Plan aimed to divert Penobscot for electricity

Posted Feb. 22, 2009, at 4:42 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:38 a.m.

Water-power projects for producing cheap electricity were all the talk in Maine a century ago. Whether on the Penobscot River, the Union River or Souadabscook Stream, whether at Aroostook Falls or Alamoosook Lake, to name just a few, the state had an abundance of spots where new dams were producing inexpensive power for industrial plants such as Great Northern Paper Co., for public utilities such as Bangor’s trolley system, or for the light bulbs that were gradually illuminating the offices and homes of average people

Men of vision were often behind these projects. One of the most spectacular of these visions would have transformed the Queen City of the East into something more approximating its royal nickname, bringing dozens of new industries to town and tripling the population, or so it was claimed. The visionary, Fred T. Dow, a Bangor engineer specializing in water, steam and electric development, wanted to modify nature in some most unnatural ways. For a few years, his proposal to reroute much of the water in the Penobscot River galvanized overwhelming opposition all along the river between Old Town and Bangor.

Dow and the Penobscot River Power Co. (the other incorporators were Harry J. Chapman and Frank Small) wanted to build a dam on the river a mile above Old Town and another on the Stillwater River. The idea was to divert much of the flow of the Penobscot up Pushaw Stream into Pushaw Lake. Then, from the southern end of Pushaw, a 5.5-mile canal would be dug to Bangor, channeling the water through turbines back into the main channel of the Penobscot near the waterworks dam (where the city already generated power for its electric streetlights). Cheaper electricity would be available, said Dow, for such enterprises as the Bangor Railway and Electric Co. that were dependent on small dams above Bangor.

The project would produce 60,000 to 70,000 horsepower, said Dow. This would give Bangor plenty of cheap electricity to attract new industries, enabling the city’s population to swell to perhaps 100,000, he claimed. A uniform flow of river water for driving logs would be achieved, along with flood control and the elimination of steam auxiliary plants, as well as “the establishment of a water highway from Bangor to Passadumkeag.” All this would cost between $12 million and $15 million, said the engineer.

Before the Penobscot River Power Co. could dig or dam, it needed the approval of the Legislature. On Feb. 17, 1909, Dow presented his “utopian idea,” as it was referred to in the Bangor Daily Commercial, before the Committee on Interior Waters in Augusta. It was the fourth time he had been to the Legislature seeking approval. Reporters for both Bangor daily newspapers were on hand, as were an increasingly irritable group of opponents representing about every major interest along the river from Bangor to Old Town.

Under questioning by J.F. Gould of the Penobscot Chemical Pulp & Fiber Company of Old Town, Dow agreed that his plan would “flow out” the village of Costigan and force the set back of cottages on Pushaw.

Dow was unable to name for Gould any financial backers. “Isn’t it a fact that every property interest along the river and practically every individual is opposed?” asked Gould, a question the engineer could not answer.

Nor did Dow or his associates own property along the river. They had dropped eminent domain rights from their proposal, rendering their idea worthless, said Gould. They would have to buy all the water-front property or pay damages caused by the rise and fall in water level.

Judge Whiting of Old Town entered a blunt protest on behalf of that city. “I think Mr. Dow is honest,” he said, “but his scheme is crazy.” It would mean “the end of the logging industry at Old Town.”

Dow argued that the diversion of river water above Old Town would actually help purify Bangor’s drinking water. But Charles F. Bragg of the Bangor Water Board asserted the water diverted from Pushaw into a canal would become mixed with water from thousands of acres of bogs, raising new problems. The public water supply should not be owned by a private corporation, he argued.

At a previous meeting before Bangor’s common council a few nights before, concerns also had been raised about the danger of having “a stretch of 12 miles of the river [below the proposed dams] constantly at low pitch and filled with all the sewage of Penobscot Valley.” Just a few years before, dozens of Bangor people had died in a typhoid outbreak caused by polluted water carried downriver from Millinocket.

When it was all over, the Bangor Daily News declared Dow’s vision had “received its death blow” when the Committee on Interior Waters voted to report the bill ought not to pass.

A humorous editorial on Feb. 23 added insult to injury. It suggested that if the project’s promoters had succeeded in changing the river water into beer they might at least have received backing from Pushaw cottagers.

As for Fred T. Dow, there is no mention in his Aug. 22, 1940 obituary of the Penobscot River Power Company. Instead, he was described by the Commercial as “an engineer of note. … His efforts to develop a great peat industry here occupied the news of the day many years ago. Realizing the opportunities by the huge deposits of peat in this city, Hermon and other neighboring places, he invented machines for quick drying and conversion into marketable products for fuel….” Dow had remained a visionary, although that project finally “languished” as well.

Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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