Sunken history behind Penobscot dams

Monday, April 30, 2012

As two dams come out of Maine's Penobscot River, the conservation organization leading the dam removal effort has discovered what historians might view as sunken treasure: submerged mill dam structures from centuries past.  At the same time, these sunken dam remnants may continue to impede fish passage once the modern dams are removed, potentially frustrating the dam owner's intent in removing them.

The Penobscot River Restoration Trust is undertaking the removal of the Veazie and Great Works Dams on the Penobscot River.  Following a 2004 settlement agreement among previous dam owners, environmental and conservation groups, and governmental agencies, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved their removal, along with the installation of fish passage equipment at the upstream Howland dam on the Piscataquis River.

Dam removal is expected to help fish and other aquatic wildlife, but FERC required the Trust to develop a plan to mitigate any adverse impacts of dam removal on infrastructure and archaeologic resources.  For example, the Trust knew that the historic remnants of previous dams and lumber mills lay submerged in the impoundment behind the Veazie Dam.  The remnants are associated with a series of lumber mills successively known as the Penobscot Mill Dam Company Mills, the City Mills, the Corporation Mills, and the Veazie Lumber Company Mill, which consisted of two sets of saw mills connected along water-control structures that ran parallel to the Penobscot River, and which were constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover, the site was purchased in 1889 for use as one of Maine’s first
hydroelectric facilities.

The Trust, along with the state historical preservation office, entered into a memorandum of agreement requiring the Trust to document the Veazie remnant structures after the modern dam is removed.  Because the historic mill dam is expected to impair natural river flow after the modern dam is gone, the Trust also plans to remove the historic structure after it is documented.

As it turns out, the historic Veazie dam is not the only historic or archaeological resource submerged beneath the Penobscot River's waters. While finalizing plans for removal of the Great Works dam, the Trust discovered that a similar, inundated, remnant structures exist in the Great Works impoundment.  The structural remains within the impoundment of the Great Works Dam were constructed as two structures in the early 19th century to provide water for two early sawmill complexes on the Penobscot River at Great Works: for the mills of Rufus Dwinel on the west bank, and for the mills of the Great Works Milling and Manufacturing Company on the east bank. These original dams, on each side of the river, were built as wing dams that extended upriver and out from the river bank, and likely were built independently of each other. The two dams were then consolidated under a single ownership in the early 1880s by the Penobscot Chemical Fibre Company, who built an early mill for producing wood pulp for paper on the Penobscot River.

Both of these sites may be eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places as historic archaeological sites.

As a result of the re-discovery of these additional historic remnants, the Trust sought and obtained FERC's approval to document and remove part of the historic Great Works structures.  The Trust anticipates removing the modern Great Works dam as early as this summer.

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