RICHARDSONTOWN TOWNSHIP – To fishermen across Maine and the nation, Upper Dam is more than a fishing destination; it’s hallowed ground.

Yet the century-old dam with the quirky gatehouse is slated for changes that are unknown to many fishermen, and upsetting to others.

The Upper Dam pool has long been a fly-fishing haven, but the waters there were cemented in fishing history in 1924 when Carrie Stevens landed a 6-pound, 13-ounce brook trout on a fly that would quickly become world-renowned. Ever since Stevens helped to shine the national spotlight on Upper Dam’s trout and salmon fishery, making the long trek to Upper Dam has been a right of passage for generations of fishermen.

That experience is slated for dramatic changes — changes that are questioned by fishermen.

Officials at NextEra Energy Maine Operating Services, LLC., which owns the dam, say it fails to meet federal guidelines for safety and it will be dismantled and replaced starting in July pending approval by the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission.

Officials at NextEra say the fishing will remain the same. State fisheries biologists in the region agree. But the look of the place will change forever, and fishermen who know this aren’t happy.

Jim McCormack, a fishing guide in the region, said he only just learned a new dam was going in at Upper Dam and he fears for the fishing.

“It’s an historic place. For them to not change the pool at all, I almost find that hard to believe. That dam has been there 100 years. I don’t know how they can take a structure out and not change something. And fish can be really finicky,” McCormack said.

Kirby Holcombe, who sits on the board of the Rangeley Guides and Sportsmen’s Association, isn’t entirely happy about what is to come. Holcombe, who has fished Upper Dam for 38 years, said the whole character of the dam will change.

“A lot of people who have fished there for years remember it as it appears now. The new dam will be more modern and more massive and change an area that has been loved for years. I think the emotional attachment is very high,” Holcombe said.

Tobin Jager of South Berwick, who was at Upper Dam last weekend cleaning out a family camp, doesn’t know what the status of the dam project is, but he dreads it.

“This is what it looked like 100 years ago. There are not many places you can go and see that. There seems to be a lot of history around here. If it doesn’t look the same, it will put a stain on the place,” Jager said.

A DIFFERENT DAM

Upper Dam was built prior to 1875 for logging operations. While changes were made to the dam and the gatehouse on top of it, much of it dates back 150 years, said Bill Scott, NextEra’s project manager in Hallowell.

Ten years ago Upper Dam was categorized as a “high hazard dam” by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, according to Steve Stengel with NextEra in Juno Beach, Fla.

Then in 2005 NextEra received a letter from the federal commission requesting the dam be replaced, Stengel said.

Maintaining the flow for fishing and preventing non-native fish from getting up past a new dam and into Mooselookmeguntic Lake have been chief concerns at NextEra, Scott said. In addition, he said, allowing a place to fish in front the dam in the form of a steel walkway similar to the old piers was added to the design.

Regional fisheries biologist Dave Boucher said based on the current dam application, the fishing should remain the same and the new dam should prevent the smallmouth bass lower down the watershed from getting up into Mooselookmeguntic Lake.

But Scott said the new dam’s design was driven by cost savings and will look completely different from the old dam. And the historic tin-and-wood gatehouse will be demolished.

“I suspect the tin will be recycled. The timber will go to a landfill. Nobody has come forward and said they want to preserve it,” Stengel said.

STILL UNDER REVIEW

Scott said the new dam will be built this summer. However, the new dam’s design has yet to receive a permit from the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission.

“If LURC unreasonably denies us a permit, FERC will get involved,” Scott said.

But LURC’s Catherine Carroll said NextEra’s application is incomplete and the permit is not a guarantee.

“One big message I’d like to get out: This is not a rubber-stamp approval,” said Carroll, LURC’s director of staff. “The commission will not render a decision until the application is complete.”

In addition Carroll said public concern could slow the permitting process at any point. Although, she said, she has not heard if the public has any interest in the project.

At least some area fishermen say it does.

Guide John Soucie of Rangeley, who has lived in the region 61 years, thinks the public should be more involved given the history at Upper Dam.

“We don’t need the Taj Mahal to hold back the water,” said Soucie. “I heard they were working on it. I didn’t know the whole dam was going to be redone. They haven’t made it well publicized because of obvious reasons. They know there would be a big uproar.” 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com