The Rape of a River
I was fortunate to grow up in Bangor, Maine, back in the 1960s and ’70s, when the trains still ran through town, and when the worst crime was jay-walking. It was a time before life-deterrents like iPods, computers, Gameboys, and Netflix, and when in the summer every basketball court and baseball diamond was full by 7:00 each morning.
Kids like me never stopped playing or exploring. I shouldn’t say never…most of us did mow lawns during summer vacation, or shovel driveways in the winter on weekends for spending money to pay for a bottle of Orange Crush, and maybe a pizza once in a while. And perhaps—had we the chance—we too would have spent way too much time with electronic devices. It’s possible we would have, but looking back, I seriously don’t see how we would have had the time.
Mine was a pretty cushy birth. In Bangor in the 1970s, you could still catch wild brook trout within city limits (and within bicycle distance), and you could still crawl under the fence at Bass Park and pull your friends around on the sulkies. It was fun and relatively carefree. But there was evil in the world, and we knew it. Dan Rather, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley made sure we knew it, every night at six o'clock. I was too young to fully understand what the heck was happening with the Vietnam War and Kent State, but locally I did have a personal, inaugural cathartic event from a simple homespun screw-up that turned my stomach. It involved the Kenduskeag Stream.
My earliest memories of any independence were when my Mom would take me with her when she went shopping downtown. I remember two stores; Freeze’s Department Store, which was significant to me because it had both an escalator (the only one in town) and an old, tiny elevator with a manual black steel door that was quite see-through, so you could watch the brick walls go by as you went up and down. (As young boys we would always giggle when we went past the fourth floor, which actually was known as “Ladies Lingerie.”) To our knowledge, there was no Ritalin back then, so I would ride both devices for the entire time my Mom shopped. The old, tiny elevator was operated by an old, tiny man who must have had the patience of Job. The other store down the street from Freeze’s was Grant’s Department Store, and although they had no escalator, they had a great lunch counter on the ground floor, and Mother would leave me at the counter and order for me (every single time we went) a grilled cheese sandwich and a chocolate milk. I loved that chocolate milk, and have only found its equal in one place ever since; at Stone Drug, in Jackson, Wyoming.
Occasionally Mom had to walk around the block to the Sears store to make a payment, or to order something. Sears was only about 400-500 yards from Grant’s, but you did have to walk over the bridge that crossed the Kenduskeag Stream to get there, and that was where I had that first gut-wrenching, cathartic moment, and realized not all was right in the world. I remember standing on the bridge, holding onto my mother’s left hand – her right hand holding a handkerchief over her nose, while she told me how disgustingly polluted the stream had become, and how she had often swum in it (a mile or so upstream) when she was a teenager. It smelled horrific.
Years later, I attended John Bapst High School (“attended” was about all I did there) and my sisters, and I had to walk from one side of town to the other to get to and from school. Every day, we crossed the same where bridge I had stood with my Mom. I remember we kids “getting ready” to cross the bridge by securing our school bags any way we could, then covering our noses with scarves or coat collars, or mittens, and then bolting across as fast as we could so as not to smell the stinking sewage.
I was youngest, I was a boy, and a bit of a pain in the butt, so my sisters would ditch me at every opportunity. I was so drawn to brooks, streams, and rivers as a youngster, even that open sewer of a waterway held my attention. In the afternoons on my way home (on the rare days it didn’t smell so bad that it stung my eyes), I would loiter on the bridge and take stock of the state of the water. I remember pipes sticking out from the sides of the tall stream banks, with effluence of some sort dripping from them. There were many shopping carts, hubcaps, and old tires. Behind the Federal Building, there was a carcass of a Volkswagen Beetle half sticking out of the water. The bridge is only a few hundred yards from where the stream flows into the Penobscot River.
In 1967, Richard E. Griffith was the Regional Director of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, an off-shoot of the U.S. Department of the Interior. He wrote, “Today’s Penobscot, with discolored waters and scum and exhaling offensive odors, repels sportsmen and other recreationists. Few fishermen will wet a line in such waters, and fewer still will eat fish taken from these waters. Downstream from Bangor, the Penobscot is so severely polluted that boats cannot be kept in the river because of the way the river fouls the paint.” The Kenduskeag was worse. What weirds me out the most about what Mr. Griffith wrote in 1967, is that the city of Bangor had stopped using the river for drinking water only eight years earlier. I can only assume the water went through some space-age treatment facility before it found its way to people’s kitchen sinks.
Historically, the area where the Kenduskeag flowed into the Penobscot was a well-established Native American seasonal settlement. Only it was known as Kadesquit, the “eel catching place.” When in 1769 old Jacob Buswell, of Salisbury, Mass., schlepped his wife and nine kids to the confluence and built a crude log house where St. John’s Catholic Church now stands. His homestead became known by the Wabenaki name. Later it became Condeskeag, then later, Kenduskeag. Each following year more families arrived – mostly friends and relatives of the Buswell’s. It likely wasn’t an easy time for the Buswell family; by some accounts, Old Jacob “liked his tea (whiskey),” as Mainers are fond of saying when I was a kid, and there’s evidence he may have been abusive to his wife. If Jacob Buswell was a bad guy, then perhaps it’s fitting that there’s now a church on top of his homestead foundation. When the Revolutionary War broke over the Colonies, Kenduskeag Plantation contained approximately seventy-five hardy souls.
In 1786 William Potter in Bangor built a small mill on the Kenduskeag directly across from a rock outcropping that’s known as Lover’s Leap, and the stream was never the same. At one point the Kenduskeag had eighteen mills lining its banks; there were sawmills, flour mills, a tannery, and at least one slaughterhouse. I remember well the old, red-brick SA Maxfield slaughterhouse, in the same site as Potter’s Mill, just upstream from where the Kenduskeag enters downtown Bangor. And I remember some naughty kids throwing stones at the last few pieces of glass remaining in the windows. (Their names escape me now.)
The condition of the entire Penobscot River watershed – including the Kenduskeag Stream, was basically a manifestation of three hundred years of insults and pollution from the Europeans and their descendants. The scum that covered the river bottom and every rock at the waterline was proof of that — if the stench wasn’t enough for you. By the 1950s, fifteen percent of the river’s bottom along Verona Island near the town of Bucksport consisted of the rotting remains of bark and sawdust, deposited from the paper mills upriver. That, my friends, will suck the oxygen from the water in a hurry, and as everybody knows, fish need oxygen.
Bangor Maine rarely makes it into the national news, which is how Mainers like it. For me, four times come to mind right off the bat – some good, some bad, and two of the events involved the Kenduskeag. There was the famous FBI shootout with the notorious Brady Gang in downtown in 1937. All but one of the gang members were shot and killed, and the bodies were left in the street for quite a while. My Dad was eighteen at the time and was working up the street at Freezes (the store with the escalator). He went down to see the scene when word got out, be he turned and went back when he, “Saw what a circus it was.”
I saw the flood of 1976; it was a true flash flood, the water rising from within the stream’s banks to a flood height of twelve feet in just minutes. I went down to check things out because my sister Patti worked in one of the flooded buildings. No one died, but there were many rescues of people who got caught trying to move their cars, and the damage was in the several million dollars’ worth.
Another national newscast that comes to mind is the troop greeters during Desert Storm. In the early 1990’s people who were retired or off-work, or otherwise had the time started showing up at Bangor International Airport to greet returning troops from Kuwait and Iraq. It became a recurring event and got some national airtime.
As a fly fisher (and more often than not, a catch-and-release angler), one of my worst memories of Bangor is the Atlantic salmon run in 1978. I was attending school out of state, and it’s a good thing because I probably would have been arrested for assault and battery.
In the late 1880s, the first of the pulp and paper mills started operations along the Penobscot, and the log drives became a going concern; the river jammed from bank to bank with pulpwood, with as much as four percent of the logs sinking to the bottom. The paper-making process (to this day) discharges large amounts of organic matter and solids which quickly deplete the oxygen in the river. In 1971 the last log drive was conducted in the Penobscot. It was a big deal. I was only twelve, but I do remember seeing logs in the river. Unfortunately, the pollution remained for a very, very long time.
The very next year, the University of Maine at Orono conducted the Penobscot River Study. It concluded (along with some biologists from UMO independent of the study) with many findings, most notably; “The riverbed was covered with sewage bacteria, and the invertebrate community was restricted to worms, leeches, and pollutant-tolerating midge larvae,” and, “Sewage fungus covers every solid object along the west bank, and gives a grayish cast to the water.”
That same year the Clean Water Act was a milestone in the history of the Penobscot watershed, as it was with many of the nation’s waters. The paper mills and the cities began upgrading their wastewater treatment facilities, spending nearly $61 million. As a result, pollutant loads into the river decreased by 85% and the water quality vastly improved. By the mid-1970s, the Atlantic Sea Run Salmon Commission was stocking approximately 300 thousand salmon fry per year into the Penobscot, and there were many private and government agencies working to clean up the river and restore the Atlantic salmon fishery, but what of the Kenduskeag?
The salmon, troopers that they are, still made an effort to return to the brooks and streams along the watershed to spawn.
The summer of 1978 was hot and dry, and the Penobscot was low and warm. The Kenduskeag Stream – as polluted as it was – was still cooler than the river because of the few springs that fed it in the towns of East Corinth, Kenduskeag, and North Hermon. So in July that year, the Atlantic salmon sought the cool pools and left the Penobscot.
Those beautiful animals, drawn by a primal instinct to do their duty and spawn in their ancestral home, swam more than 2000 miles from the icy waters of Davis Strait, braving Killer Whales, seals and the commercial fishermen off Greenland. They then nosed their way through the hubcaps and sewage in downtown Bangor and into the cool, shallow pools of the Kenduskeag. For 3,000 feet upstream in the Kenduskeag, it is tidal water. In Maine, it is legal to fish without a license so long as it is in tidal waters. At first, people were “angling” using rods, hand lines, and worms. The local townspeople (the ones with souls) and the Maine game wardens could only stand and watch in disgust. There were even fly fishermen trying for them, but I don’t know how sporting it was. When the tide went out, they were stranded, easy prey for fools who used any manner they could come up with to kill the poor fish. They were brained with rocks and baseball bats, shot at with arrows, and snagged with huge treble hooks. One moron tried dropping a cement cinder block on them from the bridge above. Temptation being what it is, and mob behavior being what it is, it wasn’t long before hundreds of people were lining the banks, and the sticks, rocks and baseball bats came out.
When they saw that, the wardens started patrolling the stream banks in plain clothes, thumbing-out citations left and right for illegal taking of Atlantic salmon. After a few days of carnage, the Atlantic Sea Run salmon Commission got pretty pissed off, and on the 26th of July, they had a hearing open to the public in which they would consider closing the Kenduskeag to fishing. There was no opposition, and they closed the stream for ninety days, a full two months earlier than the regular season. News of the debacle even made it into Sports Illustrated Magazine, with the by-line, “After their long swim home, the salmon got a shocking welcome at Bangor.”
After the embarrassing behavior of many of the city’s citizens, an emotion exactly opposite of mob mentality ensued — one of civic pride. Many of the local businessmen who worked along the stream where it flows through downtown were disgusted by the spectacle in the first few weeks of July. One of them, Jim Goff, a broadcast executive had for some time been disappointed by the smell of the stream as he walked to his downtown radio station every morning. After watching the salmon negotiate the trash in the stream, he was reminded of a river clean-up he had witnessed in his native Rhode Island. He went to work. He dipped into the petty cash at his radio station for postage and sent letters to city officials, sportsmen, civic leaders, and local businessmen. He broadcast over the airwaves about a potential clean-up event, and people listened. Mr. Goff pushed his fellow citizens a little – but just a little – and the “Friends of the Fish” became a bona fide, rolling, entity. There was a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce. A chairperson was appointed, and the event was off and running. Some people envisioned a sort of carnival type atmosphere for the clean-up. There would be prizes for the best piece of junk extracted from the streambed, maybe music, and vendors donating time and refreshments. Maybe there would be a costume contest. There would be dump trucks backed-up to the water to haul off debris. I haven’t found any evidence that the “carnival atmosphere” took place, but the clean-up did. And it was beautiful.
The call was out, and the call was answered. The cleanup of the Kenduskeag was an impressive grassroots success and catalyzed continued annual cleanup efforts that continue today, usually in the springtime. The immense effort put forth by the citizenry of the greater Bangor area — and especially Jim Goff and his partners — also served to inject some real determination into state agencies like the Maine EPA, who were buoyed by the determination of so many volunteers.
Jim Goff and his fellow organizers poured over a map of the stream, and as groups and individuals committed to helping or just showed up, they were assigned to different sections of the stream to work. The planners waited for a weekend during a Lunar Tide, so the water in the stream would be at its lowest.
Now, each spring, when the water is cool, brook trout are stocked in the Kenduskeag. It is a put-and-take stocking program, intended to give the local kids a chance to catch a few brookies. The amazing thing is, the water is clean enough to keep the trout alive. The stream will get far too warm for them as the summer progresses, and the trout will have to either find some cooler, well-oxygenated water or die. At least they have a chance. The point is, if someone had dumped a bucket of brook trout into any part of the Kenduskeag when I was in high school (the 1970’s), the fish would have died within a day, I’m sure. Perhaps hours.
The entire Penobscot River watershed continues to improve, and it is a testament to the hard work of state and federal agencies, the Penobscot Nation and, in no small part, to the 100 thousand-plus people who live along the river and its tributaries, who seem to have taken ownership of the water system, and are accepting the role of stewards. Stewards can make all the difference in the health of an ecosystem, and stewardship is the legacy of people like Jim Goff and his friends, the fly fishers, and the Penobscot Nation.
This spring, if you find yourself walking along the Kenduskeag Stream Trail or sitting on its banks soaking up the sun on a warm afternoon, watch for the remnants of the long-lost mills along the stream banks. Remember its rich history and offer a thank you to the folks who cleaned up the onetime “class D” (open sewer) watershed and made it once again the lovely stream it is. Try wetting a line. There are always smallmouth bass, and if you fish the quick water, you might even catch a brook trout.