With all the talk about dams and lake levels and lawsuits in Camden these past couple weeks, I am reminded that water wars are nothing new in the Megunticook Watershed. They have always been settled peacefully in the long run, but sometimes it helps to get Lincolnville involved. Some of these legal battles have even helped to establish important statutory principles about the legal rights of both dam owners and the general public as they relate to the lakes and ponds of our beautiful state.

I have read thousands of pages of old newspapers and historical documents about the lake and streams, but one of the most interesting and least known matters that I have stumbled upon is the controversy that surrounded the lowering of Megunticook Lake below its natural low water mark.

We may never know exactly what Megunticook Lake was like before the arrival of European settlers, but the lowest it could go was a point very well established in the late 1880s, at least in the minds of Eben Fernald and his allies (yes, of Fernald’s Neck) who secured an injunction to stop the Knox Woolen Company and its partners in their pursuit to draw down the water of the lake through a channel they had excavated.

Drought conditions often plagued the mill owners in Camden who depended on a flow of a sufficient and reliable rate coming from the lake down the stream to the harbor. At that point, the two lake dams were owned by a consortium of downtown mill owners with their most important purpose being the regulating of water available to the downtown.

Their interest in the lake as anything other than a reservoir must have been limited, and the stream too was just a power source that could be turned on and off by opening and closing the dams at the lake. But there was a limit to how low nature would let it go, and when they let more water out than was replenished by rain, the flow stopped. So they dug a trench, blasting through bedrock and carving away until they could get the water flowing again.

Depending on whose account you believe, the total amount the channel was deepened is anywhere from 4.5 to 8 feet or so. It was celebrated as quite an ingenious idea by The Camden Herald at the time, but you have to remember the paper was being financed by the downtown business owners and was not likely to be against anything they did unless another group made a real fuss. Today, the business owners are not quite as cohesive a group.

Around the lake, they had already learned to be suspicious of the Camden dam owners and for good reason. According to a Dec. 18, 1884 issue of The Courier-Gazette, “from time immemorial the owners of privileges along the banks of the stream have had the right to flow the lake up to a point marked by a ring and a bolt in a rock. That did not give power enough and flash boards were added which flowed the water considerably above the mark, and covered land of abutters on the lake who sued for damages and got them. Then the mill owners stopped flowing the lake and instead dug a trench or hole at the mouth of the outlet, which cost some $1,500, Knox Mill paying the bills. This lowered the lake and so the landowners had to build water fences and wanted more damages. Then the companies gave that up. The object of the petition quoted above is to get permission to use that dig out and in this way get the additional water needed.”

It would take a long time to go over all the aspects of the case, but counsel for Eben Fernald argued eloquently some of the principles we cherish still today, “that the state owns the waters of a great pond as public property, held in trust for public uses; that the owner of lands adjoining a great pond is bounded by the natural low-water mark; that such littoral owner has no special title or interest in the waters of such pond; and no greater right to the use of such water than has every other person; that the use of such waters is free to every one who can gain lawful access to them…”

The injunction was granted and resulted in the establishment of the important premise and precedent that mill owners do not have the right to drain the lake below the point that nature intended. The case has been cited repeatedly over many decades.

This does not change the fact that we can never undo completely what was done and that part of Camden’s responsibility as dam owners will forever be to make sure that the dams are prepared to fill in for mother nature. You can read all about the case by simply googling the term “Eben Fernald Vs Knox Mill” or at this link: https://cite.case.law/me/82/48/.

One of my favorite blurbs around the issue came from a now digitized issue of the Rockland Courier-Gazette (Jan. 8, 1895):

“Everybody and their neighbors go a-smelting nowadays down to Dailey’s wharf, which is lined daily with a large assortment of citizens, who in the excitement of yarning the unwary shiner forget the imminent danger of draining Canaan Lake and the burning topic of shoveling off the town walks.  Thursday Charles Hall caught 125.”

It highlights how much is different in Camden and how much is still pretty similar some 125 years later. We still get mired in silly debates while forgetting some of the more existential issues, but the distraction of smelt fishing in the harbor only comes up in reports about river restoration. Thank goodness they all agreed to stop calling it Canaan Lake and got back to using the indigenous name that we found it with.

I must also correct a previous mistake that started a long time ago and which I repeated when writing previously; that the level of the lake was raised by about 13 or 14 feet when the dams were put in by William Molyneaux in the late 1700s. This was missing some context. The lake would have originally been smaller than it is today, but not by nearly as much as has been said.

This postcard shows the view from Maiden’s Cliff with low water levels.

The area near the East Dam at the outlet of Megunticook Lake before the channel was excavated and deepened. Date unknown.