Royal River dam history

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The town of Yarmouth, Maine is considering what to do with two dams on the Royal River.  The town owns the dams near Bridge Street and East Elm Street; these dams, or their predecessors, were built as early as the mid-1700s to provide mechanical hydropower to the industrial mills that played a large part in the local and regional economy.  Since 1674, settlers used the Royal River's waters to power mills; as early as 1759, a dam at East Elm Street was used to impound water to power an iron mill.  The debate over whether to repair or remove the dams is grounded in the history of human use of the Royal River's hydropower resources.

One of the best historical texts on Maine's hydropower potential and resources is The Water-Power of Maine, a compilation of reports by the commissioners of the Hydrographic Survey of 1867 and its secretary, Walter Wells.  The report broadly identifies 1,955 "water-powers" based on a survey asking municipalities about the resources within their boundaries.

For Yarmouth, the report provides the following description along with a note that the information was "digested from Selectment's Returns":
They are called, - one, "Gooch's"; four, "Baker's"; one, the "Factory Fall".  All are situated on Royal's River; combined height, sixty-six feet in one mile.
Power estimated sufficient to grind seventy-five bushels of grain per hour each. Power is not all improved; mills work all the year; machinery not the best.
Stream connected with three small ponds. Range from lowest to highest water, eight feet. Effect of the improvement of the power upon the wealth of the town, excellent.
This snapshot gives us a good look at the water-power of Yarmouth in 1867. (Compare the elegant sign prepared by the Yarmouth Village Improvement Society in 2011, showing a map and images from industrial activities at four of the natural water-power sites in Yarmouth.) A twenty-first century visitor to Yarmouth might be surprised at the industrial history of the waterway, including a large pulp mill owned by the Forest Paper Company, textile mills, and other manufacturing concerns that employed the people of Yarmouth over the years.

140 years later, the Royal River's waters do not grind much grain, but at least two of the dams remain in the river. In 1984, the Sparhawk Mill near to the Bridge Street dam installed hydroelectric generation, although it is reportedly worse for the wear and produces little to no useful power. (Perhaps "machinery not the best" could have been said about the present-day site as well as it was in 1867.)

Dam removal advocates have labeled the dams "relics of an industrial age". Environmental advocates suggest that Yarmouth remove the dams, given the cost of maintaining them, their impacts to fish in the river, and the fact that they are not fully being used to produce renewable power.  Yet Yarmouth has a strong culture of interest in both sustainable energy (e.g. Yarmouth Energy Savers Committee) and historical preservation (e.g. Yarmouth Historical Society); the town's consultants found that the dams could generate some renewable electricity, and could be eligible for inclusion in national historic preservation districts.  Given the history and present risks and opportunities, will the people of Yarmouth choose to remove the Royal River dams?

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