Montgomery Dam Produces a Thunder Not a Gurgle

Camden Falls, Featured, Human Interest

By Roger Akeley, Camden Resident

Montgomery Dam is perhaps Camden’s most venerable senior citizen. According to the Interfluve report, recently completed for the town, its first iteration occurred in 1771, the same year the town of Camden was incorporated. This was 49 years before Maine became a state, five years before the Declaration of Independence and 17 years before the U.S. Constitution was passed. George Washington was only 39 years old.

The dam is embedded in our history. It supplied power, first for a sawmill and a grist mill, then for an interesting array of uses over time, eventually being entrusted to the town in 1992. The Camden Public Library is now displaying a pictorial history of how the current dam was constructed. The scenes are of sweat and toil, men working on the community project with simple tools, scaffolds, levers, and site-constructed derricks to put the heavy stones of the sluice wall into place. Backbreaking work. Not a backhoe, crane, bulldozer, dump truck to be seen. The pictures are a proud display of community craftmanship and unity of purpose.

The dam has always been an erstwhile companion of Harbor Park, the town’s National Register site. This complementary duo is something we all have taken for granted. It enhances the contemplative qualities of the park. Walking on the lower pathway down from America’s Boathouse, another Historic Landmark, one becomes aware of the dam because of its high perch and pleasant roar, quite visible and audible, even from the boathouse.

Since the dam is adjacent to National Register sites, it was included in the town’s official Comprehensive Plan, passed by the Town Board in 2017, as a primary candidate for nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. Application for that distinction will begin in the near future. The Maine Office of Historic Preservation makes it clear that dams can qualify for this designation.

The Montgomery Dam from historic postcard.

Size does matter when it comes to waterfalls. The 100-foot span and eight-foot drop of the Montgomery Dam yields a sound that can stir our souls. It’s a mild thunder, not a gurgle. The sound attracts us to seek a close-up view, to languish longer in the pleasurable setting of our peaceful Harbor Park setting. Every day visitors and residents, alike, take in the town’s waterfront within the aura of falling water. As we see fresh water converge into the sea water, the accompanying background sounds of falling water heightens our sense of awe. Standing near the dam is an uncommon experience, a local geography that few other places can claim.

Sure, the Montgomery Dam could use some repairs. The town voted $50,000 for repairs to be made in 2018. That money still hasn’t been spent on the dam. Recent estimates are that perhaps $150,000 more will be required to achieve optimum restoration, plus some additional moneys if an automated gate is installed at the sluiceway. Most will agree that this is a small sum for protecting one of the town’s most historic and distinctive assets.Advertisement

The recent Interfluve Report is available for all to read on the town’s website. It is an interesting read. Its goals are set to match the goals of the federal coastal resilience program. It sets out recommendations to limit the chance for flooding, to restore the stream ecology upstream of the Montgomery Dam, to allow upstream passage of migratory fish and to limit the town’s maintenance budget.

The report’s conclusion, which involves elimination of the Montgomery Dam, seems to be divorced from its content. In the first place, the Montgomery Dam is not a cause for upstream flooding. Current choke points are upstream of the dam. Secondly, the thriving over 200-year-old ecology of the pond and river up to the Wastewater Treatment Plant is ignored while the supposedly restored ecology of the proposed shrunken waterway is also ignored. Many species of fish, including brook trout currently thrive there. Third, the discussion of migratory fish — involving a detailed discussion of fish ladders that have to be designed by type of fish in mind — are no guarantees of success and will cost in excess of $12 million. This may be a worthy goal, alewives and eels may make it up to Megunticook Lake if the five fish ladders are built, but the wisdom of this expense and outcome deserves more study and serious discussion by townspeople and marine scientists. Finally, maintenance of the proposed landscape, especially including keeping up with the fish ladders, promises to be exponentially higher than the very low maintenance requirements of Montgomery Dam.

I had an opportunity to discuss the Interfluve Report with Michael Burke, the principal engineer of the report. I asked him why the report’s chosen alternative seemed out of synch with its analysis which, to me, seemed quite neutral and responsible. He told me that the recommendations were “to satisfy the needs of the client.” That would be the Town Board, not the town, not the residents. … the Town Board. I have been a consultant and know from similar experience that the client rules. That’s as it should be provided that a conclusion doesn’t precede the research and that sufficient discussion, citizen input and review precede the request for the grant money.

But how were the citizens involved when the study requirements were established? Rather than the community, the grantor agency was the hidden determinant of the Interfluve recommendations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant (along with other participants) has certain requirements so that the necessary conclusions were in mind by the town board even before their study was initiated. Getting rid of the Montgomery Dam was decided de facto as one sure way to satisfy the grant requirements, never mind whether or not the idea held water. This, in spite of the fact that a 2003 memo from NOAA says that dam removal is not necessarily required for stream restoration.

So where are we now? We have recommendations that many of us in town will question. We have a dam, part of our town’s charm, that’s being threatened by the inattention of the Town Board and its willingness to trade off our history and beauty in favor of inappropriate grant requirements. The Town Board has initiated a multi-million-dollar project, presumably paid for by state and federal taxpayers (local matching money?), to re-engineer the Megunticook River to a condition that has never occurred in its history.

There are at least three ironies at play here. The first is that we are told that we will return to a natural river condition after tons of engineering work and river channel disruptions occur. Unlike the 1931 dam construction, it will require heavy equipment, probably dynamite, and the upsetting of a functioning ecosystem. For what gain? The second irony is that the Montgomery Dam is portrayed as being superfluous by the Town Manager, just a “water feature,” even as a tremendously expensive system of fish ladders is being considered in its stead. And finally, the third irony is that in the midst of the celebration of Olmsted and his treasured park, Camden’s most important leisure area, Montgomery Dam, the park’s constant companion, is being targeted for elimination.

Therefore, a petition request to save the dam has been submitted to the Town Board. This petition is to help avert a possible cascade of decisions by the Town Board and associated out-of-town bureaucracies that could lead to the dam’s removal. On any level, it makes no sense to pursue this course of action. The Town Board has many problems to consider and solve. Elimination of the Montgomery Dam is not one of them. It was not even mentioned in the town’s Comprehensive Plan, but many worthy issues and projects deserve their attention.

Meanwhile, the Montgomery Dam is just minding its own business, doing what it does best. The Megunticook River continues to hesitate a bit as it gathers behind the dam and build to a climax before its resolute cascade down into our iconic harbor. It continues to be at one and in harmony with the two neighboring National Register sites, Harbor Park and America’s Boathouse. It will continue to weather the current storm created by the mischief of our town government just as it has weathered all other climate events during its existence.

If you’d like to help save the Montgomery Dam, its falls and the Megunticook River, please share the link to this article by sending to your friends or social media:

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