The Presumpscot River
Short by most standards, the Presumpscot rolls twenty-five miles, from Sebago Lake to Casco Bay, passing through Windham, Gorham, Westbrook, Falmouth and Portland. However, in that short distance it drops over 270 feet.
Even though the river is short, it's impact is great. With a watershed of 648 square miles, the Presumpscot is the largest freshwater input into Casco Bay.
Its name, "Presumpscot", originates from the local Abenaki word meaning "many falls" or "many rough places", revealing its true natural identity. The river embraced vast amounts of river spawning Atlantic salmon, shad, and alewives as well as being home to land-locked salmon, brook trout, and the now extinct Presumpscot Jumper. In 1650 it was noted that, "...at certain times, the entire surface of the river for a foot deep was all fish."
In its natural state, the Presumpscot was both beautiful and bountiful. No longer seen as a river destined to be defined by man's use, with careful stewardship the river can move to a rebirth of its once original beauty and bounty.
The River's History
As early as the 1500s a site on the river called Ammoscongin (now Cumberland Mills Dam in Westbrook) was selected as an Indian planting ground because of the great quantity of fish there. Fish were so abundant they were used as fertilizer. When Europeans first arrived they described the Presumpscot as a river where "the entire surface of the river, for a foot deep was all fish."
Historically, the river supported American shad, Atlantic salmon, alewives, the blue back herring, striped bass, brook trout as well as both landlocked and sea run Atlantic salmon.
Before being drowned by dams, the Presumpscot had at least 12 falls along its length, including the following:
- Wescott Falls
- Great Falls
- Whitney Falls
- Island Falls
- Dundee Falls
- Leavitts Falls Gambo Falls
- Little Falls
- Mallison Falls
- Saccarappa Falls
- Ammonscongin Falls
- Presumpscot Falls
But the construction of dams along the river, beginning in the 1730s, flooded these falls and halted the passage of fish up the river. As more dams sprung up and its waters became thick with industrial waste in the following centuries the ecological vitality of the river steadily declined.
The Industrialization of the Presumpscot
Power from the river was fundamental to the economic development of the area from colonial times through the industrial era. The Presumpscot was the site of Maine’s first pulp mill, first hydroelectric project, and largest gunpowder mill.
The Presumpscot River has many industrial "firsts":
- Maine's first paper mill in the 1730s in Westbrook.
- Maine's first dam in 1735 at Presumpscot Falls.
- Maine's first hydroelectric dam in 1889 at Smelt Hill dam.
In 1829 the Cumberland and Oxford Canal was built, allowing goods and people to be transported by boat between Maine's interior and Casco Bay and beyond. The canal was displaced in 1870 as railroads connected the region with major transportation networks.
Centuries of fighting for fish passage
For more than 250 years people have advocated for the unobstructed passage of fish up the Presumpscot River. In the 1750s Abenaki leader Chief Polin began a struggle to restore fish passage to the Presumpscot River when he traveled to Boston to meet with the colonial governor of Massachusetts and demand fish passage on dams downstream from his people. The governor agreed to order colonists to provide fish passage on dams, but in the years following they did not comply. This refusal led, in 1756, to the first armed conflict between the white settlers and Indians in Maine over the blockage of fish by dams. Eventually Chief Polin was shot and in the following decades the remaining Abenaki people moved away from the region as white settlement encroached on the lands they formerly occupied.
the river recovers
Over the last 50 years the river has undergone profound transformation. Since the 1970’s the Clean Water Act has required the treatment of waste discharges, leading to massive improvements in water quality in the Presumpscot. Since then flows to the Eel Weir bypass were restored for trout and salmon fishery, the pulp mill in Westrbook ceased operation, the Smelt Hill dam was removed, fish passage was installed at the Cumberland Mills Dam and an agreement was reached to remove the Sacarrappa Dam and install fish passage.