Should Camden Remove Its 200-Year-Old Harbor-Front Dam?

In a small-town squabble over a scenic waterfall, it’s one dam disagreement after another.

Camden's 200-year-old Montgomery Dam
Photo by Todd Anderson
By Joel Crabtree
From our July 2022 issue

When it comes to scenery, the coastal enclave of Camden has an embarrassment of riches — its huddled collection of quaint inns, shops, and restaurants; the footbridge over the Megunticook River that nearly sags under the weight of hanging flower pots; the sheer face of Mount Battie looming up behind sailboats swaying at their moorings. The stately public library, a National Historic Landmark, presides over Harbor Park, with its paths winding over to where the river becomes a waterfall, cascading down a ragged slab of bedrock to the sea. Where is a photographer even to begin?

Many photos have, over the years, captured those falls at their most tumultuous, when water surges over the dam amid the spring melt or after a storm. Lately, a different sort of tumult has been building. The falls are regulated by Montgomery Dam, a 200-year-old concrete wall that backs up the river. In 2019, the town received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to assess what to do with several dams along the river, which flows from Megunticook Lake, just a few miles inland. The 267-page study, produced last year by environmental-engineering consultants, concluded that, of any alternative, removing the Montgomery Dam would “provide the greatest benefits” to both the waterway and the town.

Some residents immediately objected, and they banded together as the Save the Dam Falls Committee. “There’s a lot of talk about removing it,” group member Tom Rothwell says. “We’re happy with this beautiful waterfall the way it is.” They started spreading their message on pins and stickers and penned newspaper editorials and social-media missives. “Dam Straight” is an ongoing series of opinion pieces in the Camden Herald, with headlines such as “Our Select Board Has Failed the Democracy Test,” “Don’t Fall for the Fish Tale,” and “The Great Camden Flood — of Propaganda.”

Camden’s Montgomery Dam

The Megunticook River has tumbled dramatically into Camden Harbor since at least the 19th century, and for most of that time, the falls has been a regular subject of postcards and Polaroids, stereographs and cellphone shots.

The small dam — only about four feet tall at most points — has served a number of uses in its lifetime, from powering a grist mill to generating electricity. In 1992, ownership of the Montgomery Dam was transferred to the town, which has since been on the hook for upkeep, even though the dam’s days as an economic asset are long gone. The main arguments for removal are threefold: it would allow for fish passage, reduce risk of upstream flooding (based on climate-change models that predict heavier rainstorms), and, over the next 50 years, save the town hundreds of thousands of dollars according to preliminary projections from the study. The Save the Dam Falls Committee contends that a fish ladder would suffice and that the risk of flooding is overblown.

This past year, Save the Dam Falls circulated a petition in support of dam preservation; an opposing group, Restore Megunticook, started a petition in support of returning the river to something nearer its original state. Both wanted the town to put their petitions to a vote this summer, but town officials opted not to, in part on the chance that both measures would, paradoxically, pass (multiple residents, apparently not realizing the contradictory natures of the two petitions, signed both). If that were to happen, the town would find itself in even more of a bind about how to proceed.

Bob Falciani, chair of the select board, says the town will eventually put the issue to voters, in the form of a ballot question, possibly as soon as this fall, but he adds that the board won’t rush its review of the study. In the meantime, one thing the two sides agree on is that they aren’t entirely sure what the waterway would look like without the dam. Would it still surge after a good hard storm, or would it lose that old gravitas?

Rothwell, of Save the Dam Falls, thinks it isn’t worth risking the unknown when it comes to one of the town’s most well-loved pieces of scenery. He co-owns the Camden Deli, which sits directly above the falls — the view out back brings in a lot of customers, he says. He grew up in Camden, and to this day, his parents have a picture of him standing at the foot of the falls, as a child, on display in their living room. “This is a big part of my business,” he says. “This is a big part of me too.”