Friday, January 29, 2021

Before the memory fades: Restoring the Presumpscot

The remarkable journey of a local non-profit is now a book – a good read 

By Walter Lunt

For those inspired by history and advocates for conservation, there’s a new book: River Voices – Perspectives on the Presumpscot, written and compiled by Robert M. Sanford and William S. Plumley, with Michael Shaughnessy as art editor. 

Initially formed as a rebuttal group against the construction of a large de-inking and recycling facility near the banks of the Presumpscot River on Gambo Road in Windham in the early 1990s, Friends of the Presumpscot River (FOPR) started out as a loose-knit collection of neighbors fearful of a new polluting industry that would bring trucks hauling chemicals over their narrow, dead-end road (estimated one every seven minutes), a 90-foot-high smokestack and, most worrisome, the project’s one-million-gallon-per-day wastewater treatment plant that would pour 750,000 gallons of effluent into the river. 

The 'River Voices' book is available in
paperback on for $26.88.
With their rallying cry SAVE OUR RIVER, the group soon attracted a diverse band of supporters, including life-long Windham residents, newcomers to town and the politically active. Principal opposition came from the local press and from town officials who courted the proposed industrial facility as a way to increase the town’s tax base, utilizing TIF (tax increment financing). What followed was beyond the imagination of those early activists. FOPR not only prevailed in its attempt to stop the facility but went on to fight for better water quality and fish passage along the river’s 25-mile flow which was restrained by nine dam impoundments between the river’s source at Sebago Lake and its confluence with Casco Bay in Falmouth. To that end, FOPR would engage countless federal and state agencies charged with environmental protections and dam relicensing. In 2005-06, in a battle before the United States Supreme Court that had legal ramifications for hydropower interests and environmental organizations nationwide, FOPR participated in a case involving water quality classification in federal dam relicensing. Ruling 9-0 in favor of the state of Maine and FOPR, the high court ruled that dams can cause chemical and biological changes to a stream and that states (here, the Maine Board of Environmental Protection) had the authority to issue water quality certification. The ruling went against SDW/Sappi papermill of Westbrook, the owner of five hydro-dams, in their effort to limit certain conditions for dam relicensing renewals. 

Many residents, living today, remember the Presumpscot of the mid-20th century. Its downstream course carried the by-products of the S.D. Warren Company’s paper making process. The writer recalls working an all-night shift at a radio station on Warren Avenue in the 1960s. On one particularly odorous June overnight, a listener phoned in to say, “Only in Westbrook, Maine can a beautiful spring night smell like feet.” He then requested the song Dirty Water, by the Standells. 

In those days, when traveling over the Riverton Bridge, one could observe puffy white cakes, resembling giant dumplings, floating on the Presumpscot’s dark brown current. A truly dead river, it was the exclusive effluent- carrier of the biggest employer in town. According to River Voices, no one faced the river. Homes and businesses fronted the street; trash bins and storage areas were reserved for the riverside. 

Central to the premise of River Voices is the question: why is this work important? In addition to FOPR’s remarkable history, the book, comprised of over 30 voices (perspectives), offers a comprehensive story of the Presumpscot River, from its geologic history to the 2000s, and its centuries-old relationship with humans. The reader learns how the river acquired its meandering course and about the origins of the geological Presumpscot Formation. 

Ethnohistorian Alvin Morrison discusses Native American settlements along the Presumpscot, beginning with sakamos (chief) Skitterygusset’s friendly and welcoming greeting of English explorer Christopher Levett in 1623 at the “Presumpscot First Falls” (later Smelt Hill in Falmouth). Morrison documents how this first encounter between English and Natives was a lost opportunity for lasting peace. Similarly, 100 years later Chief Polin’s efforts to assimilate the two cultures would be met with push-back. Morrison’s fair and unbiased account of Windham’s (New Marblehead’s) vicious confrontations between settler and Indian is in stark contrast to Windham history books written by Smith and Dole. Morrison also documents the true name of the local Presumpscot tribe: he maintains not Sokoki and not Rockameecook. Due to so-called Dawnland Diaspora; that is, movements and cultural mixing caused by natural disasters, diseases or warfare, “…the best we can do is to consider them simply as Presumpscot River Wabanaki…” (the all-encompassing term relating to all Maine Native tribes). 

Additional chapters in River Voices are devoted to the Quaker influence of Presumpscot development, Maurice Whitten’s exhaustive research on the Gambo Powder Mill, recreational opportunities on the river and its tributaries, fascinating information on the life-cycles and biology of diadromous fishes of the Presumpscot, exquisite and detailed drawings, literature and art uniquely related to the river’s mills and industrial history, as well as its aesthetic qualities. 

Today, according to River Voices co-author William Plumley, FOPR is working to help raise the classification of water quality from Saccarappa Falls in the center of Westbrook to the Casco Bay estuary from Class C to Class B, a higher, cleaner standard. 

FOPR and other environmental organizations are leading the effort to take the Presumpscot from an industrialized river to eco-tourism. Regarding the significance of River Voices, Plumley sums it up this way: “(The book) provides a broad appreciation of an iconic Maine river and many of the ways the Presumpscot influences life in its watershed. ‘The river to which I belong,’ as Chief Polin described it, is the life blood of the watershed’s whole environment, and it also plays vital roles in our culture, community and economy. Balancing all this for the greater good can lead to a sustainable, symbiotic relationship with the river that benefits all of these systems, human and ecological.” 

Regarding which way the future flows for the Presumpscot, witness the River Walk in Westbrook. It faces the river. < 

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