CAMDEN, Maine — If you’ve ever taken a trip to Camden Harbor, you’ve most likely been mystified by the waterfall behind Main Street where the Megunticook River takes its final descent into the sea.
While the river is in part cascading over a natural ledge, there’s also a 200-year-old man-made element at the top of the falls — Montgomery Dam.
The landmark is popular with tourists and locals, but town officials are considering demolishing it.
“It used to power a gristmill back in Camden’s industrial era,” Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell said. “Right now it has no purpose other than being a water feature.”
Concerns are being raised over the negative environmental and financial impacts — such as flooding — the dam poses.
A study commissioned by the town determined that removing it would be the best option. Now, town officials are gearing up for a conversation about the dam’s future.
While there are benefits to removing it, not everyone in town is quite sure if they outweigh the dam’s historical and aesthetic value.
Montgomery Dam creates an impoundment of water right above the falls that acts as a sort of reflecting pool. Numerous Main Street businesses, including two restaurants, have decks located above the dam so customers can take in the view.
Tom Rothwell’s Main Street business, The Camden Deli, is one of those restaurants. Rothwell said he supports environmental causes, but has yet to see a plan that would maintain the historical value in the area of the dam.
“What is being proposed is a dramatic, broad ranging change to a landscape that has been largely untouched for 200 years,” Rothwell said in an email.
A dam without a purpose
Talks about demolishing Montgomery Dam began nearly two years ago, when the selectboard was considering spending about $60,000 to repair it.
Selectboard member Alison McKellar had just been elected to serve on the board, and when she saw the appropriation request, she started to ask questions about the dam and its purpose.
The town owns four dams in total. East and West dams are essential to retaining Megunticook Lake. The decommissioned Seabright Dam, located on the Megunticook River, formerly operated as a hydropower dam, but now forms a heavily used recreation area.
But Montgomery Dam just isn’t that useful.
“It’s one of those issues that’s sort of very embarrassing to stumble upon. You would never be able to build [a dam] like this now,” McKellar said. “We’re maintaining a 20-foot pool of water in the middle of town underneath everybody’s buildings.”
Montgomery Dam was built in the late 1700s. During its heyday, the dam powered the Camden Gristmill, which McKellar said was one of the first in the region.
But as the industrial era faded in Camden, so did the need for the gristmill and the dam that powered it. The town took ownership of Montgomery Dam in 1992 and has since been responsible for its maintenance.