The Churchill Dam was built in 1846 by the timber industry. It was originally built at the Southern end of Heron Lake and was called the Heron Lake Dam. The subsequent dams were built at the Northern end of Churchill Lake (and thus the name changed to Churchill Dam). There was no opposition to the building of the Churchill Dam. Additionally, at the time of construction, environmental concerns were not considered in dam or other construction projects. The timber industry controlled the region and was basically the only group of people within the region at the time of construction. There was therefore no one besides the timber companies to voice any concern over the construction. Lumbering was the major industry in the region until about the 1920s. Pulpwood for the paper-making industry then became the major industry. Both industries required the transportation of logs along the Allagash.
The Allagash River flows northward into the St. John River. The river has been used to transport timber since the 1800s. First, pine was harvested in earlier times for lumber. Later, spruce, fir and other softwoods were harvested for the paper-making industry. The Allagash area forests were first used for wood harvesting in 1839. In 1842, a tramway was constructed between Chamberlain and Eagle Lakes. In the same year, a regulating dam was built at the East end of Telos Lake and a "canal" (the Telos Cut) was dug East from Telos Lake. Lock Dam was also built at the northern end of Chamberlain Lake. Logs were transported from the Allagash River Waterway to the Penobscot River and then down to Bangor. These diversions were necessary for the logs to flow to U.S. ports. In 1842, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was signed that fixed the international boundary of the United States and Canada. As a part of the treaty, navigation of logs on the St. John River and its tributaries, which include the Allagash, had to be "free and open without the obstruction by either party". However, the natural course of the Allagash brought logs to the St. John River and thus to British controlled ports in Canada. Canada was at that time imposing a tax on logs going through its ports. U.S. industry thus sought to divert the river's course to American ports in Bangor to increase their own profit. The direction of the river was shifted southeast and lake levels were raised to achieve this goal.
The Churchill Dam was originally used to help transport logs to Bangor. The dam raised the water level in the Churchill and Eagle Lakes. This would help with logs drives to the tramway at the end of Eagle Lake into Chamberlain Lake, and eventually to Bangor through the Telos Cut. In addition, throughout history the Allagash River has been used as a canoe route and a wilderness area. There were few issues with the original Churchill Dam. Many dams (the Lock Dam in Chamberlain Lake and the Telos Dam) built as part of the Allagash diversion projects for log drives were breached in their first year, but the Churchill Dam was not. Nevertheless, the dam was reconstructed in 1925. Additionally, a new timber dam was built in 1968 after the original was breached in 1958. The new timber dam became increasingly inoperable until it was replaced in 1998 with a concrete dam.
Figure 1: Churchill Dam in the 1920s Figure 2: Washed out Churchill Dam in 1958
In 1966, the Maine Legislature created the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. In 1970, the Allagash Waterway became the first state managed river under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The river and its associated lakes were designated 'wild' under the act. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has three designation classes. Wild is the strictest designation. Scenic and recreational allow more access and use. The act prohibits certain actions within and along the waterway. Additionally, some say the act does not allow downgrading to a less strict designation. However, the acts stated that the Department of Interior can reclassify the river to a different designation or withdraw the river from the Wild and Scenic Rivers system.
The Churchill Dam is owned by the state of Maine Department of Conservation. In 1998, the timber Churchill Dam structure was replaced with a concrete structure because of fears that recreational opportunities (and the revenue generated) would decrease with the loss of the then failing Churchill Dam. Maine citizens approved a bond issue for the reconstruction of the dam. However, this reconstruction was done without the proper 404 Permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The dam was thus illegal under the Clean Water Act. The Department of Conservation applied for an "after-the-fact" permit (the standard process of getting the project reviewed, approved, and permitted after construction has already occurred). Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considered enforcement actions against the Department of Conservation, although they did not propose removing the dam. The Department of Conservation received an after-the-fact permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and in 2002 signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the National Park Service to settle the reconstruction violations. This Memorandum of Agreement called for the closing of an access point, the moving of another further from the river, and revision of the state management plan.
In addition, the new dam is not consistent with the Allagash's designation as a 'wild' river under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. A 'wild' river should not have any man-made obstructions to flow. The old timber dam was grandfathered in by the Secretary of the Interior because it had existed prior to the designation.
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Downstream of Churchill Dam
Upstream of Churchill Dam
Future of Churchill Dam