Honoring Our History: Restoration on the Megunticook River

By Hallie Arno


The deluge of water cascading under stores and over walls in Camden is archetypical coastal Maine—this iconic river is in postcards, pictures, and magazines. The existence of the dam that creates the river as we know it, and the history of the mills it emblemizes, insinuates the history of prosperity in the picturesque little tourist town. The sentiment of “Honor our History” billows on bright vinyl banners and falls from local lips. Upon closer inspection, only the history of the last couple of hundred years is being honored. Pollution, development, and fish barriers relegate the natural history to small, preserved parcels on the outskirts of town, and any trace that humans had lived in the area before the dams is virtually nonexistent save for the river’s name itself. Still, the Megunticook is universally adored—It’s hard for anyone to avoid feeling protective over the beauty, man-made or natural, of the places you, your parents, and your grandparents grew up in.


I, too, grew up along rivers, though one far away. After school, I would often paddle to the center of the wide, brown Delaware, until both banks looked like they were made of Legos. I tried to figure out if I was in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, just in case I needed to know. I never was sure, but it never mattered. I was simply on the river—my place of peace, the wind and rippling water—gently floating through the open expanse of water. It was all I wanted as a third grader—long afternoons were devoured catching crayfish, finding clamshells in the sand, and wading into the current.


Even as a kid, it was hard to miss that I lived in an Important Place. A single moment in history was meticulously honored here—the buildings, museums, signs, parks, statues, reenactments reminded us at every moment. A short walk through the town would suggest that no moment before December 25, 1776 was significant; thousands of years prior were overshadowed by the very moment when George Washington heroically crossed the Delaware to bring freedom and democracy to America. Though I couldn’t name a single Delaware River fish species or pronounce the river’s Lenape name (“Lenapewihittuck”), like all of my classmates and neighbors, I knew the exact route Washington’s army took. History is sacred, I was taught in school. We must preserve it, and this town took that duty seriously. Aside from cars and power lines, the 21st century only permeated the river itself; I picked plastic off the shores, couldn’t swim after big storms due to sewage overflow and fertilizer runoff, and paddled to the concrete pillars under the Interstate 295 bridge, marveling as it vibrated with a constant whoosh overhead.


Change is a river’s defining feature, and the Delaware is no exception. The river turns a fiery red in the autumn with fallen maple leaves gracing its surface, and April brings blooms of pastels, decorating the cherry and forsythia branches. I’ve watched as spring waters approach, engulfing the shore, and eroding away the slippery red mud. I’d sometimes hear that the city must drain the reservoirs to stop floods upstream, so my neighbors drove their cars to higher ground while my family, the lucky ones, stayed with grandparents for some days that became some weeks. Even in the basement of my neighbor’s 150-year-old house that’s been in the same place and the same color with the same mailbox as long as anyone’s great-grandparents could remember (per Homeowner’s Association Rules) was three feet of brown, goopy water. Though George Washington crossed nearly the same river that the Lenape Nation fished out of for thousands of years, the river that flooded my neighbor’s basement was not the same river that played such a pivotal role in the Revolutionary War, now diverted by canals and pumped into reservoirs.


Years later, after I moved four hundred miles away, the Megunticook took the Delaware’s place as my home river. I crossed the tiny Megunticook River daily, driving over a section of U.S. Route 1 that you wouldn’t know was a bridge unless you got out of the car to look. This river was nimble and narrow, crossing over dams to create spectacular waterfalls and flowing between stone buildings and beneath the downtown. Though the river is loved, there are no spring alewife runs like the nearby Damariscotta, Ducktrap, or Penobscot rivers, nor sightings of endangered salmon in recorded history. These fish need to travel freely through a clean, cool river. The Megunticook is dammed. Like the Delaware, it’s a 21st century place—it floods the buildings it flows under in the spring, carries road salt in the winter and lawn fertilizer in the summer, and heats up as it stagnates during the annual record-setting heat waves of August.  This creates standing, warm, oxygen-poor water, an unhospitable environment for plants, invertebrates, fish, birds, and most other native species.


When I swim on the Megunticook, I can almost see the sparkling schools of fish that disappeared 250 years ago. These fish had been welcome visitors to the region since the ice sheets retreated 10,000 years ago. They would journey miles from the ocean into lakes, rivers, and streams to spawn then return to sea, bringing oceanic nutrients to nourish soil, plants, birds, bears, people. Some species might have evolved to be uniquely suited to this very river, their own genetically distinct population from rivers in nearby bays. If you look at just the right time in spring in Camden Harbor, you can watch fish trying to traverse the dam, hitting it over and over, swimming in circles. Thousands of years of evolution did not prepare these small fish to jump eight feet in the air, nor to survive in warm, stagnant pools held back by vertical walls. Their history is almost lost. We have one last chance preserve it now.


When standing on a mountaintop looking over Megunticook Lake, with the buildings appearing as tiny blocks dotted between a landscape of dark green pine trees and blue water, it’s easy to wonder about those many generations in Camden before the dams, before the mills, before the three-masted wooden schooners—those whose history was erased. What would it be like to be fishing and trapping beaver out of the fast, free-flowing Megunticook, or sitting on the shores watching smoke rise from the smoldering blueberry fields on the cliffs above? Their time on the river was dug out, bulldozed, and sealed away with slabs of concrete.


Then, as I walk through Camden’s Main Street, intact with the original stone and brick, most houses boasting placards of the year they were built, I wonder about the lives of those who first dammed the river in 1771—the long days of mill work, uncertainty of a new town, abundance of resources and hopes of riches. How exciting it must have been to see the wooden schooners sail off with thousands of pounds of flour, gunpowder, and wool. What was it like to first swim in the Megunticook Lake after the forested shores were submerged in dammed water? Did they realize their dams would remain hundreds of years later? Could they have imagined their creation not as a utilitarian necessity for economic growth, but as a beloved aesthetic landmark?


I am a classic case of “from away.” The Delaware is nothing like the Megunticook, though they share stories. Memories are not written in stone any more than they are written in concrete; we need the places we love to remind us of our favorite moments, natural or built. I humbly ask those who were lucky enough to grow up with the Megunticook to wonder about those before who have grown up with the same river, but before the dams, roads, and shops. Now, we have the power to create a new historical moment—the power to remove the dams and restore the river’s flow.


I am writing because I care about preserving history. Maybe asking to tear down a relic precious to modern memory isn’t the typical way to do that. I care about preserving a species’ history—alewives, salmon, trout—living breathing bundles of unique DNA. I am preserving a history of Maine’s lifestyle of fishing and the abundance of this land that we stole it for. I am preserving the way the river has always run since the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, the history of pre-1770, the years before the first dam was built on the Megunticook. Why should the river today look like it did in 1771? To honor the legacy of those that did not consider the concept of preservation for our future? Is that really more sacred? A man-made waterfall is more valuable than living, breathing evidence of thousands of years of evolution? More valuable than thousands of years of history? We may not have their stories written on paper, but we could have them carved into the land.


“History” is not a singular moment in time. We can, must, preserve the past, but by necessity we pick an arbitrary moment in the past to bring into the future. In the Megunticook, someone’s most cherished memory may be fishing on these banks with only open sky above them, and someone else’s may be standing under the waterfall staring up at the busy town above. Some memories are immortalized, some are erased. Who do we want to idolize? What do we want to protect?


Change flows through time like water. When even the climate is changing, the very idea of perpetuity is deceitful. Though the towns surrounding Washington Crossing tried to keep every detail in the past, they ignored the river itself. They changed the river’s course, flooded the neighborhoods, polluted it, killed it off. So did the Camden mills. Now we must decide which history we will remember and honor. Camden can have both a thriving river and a celebrated history. This is our chance for restoration.


I am the daughter of colonizers, from away. I can’t change the past, and I have no right to rewrite it. I am instead asking that we embrace the untold history, the stories forgotten, in this river’s future. Dam removal does not change what has always been; it allows the river to return to it was even earlier: free-flowing, alive. We can preserve species and create new memories along a restored, thriving, and living river. We can write tomorrow’s history thoughtfully, deliberately, and with care for one another and the environment. Take this as healing. Honor our history.