New England's second largest river system, the Penobscot drains an area of 8,570 square miles. Its West Branch rises near Penobscot Lake on the Maine/Quebec border; the East Branch Pond near the headwaters of the Allagash River. The main stem empties into Penobscot Bay near the town of Bucksport. The landscape of the watershed includes Maine's highest peak, Mt. Katahdin, rolling hills and extensive bogs, marshes and wooded swamps. There is a rich history of cultural, social, and economic tradition that the Penobscot River Restoration Project hopes to help revive.
The first inhabitants of the watershed were the Penobscot Indian Nation. Archaeological evidence shows native inhabitants on the Penobscot fished for American shad as early as 8,000 years ago and for sturgeon as early as 3,000 years ago. Shad bones found in native settlements along the Sebec River in Milo are dated to 6,000 to 8,000 B.P. Sites where sturgeon remains have been found include the junction of Pushaw and Dead Streams in Alton, the Penobscot River at Old Town and numerous sites in Penobscot Bay.
Many Penobscot Indian place names refer to an abundance of migratory fish. Passagassawaukeg River an estuary in Belfast translates to sturgeon fishing or spearing place. The Penobscot word Mattamiscontis, which means a fishing place for alewives, is the name of a stream entering the west side of the Penobscot River above Howland. Blackman Stream in Bradley, which drains Chemo, Davis and Holbrook Ponds in Eddington, was also named Mattamiscontis by the Penobscot Indians in reference to the abundance of alewives there. The alewife was once ubiquitous to the coastal rivers and streams of Maine and New England. This migratory fish ascended the Penobscot by the millions until dam construction in the 18th and 19th centuries. For more than 100 years, the Penobscot Indian Nation has been unable to exercise its tribal fishing rights to catch fish such as Atlantic salmon, because the river is virtually devoid of native sea-run fish above Veazie Dam.
Wood and stone weirs along streams and ponds have been used for millennia to harvest migratory fish in the rivers of Maine and New England. The recent discovery of the remains of a large fish weir on the Sebasticoook Lake in Newport, Maine indicates this method was used by native people in central Maine as early as 5,700 B.P. Today, wooden fish weirs are still used in the Penobscot River drainage to capture adult American eels as they migrate to the ocean to spawn. Commercial fishing of the Penobscot River's migratory fish began soon after the settlement of Bangor and Bucksport in the 1760s. Primarily Atlantic salmon, American shad and alewife, were the species that formed the cornerstone of what was once a booming industry in the early nineteenth century.
The Penobscot is best known for its large historic salmon run (50,000 or more adults) and its much smaller contemporary run, which is the largest Atlantic salmon run remaining in the United States (1,000-4,000 adults in recent decades). Each spring, hundreds of fishermen drifted large nets and built elaborate weirs to capture salmon, shad and alewives at sites from Castine to Old Town. At the wharves of Bangor, sailing sloops waited at anchor to carry the catch, fresh or salted, to the markets of Connecticut, Boston, Newburyport and the West Indies.
On the morning of May 26, 1826 the Kennebec Journal informed its readers: "A true fish story -- Seven thousand shad and nearly a hundred barrels of alewives were taken in Eddington last week by Luther Eaton, Esq. at one haul -- Bangor Register." Until the 1830s, there were no dams on the Penobscot. Salmon, shad and alewives traveled 100 miles upriver to Shad Pond in Millinocket, Island Falls on the Mattawamkeag, and Monson on the Piscataquis. Twenty-pound striped bass ranged as far upriver as Enfield and Howland. Atlantic sturgeon were taken at the falls in Old Town.
The construction of a large dam at Eddington Bend in 1834, without any passage for fish, dealt a serious blow to the fishing industry in the lower Penobscot. Maine's first Fisheries Commissioners described the impact of this dam in 1869: "The latter [Veazie Dam] was closed in the winter. When the fish came in the spring they found an impassable barrier across their way; they gathered in multitudes below the dam and strove in vain to surmount it; many returned down the river, and after the usual time for spawning of shad was past they were taken in weirs in the town of Bucksport, loaded with ripe spawn they could no longer contain; a phenomenon which Mr. John C. Homer who has fished with weirs at that point for forty-three years had never observed at any other time. These were doubtless shad whose natural spawning grounds lay far up the river, and who had after long contention given up the attempt to pass the Veazie Dam. A great many shad and alewives lingered about the dam and died there, until the air was loaded with the stench."
The abundant salmon runs of the past also supported generations of salmon anglers. The river is home to the nation's first salmon club and once was known for its tradition of sending the first salmon caught each year to the U.S. President. In 1992 President George Bush was the last President to participate in this tradition which was suspended due to declining wild Atlantic salmon populations.
Water quality in the Penobscot River has greatly improved during the last 30 years due to the reduction in industrial pollution required by the Clean Water Act. Communities across Maine already have turned toward these cleaner waters, revitalizing their riverfronts. The return of the Penobscot sea-run fishery and free-flowing river sections will provide opportunities to realize the river's full potential, including revival of cultural and social fishing traditions.