WESTBROOK — Crews began removing the first of two dam headwalls on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook on Tuesday, allowing water to flow freely over Upper Saccarappa Falls for the first time in centuries.

The work is part of a multistage project that aims to restore fish passage and wildlife habitat while making the section of the Presumpscot River near downtown Westbrook more attractive to residents, tourists and whitewater paddlers.

Although the project has been in the works for several years, the timing of the work to remove the eastern spillway or headwall at Upper Saccarappa Falls came as a surprise to several of the parties involved in the years-long negotiations with its owner, Sappi North America.

“A happy surprise, but a surprise nonetheless,” said Michael Shaughnessy, president of the Friends of the Presumpscot River. “Looking up the river, you can see a view that you haven’t seen since the 1800s at least, if not before that. The river has been dammed since the 1700s. … and it’s going to change.”

A center of industrial activity for centuries, the Presumpscot flows for roughly 25 miles from Sebago Lake to Casco Bay through one of Maine’s most populous areas. Organizations such as Friends of the Presumpscot River and the Conservation Law Foundation have been working for decades to remove or bypass 10 dams that block upstream passage for sea-run fish such as river herring, American shad and Atlantic salmon.

In 2016, Sappi North America, which operates a paper mill in Westbrook, negotiated a deal to remove the two dam spillways or headwalls on either side of an island at Upper Saccarappa Falls. In return, Sappi received a license extension from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for other dams farther upriver.

The deal, which also involved the city of Westbrook as well as state and federal agencies, calls for Sappi to install a ladder-like fish passage system around Lower Saccarappa Falls and to restore a more natural flow to the heavily altered river bottom around the upper falls. The numbers of returning blueback herring and shad will, in turn, dictate when or if the company must improve fish passage on at least four more dams on the Presumpscot.

On Tuesday, demolition crews used heavy equipment to remove the eastern spillway or headwall at Upper Saccarappa Falls, thereby reopening the eastern channel. The crew is expected to remove the western spillway in the near future.

Workers begin removing the Saccarappa Falls dam near Bridge Street in Westbrook on Tuesday. The multistage project is designed to restore fish passage and wildlife habitat while making the section of the Presumpscot River near downtown Westbrook more attractive. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sappi representatives could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

Sean Mahoney, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine, said it was “great news” to hear about the work, which took place ahead of schedule.

“Looking up Saccarappa Falls, with that spillway, that’s a view that we haven’t seen in more than two centuries. It’s amazing,” Mahoney said. “And it’s our hope that, come next spring, that view is also going to include fish going up and over the falls.”

Sea-run fish have returned to other Maine rivers in huge numbers following river restoration projects.

One of the nation’s first major dam removal projects took place 20 years ago this month on the Kennebec River in Augusta. This spring, more than 3 million river herring were counted swimming upriver in the Kennebec to spawn. Likewise, biologists counted nearly 2 million herring plus 2,300 shad in the Penobscot River this spring and summer six years after several major dams were removed or bypassed.

The Presumpscot may never see numbers like that. But herring, shad, shortnose sturgeon and other sea-run fish already have started showing up in larger numbers since the Smelt Hill Dam was removed near the outflow to Casco Bay. And six years ago, an upgraded fish passage system was installed at Cumberland Mills Dam below the Saccarappa dams.

Crews begin work on the process of removing the Saccarappa Falls dam near Bridge Street in Westbrook on Tuesday. Sean Mahoney, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine, said “that’s a view that we haven’t seen in more than two centuries.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Removal of the two Saccarappa Falls headwalls could affect upstream water levels, and it is expected to open up a stretch of whitewater likely to be popular with adventurous kayakers.

Tuesday’s removal of the eastern spillway marked the culmination of more than two decades of battles over the Presumpscot.

In 2002, the Smelt Hill dam – reportedly the river’s oldest impoundment – was removed near the mouth of the Presumpscot in Falmouth. But that still left nine dams farther upstream.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s authority to require fish passage and minimum water flow standards around the Presumpscot River dams – then owned by S.D. Warren Co. – as part of water quality certifications required for federal re-licensing of the dams.

Another conservation group, Friends of Sebago Lake, tried to block the current agreement with state and federal regulatory agencies. Friends of Sebago Lake argued that the agreement does not go far enough to restore fish passage in the upper Presumpscot watershed because it could allow Sappi to avoid allowing fish passage at the upper dams.

The Westbrook Planning Board approved the removal of the two Upper Saccarappa Falls spillways in March. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission then gave final approval to the Saccarappa Dam projects in April.

Shaughnessy, with Friends of the Presumpscot River, noted that the numerous dams dating to the 1700s not only allowed industrial development but also were attacks on Native American tribes. In fact, an Abenaki leader Chief Polin walked to Boston twice in the 1750s to lodge formal protests with colonial leaders against dams that were blocking upstream passage of the fish his people needed to survive.

Polin was killed in 1756 during an armed conflict with white settlers over the fish passage issue.

“So there is a wonderful historical note in these dams coming out,” said Shaughnessy, who last year helped dedicate a memorial to Polin in Westbrook. “We always felt like we were picking up the mantle of Chief Polin, so I think he is smiling now.”

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