A crew begins work in July 2019 to remove the Saccarappa Falls dam near Bridge Street in Westbrook. The dam’s removal was part of a settlement between the Sappi paper company and conservation groups. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In Westbrook, the Saccarappa Dam removal and fish passage project is nearing completion. Looking up past the lower falls one can see Saccarappa Island. For the first time in at least 125 years, the island is untethered by concrete walls and has a rush of water around all sides. For the first time in nearly 300 years, the river behind it runs at its historic levels. In this stretch, once again visible, are the gravelly bottom, an abundance of small springs, stone outcrops and rapids where only flat water had been. In the coming spring, for the first time since Colonial times, sea-run fish will again make their way up the falls and into this re-acquired habitat. Eagles soaring over the falls and along the river will grow in abundance.

The Presumpscot River has always reflected much of our nation’s story. They are stories about logging, mills, canals, railways, wars, immigration and the transformation from rural to urban. The names and images reflect those histories.

The Wabanaki had lived here for thousands of years. The name “Saccarappa” itself means “falling toward the rising sun.” Saccarappa was, for the people of this river, a fishing ground for many sea-run fish, including alewife, shad, trout, lamprey and salmon. There had been villages populated by families and planting grounds fertilized by the abundant fish. The Wabanaki had a distributive economic model of social and ecological reciprocity where resources were shared with consideration of the limits of the land and waters. The colonists came into this new world with a worldview based on histories of conquest, exploitation and ownership.

Because fish were the primary food source of the Wabanaki, their passage was critical. The first major dam was built on the Presumpscot River at Presumpscot Falls by Col. Thomas Westbrook. It was in part a means of water power and controlling flow, but more so, strategically, it was a way of stopping the great migrations of fish the Wabanaki were dependent upon. In addition, Westbrook was adept at how to track and raid the people at the times of their harvests, killing them and taking their food. These raids, and the dams, were a means of conquest through starvation.

Chief Polin of the Abenaki protested the dams to Gov. Jonathan Belcher of the Massachusetts Bay Colonies, seeking to have an area open for passage when the fish were running. This was ordered but ignored and never enforced. In 1756, during a skirmish along what is now Anderson Road in Windham, Polin was killed, his people scattered and the thousands of years of the Wabanaki thriving along the Presumpscot came to an end.

A couple of years ago I sat on a stone looking down toward the Presumpscot River with historian and noted author Lisa Brooks, who has written extensively on the Wabanaki and the Presumpscot River. She spoke of the term “twice vanquished.” The first vanquishing was of the removal of the people; the second was the removal of their presence from history. Only recently are we beginning to fully appreciate the injustice of our nation’s buried histories. We are understanding, too, how this denial has hampered our ability to accept our past and evolve as a nation and people.

Saccarappa Island will soon be transferred to the city of Westbrook through an agreement that was initiated by the Friends of the Presumpscot River. We believe that in time, the island should become a unique and cherished public space. It should be recognized for the heritage it holds. It would be fitting that it be dedicated to the people who had called it home and gained sustenance from its waters for thousands of years. Befitting of the first people, the island should be a shared resource where people can intimately engage with the river, enjoy it recreationally, immerse themselves in its beauty and learn of the deeper history of the people who lived here. A history that is, and has been, long hidden. It can be a place where the layers of obscurity that covered their cultures and customs can be peeled away and inform generations moving forward.


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