History of the Mousam River

Historic Documentation of Anadromous Species in the Mousam River

               Historic documents and town histories refer to the presence of anadromous fish in the Mousam River.  Edward E. Bourne’s 1831 work is considered the most comprehensive early history of the Town of Kennebunk.  He writes (p. 61): 

Untill (sic) as late as the year 1760, salmon had been very abundant in this river.  Immense quantities of them were taken on their passage up the stream in the spring. They were never taken on their return in autumn, as they were then so poor as to be entirely unfit for consumption. As business began to increase on the river, and dams were built, without fish-ways, the salmon found it necessary to seek some other place of resort.

Bass and shad were also very plenty in this stream.  In the early ages of the town, great quantities were taken in weirs which were prepared in different places.  The most noted place of taking them, was near the mouth of the river a few roads above what are called Harts rocks. The bass, after the settlement here began to increase, found that it was not very safe to attempt to navigate the Mousam, and discontinued their visits to it. But the shad, possessing more spirit, and a more deep rooted, and invincible attachment to the waters in which their ancestors had basked, perhaps from the fifth day of creation, have not even yet been quite drove off the ground, though they have had to maintain it, through trials, perils and difficulties… (Bourne, Edward E., Ancient History of Kennebunk Written in 1831, Kennebunk, ME: Star Press, Inc., 1970)


“The Mousam is eminently a salmon stream.”  So begins the assessment of the Mousam River in the  First Report of the Commissioners of Fisheries of the State of Maine, published in 1867 (p. 26-7).  The report continues:

When unobstructed its whole extent nearly, must have been suitable spawning ground for salmon… The natural aspect of the river promises salmon, and tradition accords with it.  From Judge Bourne of Kennebunk, we learn that the Mousam was once “full of salmon.”  Dr. Emerson informed him that one Wakefield once loaded a cart with salmon in a little while at the foot of his garden in Kennebunk.  There were, also, shad and alewives; the shad still come into the river, but the salmon come no more.


In the The history of Sanford, Maine, 1661-1900, Emery notes controversy over a petition to establish fish passage on the Mousam (p. 170):


In further support of the contention that salmon were once found in the Mousam River and within the limits of Sanford, is a communication from an old resident published in the Sanford News some years ago, in which he says that in his boyhood days, when fishing in the river between the mills and Butler's bridge,  “once in a while, I used to catch what ' we boys ' called a ' red-meated shiner.' They were usually about a foot long, bright light color, meat red as a cherry, and would weigh from a pound to a pound and a half. At that time I had never, that I know of, seen a salmon ; but since then, having seen them by the hundreds just as they came out of the water, I have become entirely satisfied the 'red-meated shiners' we used to catch were nothing more or less than young salmon. This opinion is backed up by other boys of Sanford.” (The history of Sanford, Maine, 1661-1900 by Edwin Emery and William Morrell Emery (The Salem Company: Salem, MA, 1901)


The first record of a citizen petition to establish fish passage for salmon, shad and alewives on the river dates to 1816, coming from Dr. Jacob Fisher in Kennebunk.  This petition for fish passage was not received well in the Town of Sanford which responded making clear their interest in supporting industry in the river (Emery, p. 169):  “There are on said river and its branches four factories, seven grist-mills and seventeen saw-mills. The property is of vast importance to the owners, and utility to the public.”

Several decades later a petition came from Walter H. Coleman, “Petitioner, and of Counsel for the Petitioners, for Fish Ways in the Mousam River, Me.” Coleman wrote to the Commissioners of Inland Fisheries and Game, July 21st 1896 protesting their interpretation of a law not to require fish passage on rivers where runs of anadromous fish had been extirpated (p. 5):

It seems to have ruled that not-withstanding dams prevent the ascent of “salmon, shad and alewife” up the Mousam, yet, to take the benefit of the Fishway Act, they must actually be still found resorting there all the time uninterruptedly, protesting, as it were, against the impossibility of ascent, and vainly trying to get up the river.

Coleman continues:

I submit that the facts ascertained as to the Mousam were just exactly the conditions contemplated by the Legislature. First, as to salmon that they were often caught off the mouth of the river. Second, that occasionally at the present time they are caught in the water just below the lower dam, so intently watching their chances to jump the dam as to allow themselves to be lifted by hand from the water.

Coleman then cites Bourne’s work that noting the presence of salmon in the river until about the year 1760.  Coleman noted that Bourne, a judge, had a reputation as a “conscientious antiquarian” whose legal and judicial habits were well known in the State and whose statements were given “much more than the usual weight.”

In 1941 the State of Maine Striped Bass Survey was released, “A Report on the Abundance and Location of Striped Bass in Maine Waters with Charts, Descriptive Matter and Latest Information for Anglers.”  On p. 13, regarding the Mousam River, the report states:  “Good striper water can be found from the Railroad Bridge to the ocean.  There are many deep holes and swift runs.  Just below the Railroad Bridge has produced many times in the past years.”  In continues on p. 14: “I believe that this is a spawning stream for bass.  There have been several occasions when fishermen have taken females with ripe eggs in them.”

In a Maine Naturalist article titled “A Report on the Historic Spawning Grounds of the Striped Bass, Morone Saxatilis” (1995 3(2): 107-113), Michael J. Little proposes that a review of historical records indicates that striped bass at one time spawned in almost every river on the New England coast, rather than only the Chesapeake Bay.  Little believes that a careful review of historic records shows that limited breeding areas are a current phenomena, he cites the Mousam River as one of the rivers from Cape Cod to Maine that “had a sizable runs of striped bass during the spring spawning time.” (p. 108).  Little further notes that by the time the classic text “Fishes of the Gulf of Maine” was published in 1953, the Mousam River was one of only two sites in the Gulf of Maine where striped bass still spawned.

Fishery Biologist Stuart DeRoche summarized his thinking on the potential for restoration of the Mousam River in a letter to Roland H. Cobb, Commissioner of Maine Inland Fish and Game Department (July 1, 1954):

I have long since completed my obstruction survey of the Mousam River and I find 13 existing dams from Mousam Lake to the River's confluence with the sea at Kennebunk. In canoeing various sections of the river from Sanford to Kennebunk excellent spawning riffle and rubble areas were observed in addition to many pool areas to accommodate adult fish. Pollution, in the form of sewerage and mill wastes was noted from Sanford to Kennebunk. Sewerage pollution is heavy from Sanford to Old Mill Falls.

I feel that the Mousam River could be restored to its natural run of sea-run fish if cleared of obstructions and pollution were eradicated; however it would be a rather "touchy" situation at this time to request the Kennebunk Light and Power Company to construct a fishway in this dam without going "all the way" and requesting other involved companies owning obstructions on the river to build fishways also.

Later Stuart  DeRoche reviewed a survey of water quality tests made along the Mousam River to determine the suitability of the water to maintain populations of salmonid fishes.  In a report to Roland H. Cobb dated July 22, 1954, he concluded:

 Other than the sewage pollution which exists below the town of Sanford there seems to be no biological reasons why salmon and trout would not use the Mousam River providing they are given access to it. Many miles of good spawning rubble and nursery area would be available to salmonids if pollution were reduced and fishways were installed.  Whether or not enough migrating fish would use this water shed to warrant fishway expenditures would be pure speculation.  Certainly a suitable biological site would be available to them once pollution is reduced.

In an Inter-Departmental Memorandum dated January 9, 1979 from Lewis Flagg to Charles R. Ritzi, "Reconstruction of Mousam River Dams for Hydroelectric Development," Mr. Flagg writes:

The Mousam River has an excellent potential for supporting a significant commercial fishery for anadromous alewives. The current lack of production of alewives in York County and the large demand for this resource for lobster bait makes development of commercially significant alewife runs a high priority for this area. The Mousam River, one of the larger watersheds of York County, is considered a major candidate for an alewife restoration program. Therefore, this agency recommends that a fishway be required in the lowermost dam to be constructed. This will enable the fish to use the first impoundment as spawning habitat and will further serve as a collection site to enable the DMR to trap and truck stock ascending adults upstream into headwater spawning and nursery areas. As runs increase due to stocking, it may become necessary for further consideration of additional fish passage facilities in upriver dams to optimize the utilization of spawning and nursery habitat.


In a letter to Milton Cameron from Maynard F. Marsh, Commission of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, dated January 16, 1979, Mr. Marsh writes:

At this time the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will not require a fishway in the two dams on the Mousam River about which you inquired. If some of the upstream dams were removed, it is possible that we might begin management for the sea run trout so we must leave a fishway decision open to that possibility.

We have checked with the Department of Marine Resources and they feel that the Mousam River has excellent potential for the establishment of a commercial alewife run. This management would, no doubt, require fishways in one or eventually both of the dams in question. So while IF&W at this time will not require a fishway for our present program, we would support a DMR request for a fishway for their interests.

In December 2009 Carolyn J. Hall completed a masters thesis at Stony Brook University titled “Damming of Maine Watersheds and the Consequences for Coastal Ecosystems with a Focus on the Anadromous River Herring (Alosa pseudoharengus and Alosa aestivalis): A Four Century Analysis.”  Her work was an examination of colonial dam construction and its impact on migration paths in Maine watersheds, including that of the Mousam River.  In her thesis, Hall notes that by 1720 a dam in Kennebunk completely obstructed upstream migration for river herring runs. (Table 2.2, p. 41). She calculated that the head of tide dam on the Mousam River left access to less than1% of virgin lake surface after construction (p. 25). 

Hall further notes that we must rely on literature, including the town histories cited previously, to provide the only evidence that alewives existed in this waterway. They had been long extirpated by the time formal fishery reports and watershed analyses came to be produced. 


Bourne, Edward E.  1970.  Ancient History of Kennebunk Written in 1831. Kennebunk, ME: Star Press, Inc.

DeRoche,  1954.  Communication to Roland H. Cobb, Commissioner.  Conducted under Roland H. Cobb, Augusta, Me.

Marsh, Maynard, F.  1979. Commission of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, dated

Flagg, Lewis. 1979.  Memo titled "Reconstruction of Mousam River Dams for Hydroelectric Development."  Department of Marine Resources.

Emery, Edwin and William Morrell Emery.  1901.  The history of Sanford, Maine, 1661-1900.  The Salem Company: Salem, MA.

Hall, Carolyn J. 2009. “Damming of Maine Watersheds and the Consequences for Coastal Ecosystems with a Focus on the Anadromous River Herring (Alosa pseudoharengus and Alosa aestivalis): A Four Century Analysis.” Unpublished manuscript: Stony Brook University.

Little, Michael J.  1995.  Maine Naturalist “A Report on the Historic Spawning Grounds of the Striped Bass, Morone Saxatilis” 3(2): 107-113.

First Report of the Commissioners of Fisheries of the State of Maine. 1867.

Coleman, Walter H.  1896. Letter to Commissioners of Inland Fisheries and Game.

State of Maine Striped Bass Survey. 1941.  “A Report on the Abundance and Location of Striped Bass in Maine Waters with Charts, Descriptive Matter and Latest Information for Anglers.”