Maine's Penobscot River finally runs free after huge restoration project

(CBS News) BANGOR, Maine -- For the first time in 200 years, the Penobscot River in northeastern Maine is running free.

Billed as the largest river restoration project in the country, it took 10 years to get Penobscot River back to its natural state.
Billed as the largest river restoration project in the country, it took 10 years to get Penobscot River back to its natural state.
CBS News

Billed as the largest river restoration project in the country, it took 10 years and $62 million to get it back to its natural state.

Laura Rose Day
Laura Rose Day
CBS News

Laura Rose Day heads up the Penobscot River Restoration Trust. She says the river is coming back to life.

"I think that near death is a very accurate statement of where life in this river has been. We're really talking about fisheries that have been devastated," said Rose Day.

In the 1800s and 1900s, the river was a thriving hub for industry. Business prospered, but the natural balance and the once-flourishing fish population suffered. Years of fighting over the dams followed.

Then in 2003, there was a rare meeting of the minds among conservationists, industry and government.

In the 1800s and 1900s, the area along the river was a thriving hub for industry.
In the 1800s and 1900s, the area along the river was a thriving hub for industry.
CBS News

The parties agreed to a $62 million plan to remove two major dams and increase energy production at six other plants on the river's tributaries.

Scott Phillips
Scott Phillips
CBS News

"Unfortunately, the salmon are very severely depleted. Removing the dams and opening up access to about a thousand miles of habitat, it'll make a huge difference," said Rose Day.

A huge difference not only to the fish, but to the people.

The area around the river is also home to the Penobscot Indians, who have lived along these banks for thousands of years.

Scott Phillips is an ambassador to the Restoration Project.

Watch: Nature: Penobscot River

"This is the homeland for the Penobscot Nation. This section of the river was basically taken away from us for the last 180-200 years because the dam's impeded our travel on here and impeded the fish," said Phillips.

"We're not talking about rolling back the industrialized world here, we're talking about making some very strategic changes," said Rose Day.

"It's awesome to look at a river flowing through where a dam stood for 200 years and to think that we can get back some of what we've lost," she added.

It's once again a river where fish and people can thrive.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.