Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Caratunk Falls and "The Cut" at Kennebec River, Solon, Maine.

Unlike the U.S. Midwest, South and West, Maine has largely been spared from the destruction of its rivers by pork barrel "river improvement projects" by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the post World War II period. One river that was not spared was the Kennebec River in Solon, Maine.

At some time in the 1950s, the Army Corps, with the consent of the State of Maine and lumber and paper mills, dug an enormous canal called "The Cut" on the Kennebec River in Solon below Caratunk Falls. This "cut" dewatered the mile-long, naturally curving channel of the river and replaced it with a ruler-straight, high-walled ditch from Caratunk Falls to the Route 8 bridge over the Kennebec just above the Evergreen Campground.

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A Google Map aerial image of "The Cut" on the Kennebec River in Solon, Maine. The original, natural Kennebec River channel is to the right.

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This aerial closeup shows the large natural pool at the base of Caratunk Falls (with the Williams hydroelectric dam built on top of the ledges), the beginning of "The Cut" at the bottom and the natural channel of the Kennebec River at the right, almost completely dewatered.

The black and white photograph at top shows the Kennebec at Solon immediately before "The Cut" was created. It is from a postcard I purchased at an antique store in Hallowell, Maine. On the back of the postcard is a ball point pen inscription which says "Aug. 7, 1951" which I am assuming is close to the year when the photo was taken. The position of the photographer suggests it was taken on the left hand bank of the Route 8 bridge. In the distance in the center of the photo you can see the buildings of downtown Solon on the high bank.

A closeup from the original photo suggests the main channel was the right hand channel that is now dewatered by "The Cut" and this channel was extremely wide and shallow. A second channel enters from the left. This channel was the route chosen by the Army Corps to "straighten out" the river channel, which resulted in "The Cut."

Why and when was "The Cut" created?

During the late 1990s, I represented Friends of the Kennebec Salmon in the relicensing of the Anson and Abenaki hydroelectric dams in Madison, Maine, located on the Kennebec River about 12 miles downstream from Solon. It was at this time I learned of "The Cut" and began doing historic research on when and why it was created. Historic documentation on this massive river channelization project is virtually non-existent. Its name ("The Cut") is the local name, and from talking to longtime residents of the area, I learned it was made at some time in the 1950s and was an Army Corps of Engineers project. The photo postcard above, with a date of August 1951 written in pen on the back, would seem to fix its construction date to after 1951. Despite an exhaustive microfilm search of Maine newspapers for this period at the Maine State Library, I could not find a single news article announcing or discussing this project. Obviously, some records and recollections exist of its construction, but to date they have been elusive.

As best as I can figure, "The Cut" was made to more effectively move logs down this section of the Kennebec River. The 1950s were the apex of massive log drives of pulp wood down the Kennebec River to paper mills in Madison, Skowhegan, Fairfield, Waterville and Augusta. These logs were very uniform in length and width: four feet long and six to eight inches in diameter. As many historic photos attest (and several early movies show), the entire Kennebec River, from bank to bank, would be carpeted with these millions of these pulp logs from ice-out to early summer each year until the log drives finally ended in 1976.

Driving large sawlogs over Skowhegan Falls, middle Kennebec River, late 19th century. Prior to dam building, 100,000 Atlantic salmon leaped up these falls every spring and summer. Skowhegan Falls no longer exists. It was replaced by a hydroelectric dam in the 1930s.

A constant bugbear of log drivers was the numerous side channels and shallow riffle and shoal areas of the Kennebec, which is especially pronounced in the river from Solon to Madison. During high spring run-off, at the beginning of the annual log drives, the logs flowed easily and freely down these channels. But as the spring run-off subsided, these side channels and riffles would become just a few feet deep (or less) and result in the stranding of tens of thousands of pulp logs, forcing log drivers to wait for a rain storm to bring the river back up, or the loss of the lumber.

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This recent aerial photo of the Shawmut Dam on the Kennebec River in Fairfield and Clinton, Maine shows how "boom islands" were used to guide pulp logs over the dam and to keep them in the main current and out of "backwater" areas where they would get waterlogged and sink to the bottom. The bright white area in the middle of the dam spillway (which crosses the river diagonally) is the sluice that allowed pulp logs to pass over the dam.

Judging by the early 1950s postcard of the Kennebec at Solon, the two channels of the Kennebec River below Caratunk Falls at Solon were very wide and shallow except at spring flood flows, especially right channel, which hugs the steep hill upon which the town of Solon was built. It seems likely that "The Cut" was created to get rid of this persnickety, log-snagging section of river channel and to replace it with a perfectly straight and very deep channel that was designed as a very effective pulp log delivery device. The perfectly straight path of "The Cut" has all the earmarks of a post WWII Army Corps project.

Caratunk Falls: a Former Natural Wonder

Charles G. Atkins, Maine's first Fisheries Commissioner, wrote the following in his first report to the Maine Legislature in 1867:

"The fact that salmon passed Carratunk falls is worth examining. At this point the whole Kennebec rushes down over a precipice sixteen and a half feet into a deep chasm several hundred feet long and less than fifty feet wide. The depth of the chasm is unknown. Logs more than fifty feet long go down end first, disappearing with great velocity; but they are never heard to strike bottom, and after a long absence reappear, generally, it is said, the same end uppermost that disappeared first, and leap into the air, or standing upright one third or one half submerged, go whirling down the chasm.

Those who have witnessed the ascent of salmon say that one was first seen to leap several times a few feet out of water a little way down the chasm. He was then seen to emerge from the water a few feet from the fall and obliquely towards it, with such velocity as to rise twelve or thirteen feet through the air, and strike head first the face of the falling water at that height. If he struck the water in a line with its motion a sort of hesitancy was observed, and then in a moment he moved forward and over the crest of the fall; but the least deviation from a true line sent the fish backward to try again. The same salmon (known by a mark on his back) was seen to try to leap the fall six times unsuccessfully and succeed at the seventh attempt. Some observers thought that about one in three succeed in passing. It would seem that this feat must require the utmost strength of a salmon, and perhaps only the strongest would succeed.

Besides this main channel there were two smaller passages, one on either side of the river, where it is said salmon sometimes ascended, and where they were taken by dip nets. One hole is pointed out where nine salmon were once taken at a single dip. The eastern passage might be converted into an easy fishway, if the main fall should prove too difficult.

The passage at Carratunk falls was evidently rendered possible by the great depth of water from which the salmon could spring into the air, acquiring momentum enough to carry them two-thirds of the way up, and by the thickness of the falling sheet, which gave them room to swim after striking."

No Atlantic salmon has swam in the waters of Caratunk Falls since the 1840s.

First Cut is the Deepest

The last log drive on the Kennebec River was more than 40 years ago. Nobody under the age of 50 can even remember seeing the last Kennebec River log drive. Yet "The Cut" still remains. Should it?

Since I first walked along "The Cut" in 1998 and walked down the original, massive and now dry channel of the Kennebec, and then found this 1950s photo of the Kennebec at Solon before "The Cut" was created, I have advocated for filling in "The Cut" and restoring the Kennebec at Solon to its natural condition. A few reasons are as follows:

a) The entire purpose of "The Cut" (log drives) has been obsolete for 40 years.
b) "The Cut" wrecks a large section of one of the only free-flowing sections left on the middle Kennebec River (the rest of the middle Kennebec River has disappeared under the impoundments of hydro dams, ie. Wyman, Williams, Anson, Abenaki, Weston, Shawmut).
c) If restored, the natural channel of the Kennebec dewatered by "The Cut" would provide a large amount of outstanding spawning and rearing habitat for Atlantic salmon, trout and many other wildlife species.
d) "The Cut" is ugly and boring.


Leslie said...

I've lived in Solon all my life.. all 36 years thus far.. lol. I never thought about the positive impact of 'putting the river back' to which it came.. thank you!

Leslie said...

I've lived in Solon all my life.. all 36 years thus far.. lol. I never thought about the positive impact of 'putting the river back' to which it came.. thank you!

Anonymous said...

Interesting history. Department of Ag. imagery from 1942 already shows the "Cut", but it looks freshly dug.

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