SKOWHEGAN — River Fest has been a lot of different things since it started in 1977 as Skowhegan Log Days.

It’s been Harvest Days and Summer Fest.

But never has it carried so much weight. The six days and nights of fireworks, food and festivities that begin Tuesday are also now a showcase for the town’s ambitious $4.3 million Run of River project.

A few things stand in the way of turning the Kennebec River Gorge downtown into a whitewater park – including $3 million and the submerged wreckage of a railroad bridge – but town officials are counting on this week’s festival to keep people interested.

River Fest began as Skowhegan Log Days to commemorate the last of the log drives down the Kennebec three years earlier, but it evolved over the years to include many events not originally part of the logging and timber competitions.

Log Days was discontinued in 2002 after 25 years, taking the popular Moonlight Madness with it, until it was resurrected briefly as Harvest Days by the Downtown Business Association in 2007, which later folded into Main Street Skowhegan. Then there was Summer Fest.

The focus of the six-day festival is as a showcase for the Run of River project, a proposed $4.3 million downtown whitewater park through the Kennebec River Gorge, and with it, town officials hope, an economic boon that will draw visitors and jobs to Skowhegan.

“River Fest is part of promoting Run of River project, trying to get the word out and keep people interested in where we are with the project,” said Greg Dore, Skowhegan’s road commissioner and chairman of the Run of River Committee.

The objective of Run of River is to create whitewater waves at 12 man-made structures in three locations to attract boaters for a park-and-play destination, waves for surfers and body boarders and a 1,800-foot run for rafting and kayaking.

The project also would improve physical and visual access to the gorge by creating two footpaths down to the river and terraced seating along the shore.

Planning began for the park in 2004 and town officials finally saw a digital model of the park in February 2014. At the time, officials hoped construction would occur that summer, or this year.

Now they are hoping for construction by the fall of 2016 or late summer of 2017, Dore said.

MONEY, WRECKAGE WOES

Almost $3 million still is needed to get the project up and running.

No public money has been used for it yet. An $80,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture rural business opportunity grant was used to complete engineering on a digital model of the park, a requirement for the many permits the park will need. The model will have to pass scrutiny of the permitting agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The state’s Indian tribes and Maine historic preservation groups also will weigh in on the project.

After the permitting, bidding for the work would follow, then construction.

About $1.2 million for the project came from the Sappi tax increment financing, or TIF, district; but the Sappi TIF is now off the table with the devaluation of the riverside Sappi paper mill.

There also have been grants from the Maine Community Foundation, and Skowhehgan Savings Bank has contributed to the project.

An economic study for future funding is underway, as is the formation of a capital campaign.

Another roadblock to the project is the wreckage of the iron railroad bridge that was swept away during the flood of 1987.

The twisted metal is still at the bottom of the river, behind Notre Dame Church in a deep part of the river, a possible hazard that has to be removed to enable the whitewater park to be built.

In fact, Dore said, he thinks his son Patrick, then 7 years old, was the last person to stand on the old railroad bridge in April 1987, just minutes before 60 or 70 feet of water ripped it from its foundation and sent it to a watery grave.

Dore said his wife and children were at the end of the bridge.

“They could see the bridge waving. It was making real scary noises,” he said. “They could hear the metal whining, and so (Patrick) ran out and ran back. It’s one of those times my wife, Paula, didn’t wait until Dad came home – ‘you wait until your father gets home’ – not that time.

“Eventually, it made this big cracking noise, and all of a sudden it was gone.”

The pedestrian bridge that’s there today was built in 1989.

Dore said the committee is looking into hiring a company to cut up the old bridge and possibly be compensated by profits made from the scrap metal.

The construction window for the project is small. Fish habitat regulations won’t allow construction to be done during the spring or early summer. Construction, with use of coffer dams to hold back the water, should take six to eight weeks to complete, he said.

‘A DESTINATION’ envisioned

Once the park is completed, it would be impressive. Water would be released from Weston Dam into the basin where the gorge begins.

“We have different-size structures that will work with different flows,” Dore said.

Dore said there would be standing waves where the boater goes up, and then down, and holes where the boater would go down, and then up.

The proposed features consist of man-made constrictions that squeeze and funnel the river to create elevation drops and high-velocity water needed for whitewater waves. The waves themselves are created by low mounded obstacles within the existing fast water of the Kennebec to make water holes, ramps and tubes for standing waves and rapids.

As the river rises, the lowest feature washes out and the next feature comes in, according to the model.

Boaters would put in the river on the south side of the river by the new Americans With Disabilities Act trail and leave the river by the Eddy at the end of the trail.

At River Fest, Thursday features the 14th annual Sundowner canoe and kayak race at the swinging bridge, and on Saturday, there are raft rides down the Kennebec River Gorge.

But the ultimate goal is get people to come to town for the river.

“The idea of the park is to make Skowhegan a destination,” Dore said. “Whitewater boating is very popular, and we have a significant amount of people that go through Skowhegan every day to go kayaking and whitewater rafting up north.

“Our hopes are to attract some of these people to stop in Skowhegan on their way.”

Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: Doug_Harlow