Culture Spotlight

Stevens Brook Pond: A bit of the back story

| Joanne Cole |

There’s more to Stevens Brook Pond than you might guess as you drive by on Gloucester Hill Road.  The pond is scenic and significant for wildlife, is a fishing destination, and is important for fire suppression.  It also has an interesting and unusual history. 

Landscape and wildlife.  Stevens Brook Pond is an impoundment created by a dam beside Gloucester Hill Road, with the Lower Cemetery on one side and the pond on the other.  A spillway and culvert carry excess water away and under the road deck, through the cemetery, and on to the Royal River. 

The pond is fed by Stevens Brook, named for one of the town’s earliest settlers, William Stevens, who lived in the Block House before building a log cabin on the banks of the stream.  The stream powered the first grist mill in New Gloucester, erected in 1758. Its millstone now rests in front of Town Hall. 

Stevens Brook originates in the woods east of Route 100 and west of South Estes Road.  It creates a small water lily-dotted pond beside Church Road, then crosses under the road via culvert and makes its way to fill the larger pond on Gloucester Hill Road.

Stevens Brook Pond is not just scenic; it’s stocked.  Resourceful birds have taken note.  The pond is visited by herons, mallard ducks, and the occasional eagle. It’s also popular in-season with muskrats and beavers.  Foxes have been spotted patrolling the shoreline.  Cattails, water lilies, and a surround of pines and hardwoods complete the picture.     

A mallard trio heads for the pond’s marshes

Recreational fishing.  The pond has been a fishing spot designated for kids since 1964.  Passersby might assume the town sets the rules.  But in fact, the fishing is regulated by Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, and not just the pond but also the stream, from the point where Stevens Brook crosses Church Road, and on through the woods to and including the pond. 

Today the pond and stream are together designated as “special opportunity waters,” one of only four in Cumberland County.  Locals might assume that means kids-only—anglers under age 16—but the pond and stream are open to anyone eligible for a complimentary state fishing license.  Disabled veterans and visually impaired residents, among others, are eligible. 

Brook trout make the trip to town from the state’s Dry Mills hatchery in Gray a few times each spring, says Todd Langevin, IF&W’s superintendent of hatcheries.  In a typical year 100 brook trout arrive in mid-April, 200 more in early May, and another 200 in mid-May, he said.  James Pellerin, regional fisheries biologist, adds that brook trout are the species of choice because they’re native to the stream system and provide “the best angler returns for a ‘put-and-take’ water like Stevens Brook Pond.” 

Special opportunity waters though these may be, they are still subject to state bag limits: two brook trout per day. 

The brook before it reaches the pond

Fire protection history.  The pond became a pond 80 years ago, thanks to the foresight and generosity of citizens with deep roots in the community and whose descendants still live here.  Lore has it that the agreement to dam the Stevens Brook stream was done on a handshake.  What is certain is that Harry True and Willis Libby were the two principals.  True was fire chief at the time and concerned to protect the Lower Village against fire, and Willis Libby was the property owner whose land would be flooded by the impoundment.   

In 1941 Chief True wrote in the annual Town Report, “I recommend that some provision be made for fire protection at the Lower Village.”  Accordingly, Article 44 of the 1941 town meeting warrant reads as follows: “To see if the Town will vote to construct one or more water holes from which to draw water for the fire protection of New Gloucester Village, and raise a sum of money for that purpose.”

Almost as quaint as the notion of a handshake deal is the cost of building the dam.  Voters appropriated $100 for the project, and the 1942 town annual report itemizes the expenses right down to the penny—cement at 80 cents per bag—along with the pay for the ten builders, one of whom was Chief True himself.  Although there’s no explicit breakdown, their hourly pay appears to have been about 40 cents an hour. 

The following year Chief True could officially report that “there has been a dam constructed on Stevens Brook, for the protection of the Lower Corner,” although not quite completed.  It was finished that summer for an additional $12.50.  The dam project just barely slid in under budget, at a total cost of $96.56.    

With the stream dammed, the pond was initially a no-frills fire pond.  Water was pumped from the pond to fight fires directly or replenish a tanker.  Long-time resident Dick Cadigan recalls turning out as a student from the then-high school (now the New Gloucester library) and laying hose directly from the pond in response to fire calls.       

Next-level fire protection arrived in the 1980s with installation of a dry hydrant at the pond.  They’re called “dry” hydrants because the system isn’t pressurized, unlike their hydrant cousins in the Upper Village water district or in cities.  Ponds with dry hydrants offer dependable access and, most years, a reliable supply of water, critical for fighting fires in a dispersed rural setting like ours.     

A Durham Road fire pond and dry hydrant in fall

The dry hydrant at Stevens Brook Pond came about thanks to Cecil Libby, son of Willis Libby who had consented in 1941 to the flooding of his land.  In September 1981 Cecil Libby formally granted the New Gloucester Fire Department permission “to build and maintain a stone retaining wall, dry hydrant, and parking area” on the northeasterly side of Stevens Brook.  Fire Chief Willard O. Morrison accepted on behalf of the town.  Granite foundation stones from Libby’s barn were used to build the parking area’s retaining wall.  Those stones remain in place today.

Dry hydrants today.  Dry hydrants like the one at Stevens Brook Pond play a key role in fire suppression even now.  National Fire Protection Association guidance explains why: “Mobile water supply vehicles can move water from distant sources, but the critical factor is whether or not the fire department can maintain an uninterrupted supply of a predictable rate of water at the fire scene.”  Dry hydrants provide critical support by re-filling tankers or engines shuttling to a fire or as a direct source for hoses if the fire is close by.     

The town currently has more than 20 year-round dry hydrants scattered across our 50 or so square miles, many of them tied to man-made ponds.  The department organizes hydrants by district so that firefighters can quickly determine the closest sources in a given area of town. 

A wall map at the station shows the town’s fire districts

Maintenance includes plowing for winter access, as well as periodic testing, cleaning, and dredging to remove sediments and decaying vegetation to ensure the needed depth and volume of water.

Because it’s stream-fed, the Stevens Brook Pond dry hydrant is particularly reliable, says NG Fire Captain Hale Fitzgerald.  “It’s an easy source to get a lot of water,” he says.  The generous size of the pond clearly helps, but the less obvious reason is that the surface of the pond is high and close to the standpipe.  For contrast, he points to the dry hydrant at the Atwood Road pond (off the Intervale Road) which requires significant lift.  There are limits to the lift even powerful pumps can handle. 

Diagram

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A fish inspects an intake screen | image from ETT Fire

The parking area by the pond’s dry hydrant wasn’t intended for convenience when taking the kids fishing, but instead for fire equipment access and safety.  Fitzgerald says the broad area at Stevens Brook Pond means firefighters can fill multiple vehicles and turn around.  The location is also ideal for training, he adds.  Clearly, Chief Morrison and Cecil Libby knew what they were doing when they agreed in 1981 that the Stevens Brook Pond dry hydrant include a parking area.

Above all, Fitzgerald said, the dry hydrant at Stevens Brook Pond is important because of the potential fire load in the area it serves. Understandably, a professional firefighter like Fitzgerald looks around the Lower Village and sizes up the fire load: a dense concentration of multistory buildings in close proximity, older materials, outbuildings, designs from pre-sprinkler times.  It’s also a fire load in a district that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, not least because of the Congregational Church and the Town Hall complex. 

Fire load and water supply needs are best illustrated with examples.  Fitzgerald explains that New Gloucester can send 7000+ gallons of water from the station: two engines, each with 1000-gallon capacity, and two tankers with 2500-gallon capacity apiece.  Recalling the garage fire on Rustic Way last year, Fitzgerald said that 20,000 to 25,000 gallons of water were used to fight that fire and protect the home.  The need for mutual aid and nearby sources of resupply becomes clear in instances like the Rustic Way fire.  

Even a smaller fire is plenty thirsty.  A recent RV fire on Weymouth Road used 2500 gallons of water in about thirty minutes, according to the department’s incident report.  And that was to subdue a fire that didn’t threaten a home or other buildings. 

Every fire is different, but what’s indisputable is that firefighting demands a substantial supply of water and the town’s dry hydrants, including at Stevens Brook Pond, help meet the need. 

The back story of Stevens Brook and its pond in brief?  Historic, beautiful, bountiful and also useful.  The stream no longer drives a water-wheel to work a grindstone—you’ll have to take your corn crop someplace else to be milled—but what was lost for milling has been more than made up for in habitat and recreation, and for fire protection, the pond’s most valuable role and the one townfolk hope is needed least often.   

Photos: Joanne Cole