The Basin Dam War

an historical overview by Roger Wheeler, Friends of Sebago Lake

The recent Sebago Lake water level dispute has rich historical roots. Since the first colonists settled inland along the Presumpscot River , the conflicts for control of the river from Sebago Lake to Casco Bay have affected our local history. A series of armed encounters between two industrial giants disputing control of Sebago Lake waters erupted at the Basin Dam during January of 1877. The Basin Dam situated at Wescott's Falls, the natural outlet of Sebago Lake, was first constructed in 1830 by the Cumberland and Oxford Canal Company to provide for better navigation in the basin and divert water to the canal. The basin resembled a wide and shallow river bed from White's Bridge to Wescott's Falls. Ownership and water rights of the 1830 Basin Dam had never been clearly defined before 1877.

On rare occasions when the lake level dropped to record lows due to extreme drought, the Oriental Powder Company curtailed the duration of flows. If the lake level dropped below the flood gates at the Basin Dam , the Powder Company would cease operating from a lack of water power. Reducing flows was a gamble for the Powder Company. If rains soon arrived, raising the lake then the reduction in flows and subsequent production decrease was unnecessary . If the drought continued several more months, then operations could continue avoiding financial losses from the failure to fulfill the powder contracts. Mill owners down river in Westbrook required a greater daily volume of water flow. Reductions in the flow durations devastated their production. A drought in 1876 set the stage for a classic confrontation over water rights.

On January 14 , 1877, four men under the employee of W. E. Langley, manager of the Cumberland Mills owned by Samuel Warren, drove a carriage to the Basin Dam. They requested the dam keepers, Mr. Goff and Mr. Plummer , to raise the gates. to provide relief from a lack of water in Westbrook. Goff and Plummer refused saying they complied only with orders from the Oriental Powder Company. Mr. Langley returned to Westbrook angry over wasted efforts. He returned the following day with his four men who seized the dam and hoisted the gates. Newspapers referred to this Westbrook band as the Congin Company.

On Tuesday, January 16th, Mr. Goff with 5 or 6 men extricated by force the Congin Company from the dam and shut the gates. While the Oriental Powder Company guard went to dinner, the Congin Company received reinforcements of about 20 men. A few remaining Powder Company guards retreated in the face of overwhelming numbers. The Congin party sent several of their band for more recruits. The remainder of men unfolded a tent on the fishway for a temporary home. They brought lumber to the dam and constructed a small house over the flood gates and equipped it with a wood stove for cooking and warmth.

The Oriental Powder Company, having lost the battle, retreated to the courts. Honorable W.W. Thomas Jr. of Portland applied for an injunction to restrain Cumberland Mills from interfering with the management of the flood gates. Sebago Lake was approximately at 258.9 feet mean sea level when the battle began on January 15, 1877. The Oriental Powder Company claimed the lake dropped to 258.32 feet by the end of January. At approximately 258.0 feet msl water will not flow from Sebago Lake so it was a desperate time. If the water flow ceased, all the major mills along the Presumpscot River would shut down.

Westbrook interests were also furious that the Oriental Powder Company had also detained flow from Long Pond. The Powder company had usurped control of the Songo dam controlling Long Pond when the Canal Company folded in 1870. Honorable T. B. Reed representing Cumberland Mills asked Judge Virgin in the first week of February 1877 if a measure could be taken to keep the level of Sebago Lake up. He claimed, according to a 1877 newspaper article, that the Oriental Powder Company shut the gates at Long Pond. The newspaper further reported ,"Cumberland Mills is planning to take action to open the gates at Songo Lock ". In the second week of February a force of 5 men under the direction of the Cumberland Mills tore off the planks at the Songo Locks dam to let on water from Long Pond. The Dyer heirs with an interest in navigation sent 12 men to replace the planks and guard the locks. In the face of 12 men, two men from Cumberland Mills again tore off the planks and cast them into the Songo. Again the Dyer guard replaced the planks. On February 16th, five men employed by Cumberland Mills for the 3rd time destroyed the plank dam.

A Bridgton News account of this little battle is as follows: "Of the 12 guards stationed there in behalf of the Dyer heirs under command of Captain Jordan B. Mitchell only three remained and instead of showing fight and endeavoring to hold the fort retired within their entrenchments beside the lock. They dispatched Calvin Paul to D. H. Cole esquire for legal assistance."

On March 2, five men Alvinzo and Charles Green, Edward Sampson, George Goodridge, and Adellant Chute, all employed by Cumberland Mills, were arrested. The warrant for their arrest stated: "These men with force of arms did seditiously, riotously, tumultuously and did unlawfully assemble and did make an assault and other wrongs against Jordan B. Mitchell". Damages were paid, and the charges were dismissed in May 1877.

In the complaint summons filed by the Oriental Powder Company against Samuel Warren, the Westbrook Manufacturing Company, the Sebago Wood Board Company and Charles Fairchild were also named as defendents. The Oriental Powder Company claimed, "when Langley and his men opened the gates, the water rushed through so violently raising the river so that the backwater from a dam down river restricted the mill wheels to scarcely turning and the lake level had fallen considerably." The Powder Company further claimed with the continued flow of water and drop in the lake level, all water powered factories on the Presumpscot would shut down in several weeks.

The court recorded case for the Oriental Powder Company chronologically began 47 years prior to 1877 in 1830, "when the Cumberland And Oxford Canal acquired an easement through the land and mill privilege of Nathan Winslow and the right to maintain the water at the Basin Dam at a height sufficient to supply and operate the canal. In 1834, when Oliver Whipple in behalf of the Oriental Powder Company bought the land at Wescott's 's Falls, he received all of Nathan Winslow's rights to use the water at his pleasure. All of Oliver Whipple's successors were superintendents of the Oriental Powder Company. When the canal ceased operation in 1870, the Cumberland and Oxford Canal Corporation forfeited all their rights to control the flood gates on the dam. Because of the extinguishment of the easement of the Canal corporation the sole and exclusive rights to raise and close all the gates at the Basin Dam became vested in the Oriental Powder Company. The mill built upon the dam was in the possession of John Lindsey who leased the dam to Goff and Plummer. Oliver Whipple purchased the Basin Dam for the Powder Company use at Gambo Falls as did each of his successors. It was necessary for that purpose as the river is rapid with a sharp descent above the mills at Gambo Falls and affords no other suitable place for forming a reservoir for them. The Powder mills had to have possession of the Basin Dam for maintaining the necessary head of water and regulating the flow to insure a sufficient supply for the mills at all times. A deficiency in the supply of water would have subjected them to great and irreparable losses not only in the stopping and loss of their business but also from disabling them from fulfilling contracts already entered and subjecting them to damages ".

The Westbrook interests answer to the complaint is missing from the state archives or was never recorded. However , 1877 newspapers gave accounts quoting from the answer presented to Judge Virgin. T. B. Reed represented Samuel Warren and the other defendants with this powerful and able argument: "their water power was an ancient privilege occupied and improved by dams for more than 100 years (prior to 1860) and they had a claim to free uninterrupted use of and flow of the Presumpscot river from Sebago Pond to mills at Saccarappa until the summer of 1860 ( a drought produced a legal confrontation similar to the 1877 dispute) . In 1830 the Cumberland and Oxford Canal did illegally construct a dam at Wescott's Falls which detained the water of Sebago Pond . Consequently mill owners at Saccarappa constructed flood gates in the dam so lake water could flow when the lake level dropped below the height of the dam. The mill owners rights to keep these gates open when necessary was always recognized by the Cumberland and Oxford Canal Corporation and owners of the water power at Wescott's dam. The Oriental Powder Company furnished the water called for in recognition of the mill owners rights.

In 1857 The Basin dam at Wescott's Falls went out on repair. The Canal Corporation, John Lindsey, the Oriental Powder Company, the Westbrook Manufacturing Company, Warren and Company, Bridgham, Clements, and others built a new dam at joint expense. Proper gates were constructed to supply sufficient water when the lake level dropped below the dam. The mill owner maintain the Basin dam is under control of all the mill owners to open whenever they needed water.They have always had the right to use the Presumpscot river according to its ordinary flow and this right has always been recognized by all parties at Wescott's Falls".

During the legal dispute Judge Virgin ordered the gates held open to allow some outflow. Working for the court, an engineer named John Anderson estimated the compromise flow at 20,000 cubic feet per minute . An account shedding light on the outlet flow of the Basin Dam was in the Water Power of Maine by Walter Wells written in 1869.

Wells writes, "The estimated discharge for the year is 20,400,000,000 cubic feet. The natural uniformity of the stream is assisted by the artificial control of the delivery of the lake so that for the practical purposes of manufacturing it is constant throughout the year. The volume employed at Cumberland Mills is about 50,000 cubic feet per minute".

About one eighth of the Presumpscot River flow or 6,000 cubic feet emanates from tributary sources other than the Basin dam. During times of normal precipatation the Basin dam outflow averaged 40,000 to 45,000 cubic feet per minute. This was the ordinary and uniform flow that several historical documents refer to.

The bill of equity against S.D. Warren was dismissed before early summer of 1877. No mention of any agreements between the Oriental Powder Company and the Westbrook interests has yet been found in the historical records. The conflicting parties involved represented some of the shrewdest and most educated business minds in southern Maine. No clear legal answer existed in this counterproductive fight over water rights. Both sides needed an increased storage capacity of water in Sebago Lake. They decided to construct a higher dam to store the water wasted almost every spring. Walter Wells mentions this waste in his 1869 book. Wells quotes W.H. Jackson, the Oriental Powder Company superintendent, " I have run at Wescott's Falls where the lake's waters enter the river for 32 days through four gates four feet square and one six feet square under a ten foot head with a flow four feet deep over the dam eighty feet long and even then have not succeeded in preventing the water from rising six to nine inches above the four foot head on the dam, which is all the dam will safely carry."

Two historical papers reflected the results of agreements between the opposing parties. One was a deed stating Samuel Warren paid John Lindsey $20,000 in behalf of the Presumpscot Water and Power Company for the dam, mill and property at Wescott's Falls. The second document was a state charter granted February 15,1878 by the Maine legislature to the Presumpscot Water and Power Company to raise and improve the Basin Dam at Wescott's Falls by five feet.. The $20,000 investment by Samuel Warren plus the expense of raising the dam by five feet was a great bargain. In 1907 one foot storage of Sebago Lake water according to John Warren was worth $50,000 per year to the factories along the Presumpscot. At full pond the new dam added $250,000 annually in storage. This added storage gave Westbrook factories the benefit of receiving a constant uniform flow for longer durations of time. The new dam fulfilled its goal of never allowing the lake's outlet to cease flowing in times of drought.

An important passage of the Presumpscot Water and Power Company state charter (Section 3, Chapter 64 of Legislative Acts) begins , "said corporation is authorized, to maintain, keep up, repair and extend the present dam to a height of five feet and shall be maintained for the purpose of raising a head of water for the use of factories, for supplying the city of Portland with water for the purpose of storing up water in Sebago Lake in order to increase and regulate but not unnecessarily to obstruct the flow of water on the Presumpscot river for the benefit of all the water powers and mill privileges on said river ".

Obstructing the flow at the Basin dam by the Oriental Powder Company led to a violent disagreement where good men prepared to harm another. The words "but not unnecessarily obstruct," were added to forever end water flow disagreements on the Presumpscot river.

The term "to increase and regulate the flow," defined the function and existence of the higher Basin dam. In later years the Basin Dam at Wescott's Falls was renamed Eel Weir. Other water rights battles have followed throughout the last 110 years.All these events are key to understanding the environmental history of Sebago Lake and the Presumpscot River; however, none were as intriguing and mysteriously cloaked in historical secrecy as the Basin Dam War of 1877.


by Roger Wheeler, Friends of Sebago Lake

When the Cumberland and Oxford Canal was completed in 1830, Sebago Lake and its tributaries served as a valuable highway from Harrison to the ocean. A timber industry ruled the region. Mills in Westbrook depended upon adequate water levels in Sebago Lake so that an armada of 60 foot canal boats loaded with raw materials could navigate the basin and rivers entering Sebago Lake and make their way down the canal to Westbrook and on to the ocean. An expansive agricultural industry followed where the land had been clearcut of a great virgin forest.
From its heyday in the 1840's, the timber industry continually declined as good trees became scarce or grew far from the rivers needed to transport them. In times of canal boats serving as the principle bearer of people and goods, steamships in the 1870's began transporting goods and people from the new railroad line at Sebago Lake Station to all landings on the way to Harrison. After 1870 when the railroads opened new frontiers, agricultural methods changed across the nation. Many small farmers taking advantage of the new opportunities left the state of Maine.

The fastest growing industy around Sebago Lake at that time was the summer tourist industry. Several large hotels were built to house city summer visitors escaping from the humid climate of northeastern cities. This industry relied on steamships to ferry passengers from Sebago Lake station, up the Songo River, and to the hotels and boarding houses of Long Lake. Most roads were unreliable, making stagecoach travel slow and expensive. If the water levels at the mouth of the Songo River emptying into Sebago Lake were too low, the steamships would cease operating and as a direct consequence the summer tourist industry would suffer. In 1907, a drought inspired the navigation interests of Sebago and Long Lake to submit a bill to establish a bench mark for the water level of Sebago Lake at 262.65 feet above mean sea level. This was the height of the Basin Dam prior to 1878. Honorable Enoch Foster, representing the steamship and hotel interest of Long Lake, gave a spirited and animated speech portraying accurately the emotions of the debate.

In his closing , Enoch stated, "In 1905 it was impossible to navigate the river at all. They say that Providence lowered the water but we will ask then if Providence raised the gates at the foot of the lake. In this case I am for the underdog as usual. I say it is time that we called a halt if it comes to this that a corporation or trust- call it what you will- can say that it has great interests at Saccarappa or Westbrook, all others should be subservient thereto. We say these corporations have no more rights than the humblest citizen. We come here to be protected. We are not going to stand this abuse any longer, unless this committee backed by a majority vote of the Legislature says that you have no rights- and I don't think it will."

Mr. Bradley, representing the mill owners of Westbrook said, according to a Portland Press article, " that while the other side charged his clients with drawing the water down illegally, they did not rest their claim upon their common law right to navigate the lake at its natural level. Instead, they ask the Presumpscot Water and Power Company to maintain the water at a level five feet above the natural level. They base their claims on the charter of the Cumberland and Oxford Canal, but we rest our claim on our common law right to have the water come down to us. They never had any right except to use the water for canals and they have no right to raise the water or hold the water."

In 1877, lawyers for Cumberland Mills owned by Samuel Warren argued for the right to the uninterrupted uniform flow of the Presumpscot River. The Presumpscot Power and Water Company, bankrolled by Samuel Warren, lobbied for and were granted a state charter to raise the Basin Dam five feet in order to "increase and regulate but not to unnecessarily obstruct the flow" of the Presumpscot river. No mention is made by the charter regarding raising the lake for the purpose of aiding navigation. The original Basin Dam in 1830 had been built solely for improving navigation.

John Warren , the son of Samuel Warren, was the major stockholder of the Presumpscot Water and Power Company as well as an owner of Cumberland Mills. He had received much criticism for the low lake levels of Sebago Lake in 1905 and 1906.

He responded by writing a lenghty rebuttal to the accusations made by the navigation interests . His letter was transcribed from the Westbrook Globe Star February 28, 1907.

" There seems to be an impression on the part of many people that the Presumpscot Water and Power Company as owner of the dam at the outlet of Sebago Lake, now have the right and power to lower the level of Sebago Lake below that which existed in a state of nature, that they have in the past drawn the water below the natural level, and they have used the water in a wasteful manner. To remove any such impression, I wish to state:

First. That the water power owners have neither the legal right nor the physical ability to lower the natural level of Sebago Lake.
Second: That they have never attempted to draw the water of the lake below its natural level and that all their operations relate to the stored water above that level.
Third: That they have not used the water wastefully.

Lake Sebago is a natural, not an artificial lake, and is held in by natural barriers which have never been interfered with. The owners of the dam at the outlet can hold back the water, but it is not within their powers to draw the water below what it would have been in a state of nature, and as a matter of fact, never have and probably never will be able to draw it down to the levels that were obtained under natural conditions.

Again, Lake Sebago is not simply a resevoir, but receives constantly the inflow from the contributing streams and spring, and the natural outlet is not so definite as the rim of a cup or the rollway of a dam, but is instead, a rocky channel with sloping sides which lessens in width as well as depth as the water draws down, thus reducing the outflow until an equilibrium was established and the level of the lake remained fairly constant, until a change in inflow occurred.

In a state of nature, with no dam at the outlet the floods resulting from melting snows and spring rains would rapidly flow off, so that the lake would assume a fairlly constant level by the early summer of each year. In a long dry summer the water would draw to a lower level and if on the contrary, frequent rains occurred, the level would be somewhat higher, but a fairly constant level would exist at about three feet below the point at which navigation interest now wish to establish a bench mark, thus requiring the water power owners by means of their dam to hold the water three feet higher at all times than it would have been in a state of nature.

Now it is apparent that it has not been within the power of the owners of the dam to impair navigation, and that all their action has been in the way of improving it ; that this improvement has not cost the navigation interests anything, and it is only that they may share there largely in that which has cost them nothing and has cost the mill owners very large sums, that they bring their present bill.

The statement has been made ( which has been accentuated by some of the testimony brought in favor of the bench mark ) that the water power owners use the water in a wasteful manner. Now, plainly, it is not for their interest to do this, but rather to use it conservatively, with a view of promoting as nearly as possible a uniform flow throughout the year. This storage in Lake Sebago has cost the water power owners a large sum and is of real value and it is but natural that they should wish to utilize it in the fullest extent. On the other hand they are not oblivious to the interests of navigation upon the lake or the interests of those who live upon its shores and have never drawn down the water needlessly and have maintained as high and constant a water level as they could consistently during the summer months.

Lake Sebago, however, like all other lakes, has no source of supply other than the rainfall, and if the rainfall is scant or if the rainfall comes largely in the summer time when the melting snows or spring(s) are dried up by the March winds, the supply of water is not adequate to bring it back, to a good level they suffer from lack of water as well as the parties navigating the lake.

The simple fact that the ponds of the water power owners along the river are full of water does not indicate an ample flow in the river, as anyone who has thought on the subject will readily see, for, however small the flow, it is manifestly desirable to keep the ponds full and get the benefit of whatever flow thereis.

No attempt ought to be made to induce the Legislature to take away the rights of the water power owners acquired under authority of the Legislature and at great cost. on the theory that any wrong has been done to the navigation interests by reason of the action of the water power owners. What the water power owners have done at Lake Sebago has resulted in benefit to the navigation interests, not in damage. The navigation interests ought not now to attempt to furthur improve their position at the expense of the water power owners. The water power of Maine is presumably its most valuable asset, and should be reasonably protected, as on it depends the existence of our manufacturing interests, on which so large a percentage of our people depend for their support."

-- J.E. Warren
Cumberland Mills February 25, 1907

When John Warren wrote that it was the intention of the Presumpscot Water and Power Company to promote a nearly uniform flow as possible, he failed to mention that any unnecessary obstruction of the water at the outlet of Lake Sebago was a violation of their charter. Navigation of the Songo was the real issue. No one ever mentioned the geologic principles of a classic meandering river like the Songo and how deltas form at the mouths of slow moving rivers as they enter a large body of water. No matter what water level the lake is maintained at, sand will be deposited at the mouth forming sand bars.

1907 was a milestone year as the navigation interests never again mounted any legislative challenge to the mill interests of Westbrook . The bill before the Legislature died in committee allowing Cumberland Mills and John Warren to establish their political dominance over the control of Sebago Lake waters.

The next navigational group to protest low water levels was the Sebago Yacht Club on March 3, 1957. A level of 262.0 mean sea level was requested as a minimum for the month of August. The Yacht Club explained, according to the Portland Press, that such a level would enable pleasure boats to move in and out of two marinas in Jordans Bay late in August without striking bottom. This level is 4.63 feet below the full mark of 266.63 feet.

On April 8, 1957, Everett Ingalls, vice president of S.D. Warren Co., admitted under questioning that it is the obligation of the Sebago Water Improvement Company, of which the mill and Central Maine Power are stockholders, to keep the Songo River open to navigation. He said that if the river was dredged, tolls would have to be raised to meet the cost. Sixty-four years prior John Warren representing the Presumpscot Water and Power Company, had agreed to pay the cost of dredging. S.D. Warren Co. had bought out the rights of the Presumpscot Water and Power Company in the 1940's.

In the April 8,1957, Portland Press Herald article, a noteworthy quotation by Ingalls made to the Yacht Club was,"There is no legal limit to the amount of water the mill can draw."

The Warrens were highly educated, shrewd businessmen . They compromised to solve disagreements. When John Warren ,in 1893, was told by the Fish Commisioner to repair fishways on the Basin Dam, he didn't argue. He just ordered it to be done. In 1893, when the Songo River was low and hindering navigation, John Warren ordered immediate dredging. Sam Warren, by purchasing the Basin Dam in 1877 in order to solve a dangerous feud with the Oriental Powder Co. made a $20,000 investment that would earn future owners of S.D. Warren Company millions of dollars. The Warrens were quick to solve problems and get on with business. It was no accident the Warrens became industrial giants.

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