July 9, 2010 - Smelt Hill Dam

Friday, July 9, 2010

A peek at part of the New Meadows quahog fleet:

New Meadows fleet

Today, I begin a look at Maine's first hydroelectric dam: the Smelt Hill dam on the Presumpscot River in Falmouth. Dammed in 1735 and with generating capacity installed in 1889, the Smelt Hill dam was the first hydro dam to be built in Maine.

In the early 1700s, the land around the Presumpscot River's mouth was owned by Thomas Westbrook, William Pepperell, and Samuel Waldo. Town records show that "a great dam" and sawmill were constructed on the lower falls in 1735. Resource conflicts began immediately, with upstream fish passage so impaired that Chief Polin, leader of the "Rockameecook" Tribe of Abenakis made the multi-day journey to Boston to ask Governor Shirley to require fish passage on all dams on the Presumpscot system. Accounts from the era describe “an acre of fish, mostly salmon” penned up below the impassable dam.

In 1726, George and Judith Knight settled on the Middle Road in Falmouth. Descendant Samuel Knight became known as the "Smelt King", famously claiming that if you laid his smelt catch end to end, it would reach all the way to Bangor. Perhaps thanks to his marketing pitches, the area came to be known as "Smelt Hill."

In 1889, the S.D. Warren Company erected a powerhouse (and new dam) at the site to supply electricity to its paper mill several miles upstream in Westbrook. The March 15, 1896 edition of the Electrical Journal gives a contemporary description of the power station:

The power plant of S. D. Warren & Co., at Smelt Hill, Maine, on the Presumpscot, has been started up for the first time. This plant was built some six years ago when the dam at the lower falls of the Presumpscot was constructed. The plant is arranged for twelve large turbine wheels. It has laid idle all this time, but recently the company has secured the right of way on the bank of the Presumpscot to Westbrook and has run a line of heavy copper wires whereon to convey the power from the new plant to the big paper mills. The distance is some five or six miles. The reason that this power has at last been transferred up the river and put into use is because of the lack of water at times to furnish sufficient power at the paper mills. They are now using only two of the turbine wheels at the Smelt Hill plant, but next week will use four of them.

It's interesting to see that even in the late 1800s, developers had a hard time getting easements to string transmission and distribution lines from distributed renewable resources to markets and loads.

By its end, Smelt Hill was the site of a 151-foot long, 31-foot wide and 15-foot high stone filled, timber crib dam, along with some associated structures. Smelt Hill Dam was not operational between 1943 and 1985. The Town of Falmouth's 2000 Comprehensive Plan documents the Smelt Hill dam as having been "damaged beyond repair in a 1996 flood." The 1996 flood -- almost 20 inches of rain in 3 days -- on the Presumpscot rendered the hydroelectric facilities and the fish lift at the dam inoperable and anadromous runs again ceased on the Presumpscot.

The dam was subsequently removed in October 2002. In a coming edition, I'll look at the issues that led to its removal.

Source note: much of the history of the area is drawn from the National Park Service's 1993 Historic American Engineering Report for the downstream Presumpscot Falls Bridge.

News: retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn, vice chairman of the CNA Military Advisory Board, an retired-officer based energy and climate change think tank, visited Maine to call for greater energy independence.

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