It was fall of 1949 when the gates of the Long Falls Dam were shut and the Dead River swelled backwards up the valley forming Flagstaff Lake.
Three years later, whatever was left behind from three towns was tamped under 80 billion gallons of heavy blue water.
Flagstaff, Maine is dead. Due to the forest fires and the impending biblical-scale flood, every resident had to pick up and move. But neither the fires nor flood were natural disaster; they were engineered by man. For decades, Central Maine Power Company intended to dam the Dead River for hydroelectric power. They wiped a jagged corridor of forest and farms clean to make a reservoir. Instead of forty days and nights of rain, there were just over forty years of scouting, calculation, warning and reparations to the two hundred or so residents of Flagstaff and the neighboring plantation of Dead River who had to move before they built the dam that sunk the towns.
Two communities, Flagstaff and Dead River, were located in western Maine, near the Quebecois border, latitudinally equal with Montreal. Back in the late 18th century, encampments sprouted up along the Dead River in a fertile ribbon of land between the mountains. The floodplain was good for farming and timber harvest, trapping and fishing. By 1840, there were two mills, grist and lumber, the two heartbeats of the town for the coming century. Like many small towns, aerially it was laid out sort of like the letter “T”. Along the left arm was the Hazen Ames pool hall, the E.J. Leavitt General Store with the Post Office in back, and if you traced the power lines over the wooden bridge, it brought you to the hill where they built the high school.
The "Kid's Taxi" brought Flagstaff kids to and from the movies in Stratton-Eustis.
In the very early 1900s, Central Maine Power Company forecasted the new century’s energy demand. In 1909, they bought a natural bottleneck in the Dead River called Long Falls. The plan was to dam the Dead River into a 27-mile-long reservoir. After nearly two decades of legislative dogfights, the Kennebec Reservoir Company (a trident comprised of CMP and two paper companies) was granted the go-ahead in 1927 to build a storage dam. ‘Storage’ meant that Long Falls Dam wouldn’t have turbines. It would store potential energy in the form of 80 billion gallons of water. Long Falls Dam would act as a regulator. Due to the ephemeral flow of the Dead River, there wasn’t always sufficient volume to spin the turbines of other dams downstream on the Kennebunk River. With the dam at Long Falls, they could open the floodgates and generate electricity to serve communities in other parts of Maine.
Why they chose a spot to dam where the man-made lake would swallow three towns is not entirely clear. The towns lay along the river in a geological dimple from the glacier perched there around ten thousand years ago. There was already a natural basin, a floodplain.
Workers lift powerlines over a home.
As early as the twenties, men in hats and suits with hands folded behind their backs appeared in town. They started knocking on doors and made offers to buy property. Central Maine Power’s stacks of photos of sold homes got thicker. The populations were rural and relatively poor, so eventually money trumped the desire to stay. Plus, because of eminent domain, they would have to move sometime. Might as well be now.
The towns underwent a comprehensive graft. Some wedged I-beams between the foundation and ground floor of their homes, lifted them onto flatbeds, and trucked them down to their new plot of land in Stratton-Eustis, a few dozen miles upstream. Homes too wide were sawed in half and trucked away in pieces. Homes too tall needed someone to stand on the roof and lift power lines over the houses as they drove out of town. Others sold, moved, or let Central Maine Power raze the buildings.
Frank "Spider" Watson moving graves from Flagstaff and Dead River.
Current residents were not the only ones forced to moved. Former residents were relocated as well. The Flagstaff Cemetery was dug up, grave by grave, and transferred to Eustis. The wealthier folks who had been buried in proper caskets were transferred intact. Others buried without coffins were not. Some remember the removals of these graves as haphazard and mishandled.
In 1948, the construction of Long Falls Dam began. Around 1,000 workers were imported to the area and started cutting and digging, terraforming the place. But before Flagstaff Lake could be made, nothing could be protruding from the would-be lakebed. Whether tree, fence, or the E.J. Leavitt General Store, it needed to be erased. Central Maine Power didn’t want a beard of pines and shrubs and anythingsticking out of the lake.
The utility parceled out squares of forest, acre by acre. There was a flat rate for whoever wanted to clear the flowage, the area into which the lake would flow. Eighteen thousand acres needed clearing, so some Flagstaff and Dead River residents even pitched in for some extra cash. After all of the trees in the acre were felled and lying like pick-up sticks in beds of sawdust, they had to be cleared. Without heavy machinery, the method of choice was burning. Each worker was responsible for his own plot. No centralized organization oversaw these controlled burns, and the fires sometimes got away from them. Essentially what you had was many people independently setting many forest fires a day. Residents of the towns kept their irreplaceables in suitcases by the door, just in case. From the firewatch on top of Bigelow, you would have seen pillars of black smoke dotting solid green forest as if the earth were venting some great heat.
Forest and June Parsons
Now Flagstaff Lake is recreational. In the summers, tourists come from all over Maine and Quebec to water ski and tube and fish on the largest man-made lake in the state. Summer camps and picnic tables skirt the shoreline. They give tours and boat rides.
Stratton-Eustis, as we mentioned earlier, is a town upriver where many Flagstaffers moved. There's a general store called “The General Store”, a less general general store and two inns -- The White Wolf and The Plaza, where all the snowmobilers get drunk in their snowsuit suspenders and sing Kathy’s Karaoke on Friday nights. There are coughing chimneys and the stingy sweet smell of woodsmoke, hills of snow swept off main street. Everything is white. The only other building in town is the Dead River Area Historical Society. It’s a huge white barn with a small bell tower on top, a church previously. To the right of the door is a handwritten sign: Open Weekends 11-3 July and August.
It’s February, so it’s not open. But we had talked to Lee Henderson, the curator, before we drove up and he said he’d let us in. We parked at his house and walked over. It took about 20 seconds. Lee is a reticent, agreeable man in his seventies. He communicates mostly with head nods and the crackle of flipping newspaper pages.
Lee unlocks the door to the Dead River Area Historical Society. It’s a hoarder’s paradise. There are stacks upon stacks, piles upon piles of everything, anything. A stuffed black bear is snarling, frozen mid-maul right as you walk in, deer busts and their ten-point prominences, sepia photos of handsome women spread on tables, old curling maps, a creepy mannequin in a flower printed dress, warped translucent glass bottles, books chewed up by the decades which should definitely be in some climate-controlled vacuum display, rusted forks and coins on shelves that washed up on the shore of Flagstaff Lake. Apparently the historical society doesn’t turn anything away. They get more stuff dropped off there than they can sort and categorize in any more meaningful way other than put that with the other coins, put the needles somewhere by the Singer sewing machine, or that flower printed dress would really accent how creepy that mannequin is.
Weekends. 11-3. July and August. So for a vast majority of the year all of the relics and artifacts and trinkets wait there motionless in the dark, just the same as all the drowned stuff still stuck at the bottom of the lake.
Every now and again, a high school student doing a project or someone drawn by rumors of a sunken ghost town, gridded with disappeared dirt roads, gutted structures with sleeves of algae on their beams, wood panels and roofs where the farmers and children used to walk, but now house their spectres amongst curtains of lake-weed and darting fish. The decades have churned memory into myth.
But some diligently try to defibrillate the memory of the lost towns. The town hosts an annual “Old Home Day” to reminisce over potluck. Some, such as Kenny Wing and Alan Burnell have compiled a book of faded photos. Ruey Stevens Baldwin gathered former residents’ journal entries and essays into a Flagstaff anthology called There Was a Land.
Jay Wyman lives in Stratton-Eustis. His mother, Betty, grew up in Dead River. She left before the flood when she was 17. Years ago, Jay took up collecting remnants of the flooded valley. More recently, his hobby has snowballed into a meticulous devotion to the preservation of these lost towns.
Energy has changed the landscape of this little valley in northwest Maine three times in the past 65 years. Hydroelectricity came in ‘49. Exactly four decades after the flood, a biomass plant opened in Stratton-Eustis in 1989. The plant burns forestry residue to generate electricity. Its 200 foot smokestack can be seen from anywhere in town.
Flagstaff and Dead River are a microcosm of the way energy demand resculpts our landscapes and communities. The pursuit of energy continues to do so to this day. In 2010, a plot on Kibby Mountain was cleared for a cluster of 44 giant wind turbines, making it the largest wind farm in New England.
Growing population demands reshuffling and repurposing of what was, to accommodate what is. In other words: progress. But when we say ‘progress,’ what do we mean exactly? Perhaps we mean ‘progress’ in the utilitarian sense: the most happiness for the greatest number of people. But we will never agree on a universal metric for happiness, and for those who sacrifice their livelihood to make way for others, progress seems more like regress.
We wonder if things like electrification and increasingly efficient transportation and communication make people happier or just make things easier. So by ‘most happiness,’ perhaps we are really saying something more like ‘most convenient for the greatest number of people.’ But we can’t stop population growth, so we wonder whether we even have any control of the momentum of change at all.
Regardless, we still need to consider the costs and dividends of change and, furthermore, how we implement these changes. The former residents of Flagstaff and Dead River lost everything: what do they have left? Is it the artifacts stacked in piles in the Dead River Area Historical Society? Is it books or photographs? Is it the stories Jay Wyman found in postcards to tell his grandkids?
Whatever the answer, it becomes more and more difficult to bequeath generational memory, especially as decades fall away and fewer and fewer people remember what happened to the towns of Flagstaff and Dead River.
Reported & Produced by Pete Lang-Stanton, Chloe Prasinos, and Roger Smith