided water power for mills, including several sawmills, a gristmill, a sash and blind factory, a furniture factory and a shovel handle factory. There was also a carriage and sleigh factory, boot shop, brickyard and tannery. On September 27, 1849, the Androscoggin and Kennebec Railroad opened to Waterville. It would become part of the Maine Central Railroad, which in 1870 established locomotive and car repair shops in the thriving mill town. West Waterville (renamed Oakland) was set off as a town in 1873. Waterville was incorporated as a city on January 12, 1888.
The Ticonic Water Power & Manufacturing Company was formed in 1866 and soon built a dam across the Kennebec. After a change of ownership in 1873, the company began construction on what would become the Lockwood Manufacturing Company, a cotton textile plant. A second mill was added, and by 1900 the firm dominated the riverfront and employed 1,300 workers. Lockwood Mills survived until the mid-1950s. The iron Waterville-Winslow Footbridge opened in 1901, but in less than a year was carried away by the highest river level since 1832. Rebuilt in 1903, it would be called the Two Cent Bridge because of its toll. In 1902, the Beaux-Arts style City Hall and Opera House designed by George Gilman Adams was dedicated. But in 2002, the C. F. Hathaway Company, one of the last remaining factories in the United States producing dress shirts, closed after over 160 years of operation in the city.
Waterville also developed as an educational center. In 1813, The Maine Literary and Theological Institution was established. It would be renamed Waterville College in 1821, then Colby College in 1867. Thomas College was established in 1894. The Coburn Classical Institution once prepared students to attend college. The institution merged with the Oak Grove School in Vassalboro and remained open until the 1980s. The first high school was built in 1877, while the current Waterville Senior High School was built in 1961.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 14.1 square miles (36.4 km²), of which, 13.6 square miles (35.2 km²) of it is land and 0.5 square miles (1.2 km²) of it (3.35%) is water. Situated beside the Kennebec River, Waterville is drained by the Messalonskee Stream.
Like many other towns in Maine and in the United States, Waterville has seen development in the suburbs and the decline of the downtown area. There have been new businesses and new facilities built by Inland Hospital on Kennedy Memorial Drive. WalMart, Home Depot, and a small strip mall of other stores have been built in the northern part of the city as part of an open-air shopping center. Because of this growth, the existing and now-neighboring Elm Plaza shopping center has recently had its exterior renovated and filled most or all of its previous vacancies.
In contrast, the downtown area has had its share of hardships due to chain store growth in the city. Stores that had a long history in the downtown area have closed in recent decades, including Levine's, Butlers, Sterns, Dunhams, Alvina and Delias, and LaVerdieres. The large vacancy in The Concourse shopping center that once housed the Ames, Zayre department store, as well as Brooks Pharmacy is struggling to find tenants; as is the now vacant Main Street location of a CVS pharmacy (it moved to a brand new building on Kennedy Memorial Drive). Organizations like Waterville Main St continue their efforts to revitalize downtown. Groups like the 20's and 30's social and professional networking group KVConnect are also spearheading efforts to build an entrepreneurial web portal to help local people run their own businesses and people from other parts of the country with non-location specific businesses move here.
Colby College graduate Paul Boghossian has won approval to convert the sprawling old Hathaway shirt factory to retail, office, and residential use. MaineGeneral Health agreed at the end of June 2007 to become the first tenant when the facility opens in 2008. .
As of the census of 2000, there were 15,605 people, 6,218 households, and 3,370 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,148.7 people per square mile (443.3/km²). There were 6,819 housing units at an average density of 501.9/sq mi (193.7/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 95.81% White, 0.78% African American, 0.56% Native American, 1.03% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.42% from other races, and 1.36% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.10% of the population.
There are 6,218 households out of which 26.3% have children under the age of 18 living with them, 38.2% were married couples living together, 12.1% had a female householder with no husband present, and 45.8% were non-families. 38.6% of all households were made up of individuals and 16.2% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.13 and the average family size was 2.84.
In the city the population was spread out with 19.7% under the age of 18, 18.5% from 18 to 24, 24.1% from 25 to 44, 19.5% from 45 to 64, and 18.1% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females there were 85.0 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 81.7 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $26,816, and the median income for a family was $38,052. Males had a median income of $30,086 versus $22,037 for females. The per capita income for the city was $16,430. 19.2% of the population and 15.1% of families were below the federal poverty level. Statewide, 10.9% of the population was below the poverty level. In Kennebec County, 11.1% of the population was below the federal poverty level. Thus, although the county poverty rate is close to the state poverty rate, the poverty rate for Waterville is higher--typical for a regional center whose suburbs have grown in population.
Out of the total population, 29.7% of those under the age of 18 and 14.7% of those 65 and older were living below the poverty line.