New Brunswick

Milltown dam is 'intrinsically woven into the fabric' of St. Stephen: local historian

NB Power and people in St. Stephen are considering the future of one of the oldest hydroelectric power stations in North America.

NB Power says generating station removal would save money, improve fish passage

The MIlltown dam was attached to the former St. Croix Cotton Mill, which closed in 1957. (New Brunswick Archives/P33-83a)

A part of the St. Stephen landscape that has stood for almost 140 years may soon be dismantled.

NB Power has announced plans to decommission the Milltown Generating Station, said to be the oldest operating hydroelectric dam in Canada.

The dam and power station on the St. Croix River can be seen from the town's main street, Milltown Boulevard. They were originally built in 1881, to power a cotton mill. It's one of the oldest hydroelectric plants in the world. 

According to National Geographic, the "oldest" distinction belongs to a plant on the Fox River in Appleton, Wisc., which began operating on Sept. 30, 1882.

The Milltown dam was built in 1881. (New Brunswick Archives/P128-248)
And old photo of the cotton mill and dam. The photo was found in a canister in a wall during renovations of an old photography shop. (Submitted by Darren McCabe)

According to Canada's Historic Places, the Milltown power plant went into operation in June 1882.

But it originally used mechanical power, not electric power, "transferred to the mill through a system of belts and line shafts," according The Milltown Story by the late St. Stephen historian Doug Dougherty.

In 1887, a rope-driven turbine generator was installed, said Darren McCabe, who accepted the mantle of town historian from Dougherty.

Power generation then expanded. By 1893, the station was supplying power to some homes in Milltown. And by 1911, it was the main power source for all surrounding communities on both sides of the border.

"It was very advanced. … we were certainly one of the first areas to have electric power on this side of the border," McCabe said.

NB Power has only owned the generating station since the late 1950s or early 1960s, when the cotton mill was already shut down.

But Phil Landry, the executive director of generation and engineering, recognizes that it's a historically significant place.

"Anytime you have … a facility in a community for 140 years there's definitely an attachment that also needs to be considered when we're making these decisions."

In this case, Landry said, decommissioning the dam and power station will save tens of millions of dollars. 

The station is no longer viable, he said. Three of its seven units don't work, while the other four require "significant" investment. And the "antiquated" fish passage would also require spending.

The dam provided power for the mill as well as St. Stephen, Milltown and the Maine communities of Calais and Milltown. (Historic Places Canada)

Milltown accounts for less than one per cent of NB Power's hydro generation, said Landry, which should be easily offset.

Still, there are many steps the utility must take before dam removal can happen.

NB Power has been in contact with government and Indigenous officials about its intentions, said Landry, but more consultation and an environmental impact assessment will be required, which will also entail detailed engineering plans.

An open house is planned for July 11, at the Royal Canadian Legion in St. Stephen from noon to 4 p.m., when members of the public can ask questions.

Environmental impact filings should be made this fall, according to NB Power, but dismantling would likely not be complete until late 2021 or early 2022.

Three employees work at the station. NB Power said one of them is retiring, and the other two have been given work in other parts of the company.

The picturesque site of the former cotton mill attracts tourists with cameras and is sometimes used for timber championships and other community events. (My New Brunswick)
NB Power wants to decommission the Milltown dam, saying it generates only .8 per cent of the utility's hydro power. (Historic Places Canada)

McCabe, the historian, has mixed feelings about the prospect of the dam being removed.

"It's very significant," he said.

"It's intrinsically woven into the fabric of the community's history. However, before even that, Salmon Falls, where it's located, that's basically sacred ground for the Passamaquoddy people."

The entire operation, including the cotton mill, was a major economic driver, employing more than 1,000 people at its peak.

After the mill closed in 1957, the generating station remained a tourist attraction, because its rope-driven generator was the oldest of its kind in the world.

McCabe said he's seen comments on social media from people saddened about possibly losing that piece of history.

The Milltown dam is the oldest one operating in Canada. Decommissioning the dam will reestablish the river and about 16 kilometres of additional spawning habitat for the fish that cannot currently pass the dam. Phil Landry is the executive director of generation and engineering for NB Power. 7:15

But he also points out that for millennia before the dam was built, the Salmon Falls area was used as a seasonal fishing campsite and a burial ground.

"For seven generations, we've never known what a true run of the river looks like."

Removing the dam should allow some fish species, including salmon and alewives, also known as gaspereau, to go up river to spawn, said Landry.

He quantified it as an additional five million square metres of habitat.

McCabe said if the decommissioning is done properly, it could result in an educational and promotional project that would serve all stakeholders well.

He said that would include some kind of a display on the site that tells "the complete story" of Salmon Falls.

With files from Information Morning Saint John

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