The Inventor, Joseph Sawyer
There wasn’t much Joe Sawyer couldn’t figure out. To begin with, he inherited good genes and had a natural ability to think out and produce whatever problem was given to him, or a project his curious mind just wanted to conquer.
His grandfather, Winston Sawyer, was born and brought up in Milbridge. He was a jeweler, a watchmaker and built boats. He built some beautiful steam engines, boat engines and fancy furniture. What he made was very elaborate, very intricate and to scale. Joe’s Uncle Louis was a mechanic and a very good one. His father, Percival Sawyer, did not like machinery but was a fine carpenter, plumber and sheet metal worker.
Sawyer was born to Doris King of Mt. Desert and Percival Sawyer. Most people in Camden also know his sister Joan (Mrs. George Tibbetts), who is well versed on Camden history.
Joe grew up watching and learning all about Camden Harbor. Willis Harville had a shop on the waterfront of Atlantic Avenue, and Mrs. Bok, when she had Fletcher Steele design the Amphitheater and Olmstead design Harbor Park, she told Mr. Harville that he could keep his shop where it was as long as he wanted. That was a place that Joe loved to be and learn mostly about the harbor, boats and how to skull a boat. He liked that better than rowing, and still did it when he was 80 years old.
When in high school, he built a compound steam engine, like they had in tug boats. They didn’t think he would finish it, but he did by his senior year and kept it most of his life. At that time he also built some boat models; one was six feet long. He remembered it had 2,000 screws in it and he even planked it. He built a steam engine to go with the model, in the early part of high school, on the kitchen table.
He graduated from Camden High School, and because he was planning to go to Maine Maritime in Castine, he had to take a language. He really did not want to concentrate on Spanish, because he was thinking about motors. So, he asked permission to take it a second year and promised to learn it. He also went to Wentworth Institute in Boston. After graduating from Maine Maritime, he was an engineer on a ship that went to Texas, Panama, Brazil and Argentina, so he did need his Spanish. He was in the Naval Reserves in Rhode Island. He married Marjorie Ames and they had three children. One son also became an engineer.
Joseph Sawyer accomplished many tasks in Camden. One that he is probably best known for was what he did to the Seabright Mill dam that he purchased. When it was built, there were two dams, one was an earlier one built in the 1800s that was lower, a smaller dam and it went to the Seabright Mill. Then they later upgraded it and made it higher in 1910, which is the current height of the dam now. That dam had two vertical water turbines and it had vertical shafts going up to two large gear boxes on the ground level. Then there was a horizontal shaft that went to a 300 kilowatt generator. Most of the time, there wouldn’t be water enough to run both turbines, but part of the time they did. Joe bought the dam in 1984 and pretty much rebuilt it completely. It used to be 52 feet wide. He had to triple the width of the spillway and double the thickness of the dam because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said they wanted a safety factor of three on tipping over, on sliding, maybe during an earthquake. His work was fine except he had a factor 1.5 on sliding. So he had to build another dam with the same amount of mass right behind the old dam, make it twice as heavy and case it in cement. Then he had to triple the width of the spillway. The FERC said he should be able to pass the maximum probable flood. His dam (that now belongs to the town of Camden) has 150 feet of spillway and it spans the river. It produces electricity for several houses. Part of all the dams on Megunticook River were earthen, part stone masonry and a third of it is spillway, and had to be at least 50 feet of spillway. At one time there were 10 dams on the 3-mile river, and several mills.
He later was working on biodiesel and biofuel. He had been collecting fat from the deep fat fryers in restaurants and processing it. He was running his truck, tractor, backhoe on it and planned to heat his house with the same.
Another service he did for Camden was helping control the flow of Megunticook River. Most people do not even realize how important this job is. Camden owns the twin Molyneaux dams on Megunticook Lake where the Megunticook River starts. The also own Seabright Dam and the dam at the Public Landing where you see the falls. If Megunticook Lake and Megunticook River were full, and you have 19 inches of rainfall the flow could flood out downtown. Joe read that it happened in about 1922 , more or less, and it flooded down Main Street and onto Mechanic Street. He trained Ken Bailey when Ken first took over the job. When they saw a storm coming, they would call each other and consult. They kept checking on the lake to see that it wasn’t flooding, and the police department and fire department watched also. If the lake was getting really high, getting into flood stage, then the police and firemen monitored it every hour and keep records on how fast it was rising. At a critical point they had to “dump” the water. You can’t do it in a day, as it takes weeks to draw it down any significant amount. They have improved the mechanics of the gates up there so they can dump more water faster, if they have to. Many times, Ken Bailey and Joe Sawyer were up day and night, while we residents slept peacefully quite unaware of what might have been. Now that Ken and Joe are no longer with us, I understand that thanks to Ross Parker, along with firemen and policemen being ever watchful, we are being protected from a flood.
There is much more to tell about Joseph Sawyer, but I shall tell only a couple of other things he worked on. He worked for his sister’s father-in-law, Dr. Raymond Tibbetts, and had much to do with the projects at Tibbetts Industries. Also when Dr. Tibbett saw Lok Marinas in the Mediterranean, he became fascinated with them. So, with his engineer and problem solver Joe, they built a Lok Marina on Bay View Street, at the foot of Frye Street. Joe said: ”They designed and built a “lok” of steel that was 56-feet long by 18-feet wide and 23-feet deep. They excavated a large hole; floated the “ lok” into it and had a lot of trucks loaded with cement to pour in the space between the inner and outer “ lok” box to hold it before the tide came up.”
The Lok Marina was used for a while and when Dr. Tibbetts died they sold it. Today it is under the condominiums.
Joseph Sawyer died Aug. 19, 2007. We all miss Joe. He was quiet because he was either figuring out a project or building one, but once finished he could talk about anything. He was quite the expert on the history of Camden Harbor. Joseph Sawyer was a very interesting part of Camden’s history.
Barbara Dyer is Camden's official town historian.