COLCHESTER - When you look at the numbers it can be a daunting task: more than 4,000 dams span streams and rivers across the state – a testament to the power of the state's early industries. The Connecticut River watershed? The most dammed watershed in North America according to The Nature Conservancy.
One of those dams is at the old Norton Paper Mill along the Jeremy River in the Westchester section of Colchester. Highly visible along Route 149 near its intersection with Route 2, the scenic dam is one of those places you check out after a heavy rain or a cold spell. A photo of the dam even graces the top of the town's homepage.
The town will need to find another photo subject after the summer of 2015. The town, Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is teaming up to remove the dam and the burnt-out ruins of the old paper mill. The plan is to not only restore a run for migratory fish, but also create a park where the mill once stood.
"You have 17 miles of really nice habitat behind the dam that fish can't access," said Sally Harold, who handles the Conservancy's migratory fish projects. "It's a complete barrier to high-quality, diverse and healthy habitat above the dam. Atlantic salmon are in very few rivers, but we know they are coming back to this one...this is a unique opportunity to capture so many miles of stream."
According to a 1930 Hartford Courant article, the paper mill traces its roots back to 1886 when C.H. Norton operated a grist mill and saw mill handed down to him from his grandfather – who owned one of the oldest water rights in the state. The mill operated into the 1960s surviving two fires that completely destroyed the mill. The mill manufactured a variety of paper products from binder's board for book covers and button board for shoe and upholstery buttons.
The town recently secured a small town economic assistance program grant of $350,000 to fund demolition of the mill and the creation of a park so area residents and fishermen can reconnect with the waterway that merges into the Blackledge River to create the Salmon River. The river flows through Colchester, East Hampton and East Haddam into the Connecticut River. The only other dam along the route – located to the south in Leesville – has a fish ladder.
"The real meat of the project is restoring the river," Colchester Town Planner Adam Turner said. State Rep. Melissa Ziobron, who grew up in the area, applauded the team effort to bring the old mill and dam down. Work on the dam is expected to begin in late summer 2015 when water levels are seasonally low.
"For me, it's always looked liked the way it does right now," she said. "And it's right in the area where there are several access points to the Air Line Trail. It's an area we should be proud of without this eyesore. It's always been right there and taking it down will have an incredible visual impact of opening up the river and showcasing the natural vista and landscape."
"The Salmon, Blackledge and Jeremy River hold so many memories of my childhood for me. There were the rope swings that dropped you into deep, cold pockets of the river. There was snorkeling and observing dozens of salmon in the shadows of the boulders. There were the picnic suppers along its banks," Ziobron, said.
The rivers are places to be showcased and not turned away or shunned because of their ugliness. But the human history of the Norton Paper Mill is as much a part of the town and the river as its natural history. Hopefully there will be plans to preserve that legacy as well as the river.