Historical society: Leave Milford dams alone

MILFORD – The town’s Historical Society and Heritage Commission have come out against the removal of the two river dams, citing their historic value and the potential effect on the appearance of downtown Milford.

In a strongly worded letter, Milford Historical Society president David Palance said there hasn’t been enough study of the issues to justify the “removal of two important town landmarks.”

The letter is in the appendix of a dam removal feasibility study commissioned by the town to see whether removal of the Goldman and McLane dams is a good idea.

The Heritage Commission also weighed in against removal in even stronger language.

Loss of the Souhegan River dams would have a “serious detrimental effect on the historic Oval and downtown Milford” and the loss of the esthetics created by these impounded areas of river front would be beyond calculation,” wrote Chairman Chuck Worcester .

Without the dams, Emerson Park, which borders on the river, and the surrounding area would become “a blighted and neglected eyesore,” Worcester wrote.

The letters are addressed to Gomez and Sullivan Engineering, the Henniker firm that has been studying the feasibility of taking down the 19th century dams.

Federal agencies, such as NOAH, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the lead federal agency in this study, are required to take into account the effects of projects like dam removal on historic properties.

According to the report, neither dam is individually significant as an historic structure, but the impoundments they create contribute to the significance of the surrounding district, which has been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Dams serve as barriers to migrating fish when they block the free flow of water, and that’s the reason Trout Unlimited and other conservation organizations are helping pay for the study. The Merrimack Village Dam was removed in 2008, so the two Milford dams are the next barriers to fish passage.

Also supporting removal is the Merrimack River Watershed Council, which wrote a letter of strong support, saying removal would restore fish habitat in “one of the most important rivers on the East Coast.”

The Souhegan River Local Advisory Committee wrote that the dams “should have been removed long ago,” and the state Fish and Game Department said a free-flowing river is important to eel, shad, salmon and other fish.

The summary of the three-volume report from Gomez and Sullivan identified key issues in determining whether dam removal would be good for the town and for the river: potential flooding, water quality, fish passage, the costs of ownership, and the availability of grants for removal.

The town was prompted to study the idea of removal after the historic floods in 2007 and 2010, and officials wanted to see if the dams were a contributing factor in more than a million dollars’ worth of damage to the Brookstone Manor Apartments, the Boys and Girls Club, and other buildings along the west side of the Oval.

Both dams also require ongoing upkeep and maintenance and those costs are borne by the town, even though only McLane is owned by Milford. The Goldman Dam is owned by the Helen Goodwin estate, said to be held by a college student who has no means to maintain it, which means there could be potential long-term costs to taxpayers if the dams remain.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration favors removal, noting that the dams no longer have a function and the “ponding” behind the dams has resulted in a decline in water quality. The money to remove them would be “well spent given the ecological and recreation benefits.”

A few residents also submitted letters for the report, all opposed to removal.

The report says the flood-reduction benefit from removal of the Goldman dam would be minimal and the removal of McLane could potentially benefit seven landowners during 100-year flood conditions.

Removal costs are said to be an estimated $493,000 for McLane and between $285,000 and $332,000 for Goldman. Numerous funding sources are available, and they usually require a 50/50 match.

The McLane Dam was originally built in 1846, and the Goldman Dam in 1810, to help power the mills.

Selectmen have made no decision and they are expected to discuss the issue.

“In the end, the town and the Helen Goodwin estate will determine if the option is prudent, feasible and cost-effective.” the report concludes.

The report is available in Town Hall, the Wadleigh Memorial Library and on the town website.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 304, or kcleveland@