Pawtucket Dam Named a National Treasure


The push to preserve the Pawtucket Dam was ratcheted up this week as the structure built to harness the massive power of the Mighty Merrimack that attracted the industrialists who built the city of Lowell in the 1820’s was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Trust has only bestowed that title, given to endangered sites of national significance, to 33 places in the United States.

The dam is owned by Enel North America.  In April, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, approved Enel’s controversial $6 million plan to replace the current flashboard system with a pneumatic crest-gate or “inflatable bladder” system.  

The crest-gate system would replace the 5-foot plywood flashboards and steel pins with a series of steel-hinged panels mounted atop a dam spillway. The panels can be raised or lowered, dependent upon river flow, through the use of 20-foot, low-pressure airbags. The air bags are similar to those public-safety personnel use to lift vehicles at accident scenes.

The change was opposed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, the City of Lowell, and several outspoken residents of the city’s Pawtucketville neighborhood.

Opponents have requested a new hearing on the proposal, but have not heard back from FERC regarding that request.

Those against the project argue the change will destroy the historic integrity  of the dam, as well as increase flooding upstream by holding more water back to increase the output produced by the hydropower plant owned by Boott Hydropower, a subsidiary of Enel. 

“We find that the proposed pneumatic crest-gate system can be installed without unacceptably altering the dam or adversely affecting the park and historic districts,” FERC wrote in their ruling. “The crest-gate system will also provide important benefits to recreation, fish passage, dam and worker safety, and project generation, and will help alleviate upstream backwater and flooding effects to the maximum extent possible.”

In naming the Pawtucket Dam a National Treasure, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has launched a campaign, seeking to raise $87,000 to mount a challenge to FERC’s ruling and employ a strategy to overturn it.

The National Trust believes that the FERC decision violated the law, including the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Historical Park (Lowell Act).  The Lowell Act established the park in 1978 and specifically prohibits federal approval of licenses or permits that adversely affect contributing resources to the Lowell National Historical Park.

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4 thoughts on “Pawtucket Dam Named a National Treasure

  1. As an Owner of the banks of the Merrimack River the efforts to preserve the boards are noble but misinformed. To preserve “functional” history that results in danger to people and property is not acceptable.
    Property: The board system allows the water to rise unchecked until one section gives way, then the water rises more until the next section gives way – a completely unpredictable process. This results in unpredictable river floods.
    People: Watch the labor needed to replace those boards! The crew is in the water inches from the edge. Injury and death awaits the slightest slip. This must go on in winter too, in freezing water, requiring the chain saw cutting of ice. All of this is when weather permits, which means too late to protect the river’s level. We don’t preserve unsafe and destructive historical practices, to keep their visual appearance.

    The bladder system is well proven; it can be lowered as the river rises; before flooding takes place. It doesn’t require putting people in the water on the edge of a dam after every heavy rain fall.

  2. BC
    With all due respect you are uninformed about how the flashboard system functions.The flashboards and pins were made to bend and give way when the head pond above the dam rises Unfortunately Enel has mortified the original design all in the name of profit and damaged the historic granite cap of the dam by drilling extra holes for thicker pins.

    • Paul,
      Thank You – Your explanation certainly improves on mine. And agree, as you say: it doesn’t function well … and needs to be fixed. Regards

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