The Androscoggin, Maine's third largest river, winds from the northwest of the state to Brunswick and Topsham, where the Androscoggin Dam stands today.
While students might pass the dam with only a moment's glance, residents of Maine who have lived along the river since childhood speak of the Androscoggin's long and complicated environmental history. The dam, which has been rebuilt several times since the early 1800s, remains a symbol of ingenuity and adaptability.
"I think of all the dams, the Androscoggin is Maine's most industrialized river, and that includes hydropower, [which] certainly plays a role in it," said Program Director of the Androscoggin River Alliance Neil Ward.
During the Civil War, mills were constructed in Maine to produce textiles, particularly for the uniforms of the Union Army. These new industrial mills were powered by the Androscoggin Dam. According to Bill Morin, a member of the Topsham Heights Neighborhood Association, an increased demand for textiles contributed to the economic boom of the 1870s.
Industrialists from Massachusetts expanded into Brunswick. French Canadians traveled by train into Brunswick, providing much of the labor for the cloth mills.
"The mills in Brunswick were heavily dependent upon water power, and then probably around 1890 or so, the dams started to produce electric power," said Morin.
Florida Power and Light, the utility company that operates the dam, obtained a permit to reconstruct the Androscoggin Dam in the late 1970s.
"Those dams over the years have been washed out a number of times," said Ward, explaining that the Androscoggin Dam was rebuilt several times in the same location due to early spring flooding.
"The current dam was rebuilt around 25 or 30 years ago, and it's much better and more efficient than the other dam," said Morin.
However, the current Androscoggin Dam's fish ladder has been unsuccessful at allowing some species of fish to pass through the river.
"As part of the relicensing...the Federal Energy & Regulatory Commission mandated that they put in a fish ladder," said Ward. "The fish ladder has been successful at passing some species of fish...[but] the shad that try to pass through the dam can't get up there...[and] get battered up against the concrete."
The Androscoggin River Alliance petitioned the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to classify the Androscoggin as a river in "non-attainment," indicating that the water body is not or is only partially supporting its designated uses.
"When they got the license to rebuild that facility in the 1970s, they had a fifty-year license to rebuild that facility," said Ward, who hopes that the federal government will mandate that the license be reopened."
"We can't wait another 50 years for the shad to reestablish the population in the Androscoggin River," he continued.
The Androscoggin River is a notable part of the United State's environmental history. According to Morin, mills powered by dams such as the Androscoggin dumped massive amounts of pollutants into the river. In 1972, Maine Senator Edmund Muskie helped pass the Clean Water Act, which even today seeks to improve water quality in rivers, lakes and streams.
"I'm the fourth generation of my family to live along the river," said Ward. "It has historical importance for America because the Clean Water Act was written by Senator Muskie...When I was 10 or 12 years old I used to have to cross the river every day to go to school and [it would be covered in] foam and dead fish."
"The Clean Water Act has gone ahead and made a lot of inroads into cleaning the water," said Morin. "Because of the [industrial] development everywhere, there's a real effort that has to be made to maintain the clean water that we've gotten back."
Ward said that it is important to understand the historical and environmental significance of the Androscoggin River and Androscoggin Dam. On Wednesday, he spoke about the history of the Androscoggin to a Bowdoin chemistry class, Perspectives in Environmental Science in which students have been collecting river sediment.
"A lot of students at Bowdoin just don't realize the historical importance of the river that is right in their own community," said Ward.