Michael Shaughnessy pushes off and settles in for a 5-mile paddle down the Presumpscot River on a sunny spring day.
He’s eager to canoe from the Mallison Falls dam in Windham to Saccarappa Falls in the center of Westbrook, where last month the city added more than 5 acres of public waterfront access.
A city councilor and longtime river advocate, Shaughnessy is happy to share the wonders along a stretch of the 26-mile river that was set free when the dam at Saccarappa Falls was removed in 2019. Leading the morning ride is David Butler, a registered Maine Guide who lives in Windham. And there’s plenty to see.
Trees bend toward the river, their roots clinging to the edge where fiddleheads unfurl in dappled sunshine. Swallows dive and skim insects from the shimmering surface. A great blue heron takes flight from the shallows, banking upward to show off its pale belly and full wingspan before heading downriver.
But Shaughnessy notices things that others might miss. He thrills at the sound of little streams trickling into the river, swollen from spring rains. You wouldn’t have heard that a few years ago, he says, before the Saccarappa Dam was removed and the river shifted closer to its true course.
“They’re so beautiful – like little gems,” he says. “It’s just more evidence of how the river is transitioning from what it was to what it can be.”
Until the early 2000s, the Presumpscot had nine dams that hampered its flow from Sebago Lake to Casco Bay and blocked Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish from returning to spawn upriver. Even then it was the largest fresh-water source flowing into the bay.
Winding through Windham, Gorham, Westbrook, Falmouth and Portland, the river hosted one of Maine’s first gristmills in the 1650s, its first dam and paper mill in the 1730s, and its first hydroelectric dam, built in 1889 for the former Smelt Hill Power Station, all at Presumpscot Falls in Falmouth.
Seven dams remain, remnants of when the river was tamed to power mills, transport goods and serve as an open sewer for industries and communities that turned their backs on its beauty and abundance.
“At one point it was known as the most dammed river in America and people were proud of that,” says Shaughnessy, co-founder and president of Friends of the Presumpscot, a nonprofit that’s been fighting to protect and restore river habitat and recreational access since 1992.
Shaughnessy and others mourn the loss of a free-flowing natural resource that the Indigenous Wabanaki named for its many falls and rapids, and that area schoolchildren now learn about as part of the Maine Native Studies curriculum.
“The Presumpscot churned with fish before it was dammed,” says Butler, the Maine Guide, also a Friends member. “Damming the river was genocide for the people who ate the fish.”
Mike Sanphy, president of the Westbrook Historical Society, remembers what the river was like when he moved from Portland to Westbrook in the 1960s. People used to swim in it, he says, but they joked about having to keep their mouths shut because they never knew what might float by.
“It was always a grayish brown and it had a certain smell to it,” said Sanphy. “It was disgusting. Now, it’s coming along real nice. They’re trying to bring it back and it’s getting real close.”
RESTORING THE PRESUMPSCOT
The sound of rough water intensifies as Saccarappa Falls comes into view. Parted by Saccarappa Island, the Presumpscot splits and courses white and wild over the rocky river bed.
Shaughnessy avoids going over the falls, digging deep and paddling fast to the island’s sandy shore. Rimmed by rocks and trees, the grassy river outcrop is peaceful yet energizing. Walking to the edge, he points to where the old dam crossed the falls, from the island to the old Dana Warp Mill building.
The river rushes below, churning oxygen into the water that makes it healthier for fish. It also sends indiscernible negative oxygen ions into the air that have reported health benefits for humans, known as the waterfall effect.
“It’s a great place to just soak it all in,” he says. “It’s so good for people.”
In April, the city purchased 1.7-acre Saccarappa Island and a narrow 3.7-acre parcel that extends 3,500 feet along the river’s northern shore, from the Bridge Street bridge to the railroad bridge. The land deal with Sappi North America, which operates a paper mill further downriver, included a 980-foot trail easement along the river’s southern shore.
It was part of a 2018 settlement that included the Friends of the Presumpscot, the Conservation Law Foundation and a variety of state and federal agencies. The city bought the land with $350,000 donated by the Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corp. and the Cornelia Warren Community Association.
It’s the latest in a long-term effort spearheaded by those who want to restore the river as a life-giving regional watershed and the soul of the city.
“The river is the reason Westbrook exists, whether because of the Indigenous population that was here first or the colonial settlers who came after,” said City Manager Jerre Bryant. “Over time, it lost its natural features. With what has happened over the last couple of decades, it’s becoming an attraction once again.”
Rejuvenating the river has meant putting the needs of fish before people – at least initially.
The Smelt Hill dam was removed in 2002. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s authority to require fish passages and minimum water flow standards around the Presumpscot River dams operated by the paper mill in Westbrook, then owned by S.D. Warren Co.
A fish passage was installed at the Cumberland Mills dam, near the paper mill, in 2013. Three years after that, Sappi negotiated a deal to remove the dam and power station at Saccarappa Falls in return for license extensions from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for several dams upriver.
With Saccarappa Falls running wild and a fish passage added in 2021, migratory fish now have access to the entire bottom half of the river. Alewives and other species have resumed annual late spring runs from Casco Bay to the base of Mallison Falls dam. Additional fish passages are anticipated there and further upstream at Little Falls dam.
“The fish are coming back, though not in the numbers they once were,” Shaughnessy says. “But with the success of each smaller run, more fish will return in the future.”
The city’s plans for the newly acquired waterfront property include developing a park on the island, with possible access via a footbridge that would be built at the end of Dana Street. A new riverwalk along the northern shore would connect to an existing trail and boardwalk on the southern shore, creating a recreational loop through downtown.
The improvements are expected to attract more businesses and residents to the city center and emphasize the river as a community focal point. Senior housing, single-family homes and condominiums are being developed nearby. City officials say interest in riverside properties is strong, despite post-pandemic inflation and economic uncertainty.
“The river is returning in a whole new way to be the focus of the city,” said Mayor Mike Foley. “It really makes the downtown area stand out.”
Discover Downtown Westbrook agrees. The nonprofit’s website features a photo of the river and the bold statement, “A River Runs Through Us,” borrowed from a novella and 1992 film with a similar title.
“We believe the river is one of our most valuable assets,” said Amy Grommes Pulaski, executive director. “One of our goals is to celebrate and reconnect people with the river.”
Upcoming events planned on or near the river include a Thursday evening summer concert series July 13-Aug. 31 in Vallee Square; a community paddle and grill Aug. 16 at Riverbank Park; and an Outdoor Film Fest Sept. 9 at the park.
Shaughnessy says he appreciates the work Pulaski’s group is doing and all the interest and attention the river is getting, but he has reservations.
He takes stock of the improvements as he and Butler pull their canoes out of the Presumpscot at the Lincoln Street boat launch, one of four in the city.
Shaughnessy says he welcomes greater investment to preserve the waterway, improve public access and restore river habitat. But he worries that cleaning up the Presumpscot and making it more desirable will encourage development that didn’t happen when the river was dammed, dirty and smelled foul.
A few homes and camps dot the riverbanks from Saccarappa Falls to the Mallison Falls dam in Windham, but much of it appears to be undisturbed.
“I hope it doesn’t get too developed,” Shaughnessy says. “Because to be this close to nature in the most populated region of the state is really remarkable.”