A Brief History ~
By Doug Watts
Androscoggin, Maine's third largest river, follows
a long, convoluted route from its headwaters in extreme
northwestern Maine to the midcoast towns of Brunswick and
Topsham, passing through the White Mountains of New Hampshire
for part of the way.
A 17th century deposition by
a local Indian, Perepole, serves as a fitting introduction:
"I Perepole, of lawful
age testify and say that the Indian name of the river was Pejepscook
from Quabacook, what is now called Merrymeeting Bay, up as far
as Amitgonpontook, what the English call Harrises falls, and
all the river from Harrises falls up was called Ammoscongon and
the largest falls on the river was above Rockamecook about twelve
miles, and those falls have got three pitches, and there is no
other falls on the river like them and the Indians used to catch
the most Salmon at the foot of them falls, and the Indians used
to say when they went down the river from Rockamecook and when
they got down over the falls by Harrises they say now come Pejepscook."
Here we learn the Indian
name of Merrymeeting Bay (Quabacook), the falls at Lewiston (Amitgonpontook);
the Indian corn planting grounds at Canton and Jay Points (Rockamecook);
and that Atlantic salmon ascended the river in great numbers
as far as Rumford Falls.
The Androscoggin drops
more than 1,500 vertical feet in its journey from
the Rangeley Lakes to Merrymeeting Bay and was originally
a fast-flowing river with numerous large falls and long rapids.
The lowermost pitch of Rumford Falls, behind the Rumford
Public Library, is quite likely the largest undeveloped falls
on a major river in New England.
Despite its steep gradient, the
Androscoggin has a well developed floodplain along much of its
length in Maine that is farmed for corn, potatoes, hay and other
crops. Today, the river's broad floodplain at Canton Point is
planted each spring with corn as it was by the Indians for thousands
Early English settlers quickly
noticed the Androscoggin's
extraordinary abundance of fish. In 1673, a commercial fishing
operation at Pejepscot Falls in Brunswick took 40 barrels of salmon
and more than 90 kegs of sturgeon in three weeks' time. It was
reported that if more salt were available to preserve the fish
for export, the take would have been much greater.
By the mid-1700s, most of
the native people of the Androscoggin, the Arasagunticook, were
killed or driven out of the river valley and into Canada. In
1748, a military party searching reported "a grate number" of
salmon at the falls at Lewiston, but no Arasagunticook.
After the French and Indian War, numerous
settlers moved from southern New England to the Androscoggin.
In 1788, citizens of Brunswick petitioned the Massachusetts government
to preserve the river's fisheries. Their petition said: "many
people [are] seining and joining driving nets together and making
weirs or machines and dipping out of season for salmon which
in our opinion is destructive
and if not speedily stopped will end in final ruin of the fish
Merry Meeting Bay and the river running into the same."
By the early 1800s, mill
dams illegally constructed without fish passage in Brunswick,
Topsham and Lisbon Falls had destroyed the Androscoggin River's
enormous fish runs. In 1816 the last Atlantic salmon was seen
at Great Falls in Lewiston.
In 1835, settlers along
the river pleaded with the Maine Legislature to restore the fish
runs, stating in a petition: "The time was when salmon and
other fish ascended the Androscoggin River and its tributary
streams; but since the erection of numerous dams across said
river at Topsham, Lisbon and other places, without such regulations
as to permit suitable passage way for fish, the Inhabitants of
the Country bordering on said River have been wholly deprived
of this luxury, as well as necessary, with which nature had
before bountifully supplied them. Your Memorialists beg leave to
suggest that they humbly believe things ought not so to be."
Records at the Maine State Archives indicate
the Maine Legislature ignored this petition and refused to enforce
existing laws requiring fish passage at the Androscoggin's dams.
After the Civil War, numerous
textile and lumber mills were
constructed along the river, particularly in the reach from Lewiston
In the late 1870s, baby
Atlantic salmon from the Penobscot River were placed in the Swift
River in Mexico and fishways were built at Brunswick and Topsham.
An 1882 letter by Mr. P. Hall of Topsham attested to the success
of this effort, writing: "[I] will give you the particulars
in regard to the salmon seen at the foot of the rips on the Androscoggin
river, on the Topsham side, near Jack's crossing, so called,
by Mr. Johnson Clark of Topsham. Time, about the 20th of last
month. He informs me that he was fishing with rod and line, when
this large salmon, over three feet long, came to the surface and
he had a good view him; could easily have shot him, as his loaded
gun was lying by his side. He also informs me that he has heard
of salmon being seen at the foot of Lisbon Falls this season."
Increasing pollution and
the refusal of upriver dam owners to build fishways quickly doomed
the only effort to restore the Atlantic salmon of the Androscoggin
In the early 20th century, large
pulp and paper mills were
constructed along the river in New Hampshire, Rumford and Jay.
These mills discharged an extraordinary amount of toxic pollution
into the river, as did municipalities and textile mills, in Lewiston,
Lisbon and on the Little Androscoggin River. In the 1930s, Central
Maine Power completed several large hydro-electric dams that impounded
most of the river from Lewiston to Livermore Falls. These and many
other dams exacerbated the effects of pollution by drowning the
river's rapids that had naturally provided oxygen to the water.
By the 1960s, the Androscoggin
River had become one of the most severely polluted rivers in
the United States. Dissolved oxygen levels from Berlin, New Hampshire
to Brunswick frequently reached zero during the summer, resulting
in the death of nearly all fish and other aquatic life in the
In the 1970s, passage of
the Clean Water Act by the United States Congress provided funding
and legal mandates for sewage treatment plants along the river.
Since the early 1980s, the river's water quality has markedly
improved above Rumford and Jay and has moderately improved from
Jay to Brunswick.
In the late 1980s, high
levels of the extremely toxic chemical dioxin were discovered
in the Androscoggin River and its fish below the paper mills
in Berlin, New Hampshire, Rumford and Jay. Dioxin and its related
chemicals are a byproduct of the use of chlorine compounds to
bleach paper pulp. Even tiny amounts of dioxin discharged into
water can result in harmful levels of the chemical in fish flesh
and animals that eat river fish, including bald eagles.
Today, the Androscoggin
River is clean enough to support a number of fish and wildlife
species. However, the river's water quality, odor and clarity
becomes noticeably poorer in the reaches below Jay and Lewiston-Auburn.
The middle and lower Androscoggin's water quality and aesthetics
remain significantly impaired compared with other large Maine
rivers such as the Penobscot, Kennebec and Saco.
The once enormous fish runs of
the Androscoggin have disappeared from memory. Atlantic salmon
have not been seen at Rumford Falls since the Indian Perepole
described them in the late 1600s. A fishway constructed in 1980
at the river's first dam at Brunswick is incapable of passing
American shad. Native alewives must be trucked each spring to
their native spawning ponds in the Sabbattus and Little Androscoggin
River drainages because numerous dams without fishways block
their path. There are no plans to build fishways at these dams.
Each year, from two to 100
Atlantic salmon ascend the Brunswick dam fishway. The origin
and fate of these salmon is unknown, since the Maine Atlantic
Salmon Commission does not consider the Androscoggin River suitable
for Atlantic salmon restoration. The last known Atlantic salmon
to ascend the Androscoggin River to Great Falls in Lewiston was
observed in 1816. There are no plans to restore Atlantic
salmon to their native home in the Androscoggin River.
River Watershed Council
PO Box 1541
Bethel, ME 04217
Androscoggin Land Trust
PO Box 3145
Auburn, ME 04212
Friends of Merrymeeting Bay
P.O. Box 233
Richmond, Maine 04357
Mahoosuc Land Trust and Friends
of the Androscoggin
PO Box 981
Bethel, Maine 04217
PO Box 3172
Lewistown, Maine 04243