BRADLEY, Maine — The Maine Forest and Logging Museum at Leonard’s Mills might seem an unusual place to mark two important moments for Maine’s ecology.
But alewives and chestnut trees fit right into Leonard’s Mills’ mission to keep alive the state’s forest traditions of the late 18th century, and they were the main players in Saturday’s events.
A new fishway at the Leonard’s Mills dam on Blackman Stream was dedicated Saturday morning after eight years of work by the Atlantic Salmon Federation and its Maine council. The fishway creates a passage for fish around the dam on Blackman Stream, which runs into the Penobscot River. In conjunction with the fishway, the Maine Department of Marine Resources a week ago stocked Chemo Pond, which is upriver from the dam, with sea-run alewives in order to restore sea-run fisheries on the Penobscot.
After that ceremony, Bangor resident Glen Rea, who is chairman of the board of directors of the American Chestnut Foundation, planted on museum grounds the first two genetically altered, blight-resistant chestnut trees in Maine.
The planting was symbolic of a nearly 30-year effort to restore chestnut trees after they were wiped out in the early 20th century due to blight across the country.
“Ecologically this is an important day in the state of Maine,” said Rea, who is a member of the Leonard’s Mills board and a graduate of the University of Maine’s forestry program. “We have alewives coming back and chestnuts coming back.”
About 40 people attended the first ceremony, during which the fishway was dedicated. Alewives collected Saturday morning at the Veazie Dam were dumped from two buckets into the new fishway to mark its opening.
A fishway is a structure that allows fish to ascend a stream over obstacles that they normally wouldn’t be able to go over, according to ASF Maine Council member Ray “Bucky” Owen, a former commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and former chairman of the University of Maine Department of Wildlife Ecology.
“Right here, there is no fish passage so they can’t [go] over the dam here,” Owen said. “This provides fish a chance to get beyond the obstacle. Now they’re able to run up into Chemo Pond.”
The new fishway uses a Denil design, which ASF Vice President of U.S. Operations Andrew Goode said allows fish passage through a wide range of flows that mimic many of the Penobscot River’s tributaries.
The Leonard’s Mills board of trustees was a bit apprehensive about the fishway project, which had the potential to stick out visually among the 18th century-style buildings. But Saturday several board members credited contractor and stone mason Lance Linkel of Linkel Construction in Topsham with creating granite weirs and walls that help the fishway appear to belong in the space.
“This is built right into the existing ledge, so it looks very natural,” board member Bill Lynch said. “We didn’t want anything that looked too unnatural. We had to compromise a little on some concrete, though. But it came out well.”
Stantec Consultants, also of Topsham, designed the fishway and Maine Drilling and Blasting of Gardiner excavated a 4-foot-wide channel into the bedrock next to the dam.
Goode said many fishways are located deep in the woods where they’re hard for the public to see them. He expects the Leonard’s Mills fishway to draw a lot of attention because it’s right on museum grounds.
“This is going to be a real demonstration project,” Goode said.
ASF raised around $275,000 for the project. Funding came from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center.
Considering the location of one of the chestnut trees near Leonard’s Mills’ model blacksmith shop, Saturday’s second ceremony called for a reading of Longfellow’s poem, “The Village Blacksmith.” The first few lines of the piece describe a village smithy located “under a spreading chestnut tree.”
“If you had been here in the 1790s or so, when the sawmill was running, chestnut would have been a species that would have come through here,” Rea said.
It is estimated about 4 billion chestnut trees were lost to blight, which was discovered in 1904 or 1905 in the U.S., Rea said. Scientists tried to bring back the trees, but funding was cut off in 1960.
Twenty-three years later, scientists picked up the project again. Through the genetic process of backcross breeding, Rea said, scientists bred the genetic characteristics of the Chinese chestnut that shows resistance to blight, with the American chestnut which grows taller than the Chinese version.
“We’ve been growing these trees in orchards,” Rea said. “We decided we needed to get them back out in the woods and see how they respond in a natural environment.”