Penobscot River system

In November 2003, the Court ordered a study of the mercury in the Penobscot River

Home > Environment > Background


The Penobscot River and Estuary has played an important role in the social and economic fabric of the area, providing food, transportation, and access to resources such as timber.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the area was inhabited by members of the Penobscot Indian Nation. The first European explores arrived in the late 1500s. In 1604, Samuel de Champlain sailed up the River and met a local native tribe and began fur trading. However, the first permanent European settlement did not occur until 1769.

Bangor soon became the region’s financial and commercial center. Maine’s rich lumber resources spurred growth. Throughout the 1800s, the lumber and shipbuilding boom was responsible for creating many fortunes in the area. While the River proved to be a good log driving waterway, it was also an important means of transport for people and goods.

In 1824, the River became home to the steam ship “the Maine”; sailing between Bath and Bangor with a number of stops along the way. As the population increased so too did the number of steamship companies needed to service the rivers and coastal areas. While growth occurred in areas such as Bangor and Bucksport, where transportation access was readily available, the ability to cross the River presented a barrier for further growth. Ferries helped address this barrier until the first bridge connecting Brewer and Bangor was constructed in 1832.

Weather, and in particular winter weather, provided many challenges for transportation along the River. Floods destroyed bridges and river ice (during the winter) hindered travel. In 1874, a railroad was opened between Bangor and Bucksport connecting upstream locations where ice often prevented transport.

As automobiles became an important and accessible form of transportation, ferry use declined. In 1931, a new bridge connecting Waldo and Hancock counties opened to support this increased vehicle traffic. The Waldo-Hancock Bridge supported the transportation needs of the area for more than 70 years before deterioration warranted its replacement. In 2006, the new bridge, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, opened.

The fisheries industry has played an important role in the social and economic makeup of the area. Soon after settlement occurred near Bangor and Bucksport, commercial fishing of migratory fish began. A number of species became the foundation of the booming industry, including Atlantic salmon, American shad, and alewife. Commercial fisheries (high seas netting and weir) were active up to 1947 when all commercial fishing became illegal. In 1965, Congress passed the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act to help restore salmon, shad, and striped bass.

Human-related impacts from dams, water pollution and overfishing contributed to a near collapse of the sea-run fish species in the Estuary. Over the years a number of hydroelectric dams were built along the River upstream of Bangor. Restoration efforts along the River to improve fish passage has resulted in the removal of some dams, such as the Great Works Dam in 2012, the Veazie Dam in 2013, and the modification of others to enable fish passage.

The River’s watershed has a rich cultural history of commercial, recreational and subsistence fishing. Members of the Penobscot Indian Nation live on part of their ancestral land on Indian Island, surrounded by Penobscot River waters. Many of the place names in the area have names that originated with the Penobscot Indian Nation, who named places based on the richness of migratory fish. Archaeological evidence, such as bones, shows native inhabitants on the Penobscot fished for American shad as early as 8,000 years ago and for sturgeon as early as 3,000 years ago.

The area of interest for the Phase III Study includes the counties of Hancock, Penobscot, and Waldo, which collectively represent approximately 19% of the total population of Maine based on the 2010 census (United States Census Bureau, 2015).

Human activities have impacts on the biological environment. These impacts may include decreases to fish and other wildlife populations and habitat, reduction of water quality and benthos (plants and animals whose habitat is the bottom or sediment of waterbodies), eutrophication (excess nutrients that result in a lack of oxygen) or undesirable algae and pollution from industrial activities. These impacts are felt by humans through the loss of recreational opportunities, closure of lobster and crab fisheries, loss of fish for subsistence fishing by Penobscot Indian Nation, and restrictions on consumption.

© Penobscot River 2020 | Legal disclaimer | Cookies and privacy