For a group of Camden citizens, saving the Montgomery Dam and waterfall it creates is about preserving beauty and history and raising awareness of a town government plan to remove the dam.

This summer, Lee Montgomery and her sister Holly, joined a group of citizens called Save the Dam(n) Falls.

“Our family gifted the dam to the town about 30 years ago, with the understanding that they would maintain, do what repairs would be needed and preserve it, because it is a piece of Camden’s history,” Lee said.

Over those decades, the town government has not maintained the dam, Lee said.

The sisters mentioned the town historic industries, the grist mill, anchor mill, woolen mill and tannery, “all ran off the power of the dams.”

In retrospect, Holly thinks the family’s gift of the dam to the town should have been made with some conditions.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would get to a situation like this,” she said. “Where they wanted to tear it out,” Lee said.

Their uncle Philip Montgomery gifted the dam to the town. Going back three or four generations, the Montgomerys owned most of the land on the east side of Main Street, Lee explained, from where 11 Main is now, to 43 Main, the last store before Harbor Park.

The Montgomery land included the riverbed of the Megunticook and the dam. The river now runs below the Main Street Bridge and several Main Street buildings, including The Smiling Cow and The Camden Deli, on its way to Camden Harbor.

Over the generations the land was divided and the great fire destroyed all the buildings on the east side of Main, Lee said. The first to be rebuilt was 25 Main, a grain store, now The Village Shop, and one of four buildings she and Holly own, as Camden Harbor Properties.

Lee thinks land was sold during her grandmother’s generation to the family of Meg Quijano, who owns The Smiling Cow. Lee also remembers her Uncle Philip sold land to the Rothwell family.

The Rothwell’s bought 37 Main St. 30 years ago. Tom Rothwell, who bought his father’s share years ago, now owns the business, the building and the riverbed beneath it. The Deli’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows and second floor deck overlook the mill pond, dam, falls and harbor.

Rothwell wants the Montgomery Dam to be preserved. “It’s really important to the town,” he said. “It’s a big part of our town, and I don’t want it destroyed. I just want it protected and preserved.”

“There are a lot of landmarks and beauty in this town and the waterfall is one of those,” he said. To Rothwell, the dam is as much of a landmark as the steeple of the Chestnut Street Baptist Church on the Village Green.

When the steeple, which houses the town clock, needed major restoration, voters agreed to contribute funds. Rothwell is grateful that work was done.

“They didn’t destroy it because of the cost. They knew it was special. Historic preservation’s a big part of our town. That’s what we are.”

Rothwell has also wanted to be involved in town government’s discussions about the dam for a long time.

He began attending meetings about the Montgomery Dam, sponsored by town government, when a report on options for the dam was released in 2019. The report studied costs, fish passage and flooding impacts of three options: leaving the dam in place, partial removal of the dam, and full removal. The report recommended the removal option, which town government has pursued, by accepting grants that fund this.

“I’ve requested over and over to be part of the discussion and I’ve never been invited to any meetings,” he said.

Though he has “sent emails out to the town manager and Select Board, requesting all correspondence related to my building to be forwarded to my attention,” he has never received a response.

Rothwell, Montgomery and Meg Quijano, owner of The Smiling Cow, have all seen engineers on the dam study on their properties and under their buildings without being given any notice.

For years, banners hung on back decks facing Camden Harbor have advertised the names of Main Street businesses built over the falls. A couple of years ago, Dan Gabriele, owner of Marriner’s Restaurant, hung banners calling for the town and its people to “Save The Falls.”

These banners now hang from all four buildings behind the dam — “Don’t Destroy Beauty” hangs from the Camden Deli, and “Honor Our History” from the lower deck of The Smiling Cow.

“Save the Dam Falls came about because we all had a lot of the same concerns,” Rothwell said. “We want to get it out there to the public that they deserve a process and to know what’s going on with the dam.”

“Meg and I have been to most of the meetings and we have customers who approach us and want to learn about this,” he said. “They see banners and residents start getting really concerned because they don’t know what’s going on.”

Quijano, owner of The Smiling Cow, agrees. “That is how it started. There were a few other people worried about this, and they said, we need to do something. We can’t just sit and complain.”

She is very concerned about climate change and the environment, but does not think that is the issue with the Montgomery Dam. She has seen a photograph of her building used in numerous town presentations as an illustration of flooding. The photograph shows the impoundment of water behind the dam and the bottom of siding on her building somewhat submerged in the water.

The building hasn’t flooded in at least 15 years, she said, because Dave Bolstridge, who wears numerous hats including dam agent, comes down to open the dam gate, which lowers the water in the impoundment. The siding shown as being underwater is a false facade that extends lower than the exterior of the basement wall to screen pilings beneath the building, she explained.

When Quijano began attending the meetings about the dam, she was “listening to what they had to say and “anticipated back and forth meetings where we presented our side and asked questions, and I have never felt that has happened.”

“It’s been them presenting and us listening and if we come out with any kind of negativity it’s that we’re anti-environmentalists. And we are not. We are so not.”

Rothwell said he has been intrigued all along by the idea of creating fish passage.

“Maybe there’s a possibility where we can have fish ladders and fish passage and a beautiful waterfall. We have engineers saying that is a possibility,” he said.

The group is not only made up of Main Street business owners, but includes engineers and people from a variety of backgrounds.

Jennifer Healy is a six-year resident of Camden, who grew up in a mill town in Connecticut. When she moved to Camden, she brought that sense of history and the importance of keeping it alive with her. Healy joined the town’s Historic Resources Committee, and came up with the concept of a Mill Walk brochure. She saw the project through to completion, and the printed brochure is a self-guided tour of the mills in downtown Camden for residents and visitors alike.

Healy spends a lot of time on the Public Landing, as a member of the Camden Garden Club and Chamber of Commerce, and sees people enjoying a spot overlooking part of the falls. The dam and waterfall create an environment and people from near and far go there to enjoy it, she said. “When you sit there you can feel the mist on you. You can hear the sound. You don’t get that anywhere else. That’s what it’s about.”

Quoting Ken Gross, another member of the group, she said, “The falls are one of the many hearts in this town. You can’t just destroy that.”

Rothwell and Quijano are very concerned about unanswered questions and issues, such as what would happen to their buildings if the dam was removed and the river rerouted. Still, preserving beauty and history is the powerful motivation.

Quijano agrees the dam and the beauty is in their hearts. The science and engineering is very important, yet there are times when the history and what’s in our hearts is just as important, she said.