History of the Penobscot River

iStock_000033484040LargeCopyEarly Maine development on the Penobscot River really began with the exploitation of Maine’s lumber resources. Bangor was the lumber capital of the world from the 1830’s to the 1880’s. Logs clogged the river and the streams during the drives. Over 200 sawmills with a mill dam existed at one time all along the river. Sawdust and wood chips collected on the river bottom and were the beginning to destroy spawning habitat and its effect on the entire Penobscot River ecosystem. About 8.5 billion feet of lumber was cut and loaded onto ships from all over the world.

Dams and Hydropower Threats

Major threats to Atlantic salmon migration both upriver and downriver have been dams and hydropower development. The first dam on the Penobscot River was constructed about 186 years ago in Old Town and the Bangor dam was built on the site of Treat Falls in 1875. It is about 1,006 feet long with 800 feet of timber crib spillway and 200 feet of concrete spillway on the easterly end. The timber spillway being 2 feet lower than the concrete spillway was fitted with flashboards. The first fish way was built around 1923 between the timber and concrete spillways. The second fish way was constructed in 1936 with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) office funds. The Atlantic Sea-Run Salmon Commission was created in 1948 to restore salmon, erect fish ways, remove obstructions and halt pollution. Around 1954 the salmon runs stopped. The river smelled like a cesspool and a zero zone of oxygen existed below the Bangor Dam that had a real impact on returning Atlantic salmon. It was not until 1972 and 1973 that returning numbers of salmon began to increase again.

Other Threats

The first mill the Eastern Manufacturing Company was built on the Penobscot in 1889 at Brewer. The Orono Pulp and Paper also started in 1889 and was followed by the Howland Falls Pulp Company in 1891. Sources of industrial pollution were all the refuse from other pulp mills along the Penobscot from Millinocket to Old Town. The chemicals were discharged directly into the river produced during paper production. Untreated effluents were also dumped into the river from many other sources that included tanning industries, woolen mills, the shoe industry, residential and commercial businesses. At one time there were 22 leather plants and 25 textile mills on the lower Penobscot. Unfortunately there were too many delays due to anything being done. The work of Senator Muskie’s national Clean Water Act of 1972 brought about significant changes in wastewater pollution standards and the Penobscot River was now a model for many restoration projects to begin in cleaning up the river.

Commercial high seas netting and a commercial weir fishery on the Penobscot occurred from the early 1800’s to 1947. Average yearly catches of 12,000 salmon were taken between 1875 and 1890. In 1947 only 40 salmon were taken and all commercial fishing became illegal. In 1965 Congress passed the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act to provide funds to help restore salmon, shad and striped bass.

Other threats and concerns include predation, acid rain, clear cutting forest practices and angler poaching. The National Craig Brook Fish Hatchery (the oldest hatchery in the U.S. at Orland, Maine) was established in 1889 and was the first attempt to begin Atlantic salmon operations. The deterrents to restoration have been the many dams on the Penobscot River without adequate fish ways. It was not until the early 1970’s that dramatic salmon returns continued to rise. The Swift River company in 1983 tried to obtain a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to rebuild the dam and it was denied after opposition from The Friends of the Penobscot River. The Dam breached in 1977 and was later removed. Free passage allowed Atlantic salmon to move up river quickly and angling at the Veazie site was established. Peak numbers (4,125) taken at the Veazie dam trap occurred in 1986 and then continued to decline until the river was enlisted as endangered in 1999. The economic value of sport fishing in the Bangor area alone generated millions of dollars.

Restoration Progress

The progress in the restoration of the Penobscot over the years has been made through the efforts of many agencies, organizations and dedicated individuals. In 1967 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service named the river a model for restoration. A new Veazie dam fish way was built in 1969. The Friends of the Penobscot River stopped the plans to rebuild the Bangor Dam by Swift River. A significant change occurred when the Bangor Water District in 1983 at Veazie covered the pipe line water supply for the greater Bangor area with large stones. This created a dam that ponded the water, changed flows at many of the pools and made navigation hazardous. The DEP finally required the BWD to remove material to form a well defined channel on the Veazie side of the river. The Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation was established in 1983 and its restoration work on many of our salmon rivers is well known. Several proposals to build a new dam at Basin mills and C-Station at the Veazie dam by Bangor Hydro (at times between 1984 and 1990) was denied by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and opposition from the Penobscot River Coalition. Our big problem is the stalling and lack of any conservation practices on the part of hydro power developers and other industries that have built facilities along the Penobscot. Bangor Hydro was required to be relicensed in 1985 and took no steps to cooperate or discuss ideas to improve fish passage facilities at this site. They dragged their feet and received a provisional license to operate up to its removal in 2012-13.The Penobscot River Restoration Trust was established in 2004 by the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) and its project partners. Laura Day, Executive Director Penobscot River Restoration Trust took on one of the largest restoration projects in our nation’s history. The Great Works dam built in the early 1880’s and the Veazie dam built in 1912-13 has been removed and this will be our best opportunity to re-establish a run of naturally reproducing salmon without human interruption.

Others that have helped our Friends of the River over the years include: The Penobscot Indian Nation, Trout Unlimited, the salmon clubs, Sportsman Alliance of Maine, Natural Resources of Maine, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, National Marine Fisheries Service, DEP, FERC and the PUC .

A lot of scientific and environmental information has been collected concerning aquaculture, the mixing of wild and stocked salmon, commercial fishing, global warming and climate change. All of these kinds of variables make understanding the plight of the Atlantic salmon complicated and overwhelming. Development of any kind on all our rivers requires collaboration of everyone to insure that all parties take in the environmental considerations to continue all the good restoration work that is now taking place.

Development of any kind on all our rivers requires collaboration of everyone to insure that all parties take in the environmental considerations to continue all the good restoration work that is now taking place.