In February 1834, a fight broke out about damming the Kennebec River. Petitions poured into the state Legislature, some predicting that the “business of the whole Kennebec County will be brought into bondage for all coming time.”
At issue was the largest dam project ever conceived in the United States. Dam proponents won the day, and the dam was completed in Augusta in 1837, 175 years ago this year.
The debate about rivers in Maine, whether they should be a public or private resource, continues to this day.
Until the early 1800s, access to a river and its fish was considered a “natural right” given to every citizen. By 1900, the situation had reversed; corporations controlled the power of the Kennebec and the fate of its fish.
What caused this drastic change, and what can it tell us about current issues about Maine rivers?
The 1834 controversy about the Edwards Dam (then known as the Kennebec or Augusta Dam) shows how people valued the Kennebec River 175 years ago. The livelihoods of local residents depended on the power, food and transportation the river provided. In this context, Mainers willingly encouraged industrial development along the Kennebec at the expense of fish populations.
Contemporary environmental groups fail to mention that most 19th-century Mainers wanted dams in their towns.
A dam raised water levels, and since water was the quickest mode of transportation in the early part of the century, deeper water meant wider access to national and global markets.
Legislative records at the Maine State Archives show that residents of developing towns such as Waterville and Fairfield believed that almost everyone, from farmers and lumberman to entrepreneurs, “would be especially benefitted” from a dam in Augusta.
The only losers in this enterprise were the fish, and the people who relied on them for sustenance. At the time, fishing for salmon was an important source of food, not a recreational activity. The state realized that “fisheries would be partially, if not wholly destroyed” by the dam, and required a fish ladder to be built.
When a violent flood nearly destroyed the Edwards Dam in 1839, however, the vast majority of complaints came from farmers and tradesmen unable to pass the debris. Although a few people petitioned for the fish ladder to be rebuilt, their concerns came second to those of the more vocal and numerous lumberman, farmers and merchants. Fisherman thus found themselves in the least desirable position in a democracy — the minority.
The degraded environmental state of the Kennebec in the 20th century was not the result of corporations stealing the river, but instead from people forgetting their rights to it.
By the time railroads replaced water as the most efficient form of transportation at the close of the 19th century, the annual migrations of salmon had been relegated to a fading memory. The employment made possible by the dam outweighed the rights of fish in the Kennebec’s waters.
Much of the environmental progress on the Kennebec in the last 50 years is the result of new values and economic priorities.
The removal of the Edwards Dam in 1999 likely would have not been possible had it been still powering mills and employing local residents. With our state’s reliance on tourism, the return of migrating fish presents the same economic opportunities that inspired Mainers to build Edwards Dam 175 years ago.
Today, we hope Atlantic salmon will return to Maine because fishing is an activity with deep recreational, cultural and economic value.
Instead of judging past generations for their perceived neglect of the river, we should realize that our values and economic priorities have changed since the early 1800s. Our desire to profit from the river remains, it has just taken a different form.
Zachary Bennett, originally of Falmouth, is a graduate student in history at Miami University of Ohio.