CAMDEN — Prior to settlement around 1769, Camden was the frontier.

The first white settlers were drawn here by the prospect of waterpower, and historian John Locke, writing in 1859, captures the importance of those mills.

Before William Minot of Boston built a grist mill in Camden, the settlers had to carry corn on their backs to Warren along a path through the woods, Locke wrote. One such settler was Dodapher Richards, who set out on foot with his little dog and his corn to be ground. As night fell, he stopped at a cabin and asked to stay the night, but the mistress of the house, her husband being absent, refused.

“So pursuing his path, he plodded on until 9 o’clock, when he heard in the distance the howling of wolves,” Locke wrote in “Sketches of the History of the Town of Camden.” “Seeking out a large tree, he selected a club, and placing his back against the tree, awaited their approach.”

Through most of the night, he and his dog fought off the wolves, and finally he was able to go on his way the next morning after they had slunk off. “After he obtained his grist, he pursued his way home unmolested. Undoubtedly the [meals] made from that dearly acquired grist, were sweet to the taste of him who earned it.”

Waterpower drew settlers to the area and it served two vital purposes. Food was provided by the grist mill and commerce (lumber) served by the sawmill.

“The town wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the waterpower,” said Ken Gross of the Walsh History Center at the Camden Public Library.

This chart of “Megunticook Harbor” was made by the British in 1776. Courtesy of the Walsh History Center, Camden Public Library

As the town of Camden contemplates removing some of the dams, which are no longer in use to provide waterpower, there is understandably discussion of the history of the town and the waterway and the possibility of historical preservation and river restoration. The question is what part of the history is to be preserved.

While the settlers loom large in the history books, the presence of Europeans and their descendants is really only a minor blip in the big picture of the area’s history.

The people of the Penobscot Indian Nation were the stewards of Maine going back to the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years, according to Dan McCaw, Fisheries Program Manager for the Penobscot Indian Nation. He said in the winter, the tribes would hunt big game in the woods and in the spring they would come down to the coast to fish at the mouths and heads of tides of rivers.

Various species of fish migrated up the Megunticook River to spawn and were likely staples for the Penobscot people.

If dams are removed in the lower part of the river and fishways or ladders are constructed higher up, McCaw believes those species could rebound in the area, including alewives, blueback herring, shad and even salmon.

Artist rendering of the Knox Woolen Mill in the 1940s. Heather Bilodeau (Courtesy of the Walsh History Center, Camden Public Library).

Settlers forever changed ecosystems in rivers all over Maine as they clogged rivers with logs for lumber operations, blasted ledge to widen and deepen waterways and built small and large dams and mills.

The changes and damage to the Megunticook was not to be as bad as it was in some other waterways, according to McCaw, which is one reason the thought of restoration is possible. But like other places, the era of the Penobscot gave way to the time of settlement.

Prior to the end of the French and Indian Wars (1756-1763), Camden was Native American territory and the settlements were in Thomaston. The frontier line itself was roughly where the Rockland/Rockport line is today.

James Richards brought his family to the Camden wilderness in 1769, having explored the area a bit and built a log cabin the year before.

“At that time there were a few Indian’s wigwams on what is now called Eaton’s Point, and also on Beauchamp Point,” Locke wrote.

“William Minot of Boston purchased land at the mouth of the Megunticook River and erected a gristmill and a sawmill,” according to Ann Morris’ “The Camden Chronology.” He established the Montgomery Dam in 1771. One condition of him being able to settle here was that he had to establish a mill and run it for 10 years, according to Alison McKellar, who said she went to Boston to look at the original settlement documents for the town through the Historical & Genealogical Society. McKellar is vice-chair of the Select Board and has a passion for the topic of the Megunticook watershed.

Toward the end of the 18th century, William Molyneaux, also of Boston, built a dam at the lake.

A century later in 1889, the Megunticook Woolen Mill was established and manufactured felts. It was purchased later in 1905 and run as the Seabright Woven Felt Company, according to Historian Barbara Dyer.

View of the dam at the head of the harbor (Montgomery Dam) before the landscaping for Harbor Park. (From the Husby Family Album, from the Thordis Heistad Collection at the Walsh History Center.) c. 1905 Courtesy of the Walsh History Center, Camden Public Library

The Megunticook River Feasibility Report by Inter-Fluve states: “The river interacts with several structures along this length, flowing through seven road crossings, over seven relict dams, through former factories, and past several other features. …At one point in time as many as eleven dams existed on the river.”

It may have been more than that.

According to “The Water-Power of Maine” by Walter Wells in 1869, there were 21 dams or potential dam sites in Camden, 15 of which were on the Megunticook River.

An old photo of the Alden Oakum Mill dam. The remnants are still visible if you stand on the Knowlton Street Bridge and look downstream. Frank Caradoc Evans (Courtesy of the Walsh History Center, Camden Public Library)

Wells mentioned numerous waterpowered concerns including a large anchor factory producing 3,000 pounds of anchors per day, or 350 tons per year. Water powered a cracker bakery, felting operations, oakum production, and manufacture of parts used in shipbuilding (Knowlton Brothers’ Foundry at the Knowlton Street Dam).

Bryant’s Marble Works polished nearly all the gravestones sold in Belfast, Camden and Rockland.

McKellar said the concept of dam removal is not new to the waterway. About six dams have been removed in the history of Camden.

She added that in the late 19th century, landowner Eben Fernald and others took legal action to secure an injunction to stop the Knox Woolen Company and its partners from widening and excavating the opening of the lake, which resulted in more power for mills, but also lowering the water in the lake. She said fighting over waterpower is nothing new.

Not all of the history is known in exact detail, and McKellar has done a lot of research trying to get a picture of the way things were throughout the history of the watershed.

“This area has many signs of ledge blasting,” she said. “…The town had several powder mills and many references to deepening channels through blasting.”

A paper mill constructed in the 1820s burned in 1841, according to Wells, and was rebuilt as a powder mill making blasting powder for local quarrying operations. This suffered factory explosions and now ruins remain approximately 1.1 miles upstream of the Knowlton Street Dam.

In 1845, Charles Davis, Lorenzo Swell and John Ricker purchased the old paper mill lot and in the next year constructed a gun powder mill. “Before their business had operated a full year, there was an explosion…” Barbara Dyer wrote in 1993.

The Camden Herald reported: “The powder mill at Camden was blown up on Friday evening last about 9 o’clock. The accident occurred after the workmen had left, consequently no person was injured by the explosion, but we learn that considerable glass was broken in the immediate vicinity. The report was heard and the shock felt many miles distant. At Union, the flash was seen some seconds before the report was heard.”

Another explosion was reported in The Rockland Gazette in 1853. Houses shook, windows were broken and lights on Curtis Island miles away were extinguished.

“At one point, about 5,000 kegs of gunpowder, valued at over $17,000, were made each year, requiring 50 tons of saltpeter, 17 pounds of brimstone and 60 cord of alder wood. The brand name was Waldo Mills,” Dyer reported.

Other sources note the Gould Plug Mill at the former tannery site. It is no longer there.

The Brewster Shirt Factory (where Bagel Café is located) operated from about 1912 to 1964.

“In 1912, Mr. [Joseph Almond] Brewster purchased a lot at Mechanic and Washington streets from a Mr. Blood,” Dyer wrote in 2012. “He built a new factory with dimensions of 48 by 120 feet. This is now called the Brewster Building. It had the capacity for 150 employees, manufacturing 200 shirts per day, using waterpower. He sold ‘Congress’ shirts to Dreyfus & Sons in Boston. The factory later made wonderful parkas and snowsuits that wouldn’t wear out. The material came from across the street, manufactured by the Knox Woolen Mill.”

McKellar looked at a map from 1864 and sees what appears to be a narrow channel running through what is now Harbor Park and the library’s front yard.

“I tend to think that the river slowly ran down toward the harbor over the years depositing more and more sediment along what is now Harbor Park and the library’s front yard,” McKellar said. “This would have slowly pushed the river slightly to the south. There is no ledge in the harbor park area. It has been manipulated a lot over the years and some say that when the fire of 1891 happened, they pushed all the debris and ash over to the harbor park area. That would have filled this little channel.”

Select Board member Alison McKellar sees evidence of a channel that is no longer there near the library. Courtesy of Alison McKellar

In the early 1930s, the Olmsted Brother’s firm working with funding and vision from Mary Louise Curtis Bok renovated the spillway, created the retaining wall, sluiceway and the Harbor Park end of the dam, according to Gross.

Bok (1876–1970) was the heiress daughter of publishing magnate Cyrus H.K. Curtis and Louisa Knapp. McKellar argues that Bok believed in a return to nature. Bok’s vision was a more beautiful waterfront and town.

In the industrial days, waterfronts were seen in Rockland and Camden and other places as working areas and not appreciated as much for scenic beauty. After fires, such as the one in the 1930s that took the anchor factory, ash and charred rubble blighted areas along the waterfront. Bok offered to assist the town in beautification.

Her vision remains as residents advocate for aesthetic considerations when it comes to potential river restoration.

The Philip Montgomery family gave the Montgomery Dam to the town in 1992. Discussion of the gift of the dams shows up on page 21 of The Camden Herald, Sept. 17, 1992.

“Philip Montgomery, owner of property beneath several buildings on Main Street, as well as the Megunticook dam and falls behind the structures, is in the process of selling the land to the owners of the buildings located on it, and has offered the dam, the sluiceway, the falls and a piece of abutting land to the town.” The issue was headed to voters in November. “A consideration in the selectmen’s decision to place such an item on the ballot will be the cost to the town of maintenance. Camden presently co-owns, with Lincolnville, two dams where Megunticook Lake flows into the river. Four other dams along the river are privately owned. Saying they hoped the town could accept the gift, selectmen voted to authorize town attorney Terry Calderwood to enter into negotiations for the transfer.

“According to selectman Barbara Dyer, the dam has served a number of industries over its long  history, including a gristmill and a woolen mill. ‘But today it’s part of the beauty of Camden,’ Dyer added, “and that’s what we should save it for.’”

On the ballot it went, and voters approved it the same year they helped elect President Bill Clinton.

At the moment, Camden is poised between a picture of the past, which is incomplete, and a decision for the future, which remains unknown.

McCaw believes there are some real positive possibilities. “This is not a habitat that is completely screwed up,” he said. “It has an opportunity to recover.”

He expects the fish could rebound relatively quickly if the dams are removed in the lower part of the river, and he sees benefits beyond just the fish. He sees opportunity for increased scenic beauty as the river’s ecosystem recovers, which could bring more birds of prey such as Bald Eagles, more otters and even mink. The effects would also go beyond Camden and the Megunticook. That ecosystem is part of the bigger picture of Maine’s environment.

“The best fishway is a free-flowing river,” he said.

Without projects like this one, which are being prioritized by state and federal agencies, the future could be more bleak for certain species. “Salmon have been in recovery for over 100 years, but they are still on the brink of extinction,” he said. “If you try to recover corn by throwing seeds in a parking lot, you’re not going to be successful.” The habitat some of these fish need has been broken and modified for hundreds of years.

Seabright mill. Courtesy of the Walsh History Center, Camden Public Library

Two concerns about dam removal are for the aesthetics of the area, which depends on tourism, and maintaining lake levels for the Megunticook.

McKellar noted that if the dams are removed in the lower watershed, the town could get funding for fish ladders upstream. She said removing the Seabright Dam or the Megunticook East and West Dams is a nonstarter due to the needs of the lake residents.

Whether people will like the look of the waterfront downtown without the historic dams depends on who you ask, but also remains to be seen. It is possible, some argue, that it will be just as scenic without the dams.

Waterpower has forever shaped the history of Camden to this point. What comes next is up to town leaders and ultimately, the voters.

Special thanks are due to Ken Gross and Donovan Bowley of the Walsh History Center for helping with this story as well as to Select Board member Alison McKellar and Dan McCaw of the Penobscot Indian Nation.