Inspection provides up-close look at historic Portland dam
PORTLAND — The floodgate opened, and the Stroudwater River poured forth Monday, rushing out at a pace rarely seen.
Within hours, the small tributary of the Fore River was reduced to a mere stream, its muddy banks revealed as a wading bird splashed in the shallows.
Typically opened only during periods of extremely heavy rain, this draining of the dam was planned as the city conducted its first inspection of the structure in nearly 15 years.
The inspection was prompted when city officials noticed that the dam off Westbrook Street had sprung leaks around the sluice gate, which was damaged by floating debris several years ago.
The gate, which is meant to be operated mechanically, has had to be opened manually since that time – no easy task because the heavy metal slab was bent and off its tracks.
On Monday afternoon, Public Services Department workers took turns straining against the temperamental gate's crank for at least half an hour as they closed it at the end of the inspection.
The dam isn't in danger of failing or being torn down, city officials said. But they needed to be sure that the structure is sound before planning repairs to the gate or anything else, said Jon Emerson, the city's utilities coordinator.
The city hired a contractor, William Peterlein, of Lewiston-based Summit Geoengineering Services, to do the inspection. While Peterlein had little to report on Monday – his final report should be ready in a few weeks, he said – "in general," Peterlein said, "it's in good condition."
The dam plays an important role in the area's history and contemporary life, city officials and Stroudwater residents say.
The river has been dammed since 1733, when it served to power a mill. The current structure, which looks from a distance like a jumbo-sized New England stone wall with an arch above the sluice gate, was built in the 1840s to control the flow of logged trees.
It was later used to widen the river for the purpose of commercial ice harvesting, and was deeded to the city in 1944 – with the condition that commercial icing operations not be allowed, one Public Services employee said.
Today, the dam exists "for historic and aesthetic purposes," Emerson said.
"For those who live on the river, it's a great place for recreation," said Stroudwater Village Association President Elizabeth Hoglund. In summer, the river provides a place to canoe and kayak, fish, or swim. In winter, it becomes a fine upstream ice skating lane for a few days before snow covers its surface, she said, providing a unique experience in urban Portland.
Neighborhood residents try to share the river with the rest of the city, Hoglund said, and there are access points at the dam and the Stroudwater Burial Ground on Westbrook Street, across Congress Street from the dam.
There's a great deal of wildlife in the area, Hoglund said, from birds to foxes and deer that depend on the river as a water source. When the river was drained for a few days last year for another maintenance project, neighbors saw numerous animals confused by the sudden disappearance of their drinking supply.
"We really do need the river," she said.
Once the sluice gate was closed Monday afternoon, the sound of frantically rushing water instantly dimmed as it began pooling against the dam's upstream face again.
Though Peterlein had hoped to wait to see what happened as the water reached the top of the dam and began cascading over the stone face once more, it would take hours for the water level to rise that high, and darkness would set. The inspection, he and city staff decided, was over.
"We don't want to impact the flora and fauna upriver," Emerson said.