A Festival for the Fish Ladder

Lea Wait, here, admitting that although I knew a little about alewives (no – they’re not the wives of beer drinkers — they’re 8-10 inch fish lobstermen sometimes use as bait), there was a time when I had no idea what a fish ladder was. My education, sad to say, was lacking. So on the chance that you, too, might be curious about the need for a ladder for fish, on Memorial Day weekend my husband and I attended the 5th Annual Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder Restoration Festival.

A little history (drum roll, please!) The Damariscotta River was called that by the Abenakis because it was the “river of many fishes.” Those many fishes were the large schools of alewives who swam up river from the sea, and up the falls at Damariscotta Mills, to get to the fresh water in Damariscotta Lake each spring, where they would spawn. This mass migration provided food (fresh fish and smoked) for humans, and for the ospreys,eagles and gulls who would gather for the occasion.

Alewives, heading up the fish ladder

By 1730, however, the falls had become partially blocked by a double sawmill, and as settlements increased, other mills were built, and the alewives’ traditional routes were blocked. As early as 1741 the Massachusetts Legislature (Maine was then a district of Massachusetts) passed “An Act To Prevent the Destruction of Alewives and Other Fish,” requiring that passage for fish be provided around falls blocked by mills.  

Bob & I Escaping Giant Osprey!

At first, the solution to get the alewives the necessary 42 feet up the falls was that a local shipowner had his employees net the fish and transport them to the lake above. When this plan didn’t work well, he built a lock stream to assist the fish in their ascent, but it was small and ineffective. In 1809 the towns of Newcastle and Nobleboro constructed the first substantial Lock Stream, which had to be rebuilt every five to ten years.

  In 2007 the fish committee of Nobleboro and Newcastle determined to establish a more efficient, attractive, and permanent, fish ladder, and initiated a major re-building project. Since then, about 2/3 of the new mortar and stone fish ladder has been completed. The restoration continues, and each year a three-day Festival is held to raise money to continue the work, so the alewives can make their journey up the falls to Damariscotta Lake. 

This year hundreds of people came out to watch the alewives swim and jump their way up the ladder, referred to by some as “the fish way.” Onlookers also found time to eat and drink; have their picture taken with a giant osprey; buy art donated by local artists, take their children for a horse cart ride, buy smoked alewives, and, generally, be part of a Maine tradition.

Alewives are still used for lobster bait, and two bushels of alewives are also, by tradition, delivered to every widow in Newcastle each year. 

And in Maine, no one questions the need for fish to have a ladder to get to their home lake each spring. Or that celebrating the return of the alewives every spring isn’t exactly the right thing to do.

This entry was posted in Lea's Posts, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Festival for the Fish Ladder

  1. Suzanne Hurst says:

    This is fascinating, Lea. And I’m trying to recall the proper pronunciation of Damarascotta.

  2. Suzanne Hurst says:

    oops – spelled it wrong too – Damariscotta.

  3. MCWriTers says:

    Ah, alewives. I remember once, as a child, that dad went away overnight (we were farmers and he was NEVER away) and our mother took the three children to the grocery store and we could pick anything we wanted for dinner. My brother John and I got smoked alewives. I have no memory of how they tasted (though creamed smoked fish was a popular dish in our home) but I remember the creature, and how exciting it was to have one of my very own to eat.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Lea. One really fun aspect of this blog is the places it takes us to experience all the fun festivals Maine has to offer.


  4. Lea Wait says:

    Great memory, Kate!. And, Suzanne – and others, who buy the tee-shirts in town emblazened with the words, “Where in the Hell IS Damariscotta???” — it’s pronouced –
    Dam-ARE-Is-COT-A — with the accet on the COT. Often blurred to Dam-Ris-COT-A.
    Got that? After you’ve said it a few hundred times it’ll be simple!

  5. John Clark says:

    If I remember correctly, Kate, we called them smoked bloaters and they were, while very bony, pretty good eating.

Leave a Reply