Another Day in Paradise April 26, 2012 posted by nbpttoday

Tom’s Take: Looking Below the Surface

Years ago, in the time before children, the Mrs. and I traveled very little. I regret it a bit, but we had an old house that required a lot of TLC and MONEY. When we did travel we steered clear of beaches, resorts and tried to find a bit of fun off the beaten path.

One such trip led us to our favorite restaurant in the world. Another led us to Flagstaff, Maine.

Or rather it led us over Flagstaff, Maine.

Flagstaff no longer exists. In the 1950s, the lovely, New England village near the Rangeley Lakes region in Maine was literally consumed by a bold, controversial plan that changed the region forever.

Central Maine Power, in a bid to create a large enough source of power to sell energy across the expanse of Maine and beyond, damned the Dead River with Long Falls Dam. The dammed water had to go somewhere, and that somewhere was the former sites of Flagstaff Plantation, Dead River Plantation or the Bigelow Township. (I’m drawing heavily from this account of the University of Maine.)

The three communities literally stood in the way of progress (as measured by the construction of a dam).

CMP, through eminent domain, bought most of the properties and homes in town to make room for the new lake. A few hold outs refused to sell but nevertheless were forced to abandon their homes when the waters came. A few structures, perhaps monuments to the unwavering opposition of their owners, remain even today and can still be spotted by those who know where to look.

What’s left is Flagstaff Lake. By the usual measures, surrounded by wooded hills and logging roads, Flagstaff Lake presents a pretty picture:  untouched natural beauty, long stretches of placid water, rolling hills of pines, bald eagles soaring high above …

But there’s a difference.

The place has an odd, unnatural feel. Upon further review, the shorelines don’t look right. As we approached our launch point with the boats, a strange array of boulders looked out of place. Once we were out on the water, things got even stranger or felt stranger, as if something wasn’t quite right.

That feeling cemented in our consciousness as we came upon an asphalt road that emerges from the woods and runs right into the water, disappearing as it finds its way to the village center somewhere in the depths of the lake. (Apparently, it reappears in the middle of the lake as this You Tube video demonstrates.)

Part of the beauty of Maine Lakes, at least to me, is the knowledge that a lake and the surrounding mountains always have stood and always will stand, relatively speaking, of course. The troubles of man don’t matter; these things will last. I see God in this true reality.

Flagstaff Lake offers no such comfort. It looks pretty, but it’s not real. Powerful people made the lake in a literal bid for more power, and people mourn, even today.

So what does this have to do with Newburyport? The name Flagstaff can be traced to Benedict Arnold. His invasion force camped there on their way to Quebec and erected a flagstaff where they hung the flag of a still unborn nation. Arnold, of course, made his way to Maine through Newburyport. The expedition marched north from Boston to Newburyport before boarding boats that carried them up the Kennebec River.

But there’s a more current commonality. As I mentioned in last month’s column, I’ll never know the feeling of a Newburyport native. But I sometimes wonder whether they look at downtown Newburyport the same way the residents of Flagstaff see their one-time town.

Newburyport was deluged with money, not water. First the Federal HUD monies washed over the downtown, taking out the neighborhoods around Unicorn Street and the businesses that once operated down by the water. That first wave of bulldozers awoke the preservationist spirit in forward thinking residents at the time, convincing them to save what was still left.

Then came the developers, federal agencies and the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority (of which I’m now a sitting member) to scrub away the blight that had overtaken the town. In its place, a vibrant downtown once again emerged.

Finally, the newcomers bought the homes of former natives who for one reason or another decided they wouldn’t or couldn’t stay in Newburyport any longer. Then we worked to make Newburyport our home as well. (In my case, I bought the house from the person who bought out the native.)

The difference between natives and newcomers is the latter group sees Newburyport for what it is, a comfortable, lovely and lively city that’s ideal for leading a comfortable and vital life.

But I have the think the natives and long-time residents harbor quite a different view when they gaze downtown. Just like the residents of Flagstaff, they still see their old homes and shops even through they were buried by dollars, dreams and thousands of red bricks.

As uncomfortable as that must feel, they’re fortunate to have spent an entire lifetime in this unique and lovely city. I hope my sons have the chance to make that claim someday. (The Boy boosted my spirits on a bike ride the other day when he declared, “I like living in Newburyport.”) But I think it’s helpful to acknowledge the degree of change that natives and long-timers have witnessed.

Like Flagstaff Lake, Newburyport is a beautiful place but to some there’s a different story just below the surface.

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