Members of the Save the Dam Falls Committee contribute “Dam Straight” columns concerning the preservation of the waterfall and Montgomery Dam at the head of Camden Harbor. The Save the Dam Falls Committee is an ad hoc group of concerned citizens seeking to preserve the legacy, history, beauty, and economic vitality the dam brings to our town. Everyone is welcome to join the committee or be on the mailing list.

In the upcoming columns, we will write about the history and legacy of the waterfalls; the immense cost of the river restoration project and the minor part that the waterfall has in the overall cost; how dams work in the context of watershed management; a look at how the issue has been presented and promoted; as well as other relevant topics that are of public interest. There are two points that we will return to again and again: Montgomery Dam does not endanger Camden; and, for those who favor fish passage, the dam will not prevent a fish ladder being built. We look forward to offering more topics in future columns.

As a Camden resident for nearly thirty years, and one of the many residents who participated with the group “Friends of the Park” to protect the integrity of Harbor Park’s original Olmsted design in my early years here, I remain dismayed that town officials continue to even consider the removal of the Montgomery Dam. Removal of the dam would destroy our unique head of the harbor treasured waterfalls. I am also both surprised and disappointed that the Camden Library Trustees, our local Chamber of Commerce, and our local news media have not yet taken a proactive stand in favor of protecting the Historic Montgomery Dam and Camden Falls for generations to come. It is my intention to shed new light on the intrinsic value Montgomery Dam’s Waterfalls have in the configuration of Harbor Park and thus elevate the important nature of its historic preservation.

For quite some time now I have been speculating that this magnificent flow of water in multiple directions must have been viewed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. as a pre-existing outstanding contribution to the beauty of the prestigious park he designed. Can anyone in Camden believe that for a single moment during Mr. Olmsted’s extended time spent envisioning the outcome of his extraordinary Harbor Park Project in Camden, he ignored the sound of rushing water from the falls, somehow missed the splashing spray of flowing water pouring into the harbor, or that instead he stood back and contemplated eliminating the dam and waterfalls to create such a culturally significant park?

Take a look at two of the photos provided in this column courtesy of the National Park Service’s Frederick Law Olmsted Historic Site archives. There stands world-renowned landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. with two other men, in Camden Harbor at low tide. A portion of the falls is in view. In another photo from 1930, Camden’s Montgomery Dam is undergoing major restoration with an extended spillway visible in a lighter color than the older portion. Does it appear that this famous designer was turning a blind eye to the dam, knowing full well that this dam’s outlet of cascading water from the Megunticook River was capable of creating, broader, more gorgeous waterfalls to further enhance the beauty of Harbor Park’s design?

In fact, there is evidence from historical documents, that the spillway was doubled in size with funds provided by Camden’s most generous benefactor, Mary Louise Curtis Bok. (See detail of an Olmsted Montgomery Dam spillway sketch, also from the National Park Service.) This improved the structure of the dam as well as expanded the enchanting beauty of Camden’s waterfalls. Mrs. Bok not only commissioned and collaborated with this distinguished landscape designer, she also generously provided funds for community men to work during the Great Depression to reconstruct the dam. In my simple common-sense opinion, the waterfalls created by Montgomery Dam, began serving a more dual purpose at this point in Camden’s history. The dam was no longer for the necessity of water power alone, it became a part of Mary Louise Curtis Bok’s transformational aesthetically pleasing visionary view of Camden’s future.

The Camden Library’s “Camden Herald Digitized Archives” within the Walsh History Center fortuitously arrived recently for further research on this subject. Presented below are excerpts from a Camden Herald article dated August 28,1930. This article is evidence in clear black and white that Camden Falls created by the Montgomery Dam is in fact a key feature incorporated within Harbor Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. with Mary Louise Curtis Bok’s valuable evolutionary insight and philanthropic ideals deeply rooted in community values. Together this historical duo captured the essence of our cherished waterfalls, formed by the Montgomery Dam, as an integral part of Harbor Park’s design from the 1930s forward.

Front Page News Camden Herald, August 28, 1930


“Mrs. Bok exhibited at the meeting Tuesday, plans of the changes on this property and all were very much impressed with what was proposed. When completed, the head of Camden Harbor will be a thing of beauty, with its waterfalls, terraces, dotted here and there with low growing shrubbery, grass, plants etc.

“All spring and summer more than 100 men have been working like beavers creating, building stone walls along the Megunticook River as well as the spillway at the falls, the spillway when completed will be just twice as wide as it was originally, will add much to the beauty of the waterfalls which are back of the buildings at Main Street.”

Members of the steadfast advocacy group Save the Dam Falls say time and again, “We should be prizing and preserving Camden’s treasures, not destroying them.”  Furthermore, we must forever honor and respect the legacy of Mary Louise Curtis Bok and her heart of gold that provided everyone who lives in Camden or visits our community public access to these phenomenal wonders.

Some concluding thoughts follow. It stands to reason that an amended or extended Harbor Park National Historic Register Designation will occur in the near future, which will include Camden’s Montgomery Dam as an attribute within the scope of the park’s original Olmsted design. Or simply by virtue of readily available additional historic documentation, the dam will qualify on its own merit. I am optimistic that residents of Camden will come out from under winter shelter in full force to insist that town officials pay close attention to this evidence. There already exists official recognition of the dam and waterfalls in the “Potential Historic Resources” section of the 2017 Camden Comprehensive Plan, which is meant to ensure that preservation and restoration of Montgomery Dam becomes a reality. This Comprehensive Plan is not a meaningless document. It was and is a chosen direction decided by dedicated citizens for the town of Camden.

Moving on in the decades of my life, I find comfort in knowing that the majority of Camden residents made an extremely wise decision to save Harbor Park’s Olmsted design from destruction in the past and trust that they will do so again by recognizing and preserving the historic value of the Montgomery Dam with its waterfalls that spill so gloriously over the top of the dam’s spillway. I truly believe for all intents and purposes the dam is and indeed always was a noteworthy part of Harbor Park’s design. We are blessed, as mid coast residents, to have these rare waterfalls that appeal to our senses and enliven our spirits right in downtown Camden.

Jean Brewer

Members of the Save the Dam Falls Committee contribute “Dam Straight” columns concerning the preservation of the waterfall and Montgomery Dam at the head of Camden Harbor. The Save the Dam Falls Committee is an ad hoc group of concerned citizens. “Dam Straight” does not represent the editorial position of The Camden Herald. Opposing views are welcomed in letters and guest columns.

Construction of Montgomery Dam in 1931. Courtesy of the National Park Service’s Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Team of three men from the Olmsted Brothers Architectural Firm, on an initial inspection of the landscape in 1930. Courtesy of the National Park Service’s Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Mary Louise Curtis Bok circa. 1928. Courtesy Curtis Institute of Music

Dam and park showing the interconnectedness of the design elements. Photo by Chuck Brawn

Detail of a working drawing from the Olmsted landscaping company, showing the intended changes to the length of the spillway of Montgomery Dam. Courtesy of the National Park Service’s Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

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