The dam that pine built

Posted Feb. 01, 2012, at 4:54 p.m.
This drawing shows how Lock Dam looked from 1920 through the 1940s.
Courtesy of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands
This drawing shows how Lock Dam looked from 1920 through the 1940s.

Nestled on the northeast shore of Chamberlain Lake is a historic dam that changed the course of water that originally flowed down the Allagash and into the St. John River; this water now flows south down the East Branch of the Penobscot.

In the early years of Maine’s statehood, the Maine Legislature was strapped for money. The state had millions of acres of public land in northern Maine that was considered “forested wasteland” at that time. The state sold the land to speculators for pennies an acre to balance the budget. One speculator named David Pingree purchased several townships encompassing the headwater lakes of what is now the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

Pingree hired an engineer named Eben Coe to survey the property and report back on his findings. What Coe found was a vast wilderness area with great pine resources. The problem was how to get the pine logs to the profitable Bangor lumber market. Eben Coe and David Pingree became partners in the business venture and proceeded to explore the possibility of changing the direction of the water flow from Chamberlain Lake.

Hence Chamberlain Lake Dam was built in 1841, now called Lock Dam, at the natural outlet of the lake, and a second dam was built on the south end of Telos Lake. A short channel, called “Telos Cut,” had to be dug at the Telos Dam site, and with the raising of the waters, the task of changing the flow of water from north to south was accomplished. Allagash pine could now be driven to the lucrative lumber market in Bangor.

In the 1850s, Eben Coe redesigned the dam to include a series of locks used to float groups of logs from Eagle Lake to Chamberlain Lake. From there, they could be driven south to the Bangor saw mills. The lock process was slow and was abandoned in the early 1900s in favor of the steam-powered tramway located at the northeast end of Chamberlain Lake.

Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. eventually gained control of the dams at Telos and Chamberlain and managed the water resources of the lakes for down-stream power generation. In 1962, they buried the wooden structure, faced the now-earthen dam with wooden timbers for protection from ice movement in the winter and waves in the summer. They also installed a 3-foot diameter, gated culvert to provide water for canoeists traveling to Eagle Lake and eventually down the Allagash River. In the year 2000, Bangor Hydro donated Lock and Telos dams to the state of Maine.

In the spring of 2009, it was clear that time had taken its toll, and due to deterioration, some of the wooden facing detached and floated away; ice damage occurred, and the dam was in danger of breeching. A group of concerned citizens formed a nonprofit volunteer organization. The group raised cash and secured donations, including two dump trucks and fuel, for the repair of Lock Dam.

The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands contributed funds from the Allagash Wilderness Waterway capital improvement account. Bureau personnel and volunteers worked together to implement a plan for repair of the dam using an amended design already on file. Permits were obtained from LURC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The winter road to the dam was brushed back and repaired, and as soon as the winter road was frozen enough to support construction equipment, work began on the 248-foot-long earthen dam. The wood facing and sheet metal were removed, large rip-rap topped with smaller ledge was placed on the lake side, and the top was built up to the original height.

Lock Dam is one of several culturally important historical sites in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. It is important to canoeists and sportsmen who use the waterway. It maintains water levels that provide for a deep-water channel between Telos and Chamberlain lakes; water frontage for campsites and Nugent’s sporting camps on Chamberlain Lake; a barrier to non-native fish species should they become established above Allagash Falls; and it enhances the fisheries in the East Branch of the Penobscot drainage.

Lock Dam is a popular camping location for canoeists paddling the famous Allagash Wilderness Waterway. The dam keeper’s house where Milford Kidney and his wife, Maine author Dorothy Boone Kidney, lived for many summers is still used by waterway personnel for overnight accommodations when needed.

Telos and Lock Dams are managed by the Allagash Wilderness Waterway for recreational and fisheries management purposes. For information on the waterway, call 941-4014, email heidi.j.johnson@maine.gov or write Bureau of Parks & Lands, 106 Hogan Road, Bangor 04401.

Matthew LaRoche is superintendent of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

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