Androscoggin River Data
Length: 164 miles
|A Brief History ~
By Doug WattsThe 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.
In Rumford, the
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.
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 of years.
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 in 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 to Brunswick.
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 River.
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 river.
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
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.
Stanton Bird Club