Perils for Lowell’s Pawtucket Dam on the Merrimack River

Pawtucket Dam on the Merrimack River, Lowell Massachusetts (Corey Sciuto, May 2006)

In her article  “Planning for the future to save pieces of history” – Globe correspondent Taryn Plumb features Lowell’s Pawtucket Dam on the Merrimack River. This historic dam was recently designated by Preservation Massachusetts as “endangered.”

The Pawtucket Dam, meanwhile, faces what many say is a disruption of its long-cultivated historical integrity as part of a contentious proposal to replace and update its industrial-era, replica flashboard flood system.

“It would completely change the aesthetic,’’ said Courtney Whelan, Preservation Massachusetts program manager. “It could irrevocably change an area that has worked so hard to make its history prominent.’’

Neighborhood activists and historic advocates have been closely following the so-called “bladder dam” proposal of Enel North America – the renewable energy company that owns the dam’s hydroelectric power operation – to change its 19th-century flood-relief process.

One particularly outspoken voice against Enel’s claim that the dam’s flashboard system is not historic is that of Lowell National Historic Park Acting Superintendent Peter Aucella.

Although the individual boards themselves aren’t antique or historic, “the system is part of the interpretive story,’’ said the park’s acting superintendent, Peter Aucella. “The flashboards are part of a process used for 150 years or so.’’

Replacing them with 21st-century technology would hurt the entire area, he and others contend, including a gatehouse and gatekeeper’s house, both dating to 1847, and an 1887 blacksmith shop.

Increasing efficiency “does not justify destroying a national historic landmark,’’ said Aucella.


The fate of this National Historic Civil and Mechanical Engineering Landmark will continue to play out at the federal, state and local levels. The pressures and precedents are enormous. Locals are concerned but very active.

Read the full article here at

7 Responses to Perils for Lowell’s Pawtucket Dam on the Merrimack River

  1. PaulM says:

    Lowell is very fortunate to have the National Park Service in the city to help protect the unique heritage of this important American place and lucky to have strong, knowledgeable, and articulate advocates like Peter Aucella of the Park.

  2. Jack Mitchell says:

    Since the case against the bladder dam modification based on historic preservation is open and shut, I’ll take another tact.

    The economy of the City of Lowell is entwined with its designation as a national historic park. When the City was laying fallow in the 60’s and early 70’s, it was the premise of “history” that retiled the fertile grounds on which Lowell’s new economy would be based. Interestingly enough, the history of Lowell is actually a nod to innovation and progress. This is no small point. Critically, the “progress” we enshrine in Lowell is tethered to America’s Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s.

    Enel’s enterprise is associated to hydropower. I tip my hat to this. As our city owes itself to hydropower, Enel is in keeping with our municipal idiom. Unfortunately, Enel refuses to willingly accept the natural limits that come with business in Lowell, the limits that come with doing business in a national historic park. By refusing to accept these limits, by squawking like a spoiled child that want its cake and eat it too, Enel has broken the bond of the social compact.

    Please accept, offered humbly, this reminder of the Preamble to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts:
    The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.

    Clearly, by asserting its corporate, profit driven wants, over the needs of Lowell’s other business and homeowners, Enel has broken the “social compact” designed to protect the “common good.” Enel’s “hooray for me, screw you” attitude should be flatly rejected.

    If it is not, then say goodbye to the integrity of our history based economy. All bets are off. How long until a skyscraper or three “need” to be built downtown? How long until the face of the city is pocked with aesthetic styles that clash with the continuity we enjoy today, until history becomes a negative juxtaposed against the modern. My mind reels with the “what ifs” should the binder of our city be ripped. Surely, we all can prosper within the confines of the compact we have accepted.

    “Progress” in a city, who’s lifeblood is history, can not be done in self-serving “dribs and drabs.” Lowell either goes all in or not. Serving one, over the balance of the rest, is not only unconscionable, it violates the tenets of the cornerstone of our Commonwealth.

  3. C R Krieger says:

    Our first concern should be for the citizens whose homes might be imperiled by any change to the configuration of the dam, or the current dam itself.  That dealt with we move on to preserving our historic record, for the reasons mentioned above.  Our historic record is part of who we are and part of what we, as a community, “sell” to those coming to learn about the United States at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

    I was a little concerned about this line in the Boston Globe article:  “The Pawtucket Dam, meanwhile, faces what many say is a disruption of its long-cultivated historical integrity as part of a contentious proposal to replace and update its industrial-era, replica flashboard flood system.”

    The use of the term “update its industrial-era replica flashboard flood system” suggests that the write doesn’t understand that to increase the power of the Merrimack the early mill operators had those flashboards installed.  Sure, those are not the original pieces of wood, but the use of the term “replica” diminishes the impact of the historic record.

    I am open to reasoned and reasonable arguments, but at this point the weight of evidence is clearly on maintaining the historical record.

    ENEL should back off.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  4. PaulM says:

    The initial federal budget authorization for Lowell National Historical Park was $40 million between 1978 and 1988. That figure has been exceeded many times over. I wonder if Peter Aucella of the Park Service can give us a total, bottom-line figure for federal funds allocated for Lowell for LNHP and the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission (1978-1995), not to mention the private sector investment triggered by grants and loans for historic building rehab and other infrastructure investments such as the River Walk and Canalway pedestrian walkway systems.

    Jack mentioned the social compact. There is a social compact or contract in place between the federal government, the Congress and Dept. of Interior, and the residents of Lowell, past, present, and future—that is, in return for federal support, each generation of Lowellians is expected to uphold the preservation standards and heritage protection principles that accompany the establishment of a unit of the national park service in the city. The designation of Lowell as a National Historical Park is a big deal and a commitment by the American people with no end date, a commitment made on their behalf by representatives and senators in Washington, DC.

  5. JoeS says:

    It is a dollars-and-cents argument by Enel – 10% more average power may translate to something like $2M per year, so that the $6M investment is paid off in 3 years.

    But how do they get that 10% increase? Probably it is mostly from the “down” time recovery after the flashboards have been destroyed by a high water event. But some may also come from a higher level on the pond. For the up-river residents there is concern with both possibilities. First, they count on the slow recovery of the pond after a flood to allow the wetlands to drain. And the higher pond level would be a continuing concern if it were allowed to occur.

    Even if independent controls could be put in place to mitigate those two concerns, we are still left with the destruction of a prime historical resource of the City. Indeed, they have already compromised that with the use of plywood panels instread of the original design of horizontal boards behind the pins. Even that change probably added to the average power they are able to sell on the electricity market.

  6. Jack Mitchell says:

    Cliff’s point about homeowner’s being imperiled by a “change in configuration” is key. I have heard several respected Lowellians claim that residents impacted by a rise in the head pond are not due relief, as they chose to live in a flood zone. This idea, that victims choose to be victims, has a related legal term. It is called “coming to the nuisance.”

    See Spur Industries, Inc. v. Del E. Webb Development Co. 494 P.2d 700 (1972)

    Under this one consideration, there are several points of interest:
    – Enel is suggesting the head pond elevation be increased beyond the long established elevation. So this would expand the nuisance.

    – My understanding from several Lowellians is that flood insurance is now being foisted upon homes that never were required to bear this cost in the past. What is driving this? Are they expanding the risk pool simply to burden share? Or, has the flood boundary expanded, capturing homes that before were previously beyond concern? By who and how can such a change be made?

    – Lastly, I’ve suggested above that modification of the dam will damage the historical integrity of Lowell. This damage will, in its own way, become a nuisance to all residents and business owners that operate within the accepted social compact of living with a National Historical Park. Since 1978, Lowell as accepted the premise of historical preservation. We enjoy the benefits afforded, while accepting the limitations required. By breaking this compact, Enel potentially does damage to us all. This damage will occur year round, with no boundary by elevation and in perpetuity.

    So I have exhausted the limits of my layman lawyering. The question for me is in terms of what I understand to be “foreseeable detriment.”

    We can hash this out in the Courts should FERC rule poorly. And, even if they don’t. Lowell needs to keep all options on the table. Nothing about this City leads me to believe we roll over for bullies.