At Cocheco Falls

Cocheco Falls sits at the center of my small city. The tide rises and falls eight to ten feet at its base twice a day, connecting the downtown to the Atlantic Ocean 15 or so miles downstream. The river once provided the power to run textile mills that turned out world-famous calico in the 19th century. Dramatically, the river itself runs through an arch in the long building before turning sharply into an extended oxbow on its way to the sea.

Recently, the retaining wall on one side of the falls and a dam on top began to sag. The wall had once been overshadowed by another large mill that fell to fire years ago and is now a bank parking lot. Something had to be done before a cavein.

What’s going in is a whole new design, one that apparently will give people closer views of the cascading waters and the fish ladder beside it.

It’s a dramatic touch, one that reflects the magical attraction of waters in motion through the shifting seasons. Sometimes merely a trickle comes over the flashboards on the dam. Other times it’s so gushing so forcefully the entire mill building shakes.

In winter, deer have even had to be rescued from the rocks, or we’ve watched otters swimming in openings above the dam.

Who wouldn’t want to stop here for a moment?

What helps is having a vision of what a downtown can be. What’s unique to each place?

Dover’s been fortunate to have an economic development director and a city planner who find ways to get things done – often small things – as well Kiwanis and Rotary clubs and a Main Street organization that keep stepping up with improvements.

Crucially, the planning has the concept of pedestrian friendly. Or, as my wife likes to say, “civilized.” We can walk to downtown for a drink or a snack.

Not every town has a waterfall, after all. Let’s make the best of it, then.

Gone is the retaining wall that gave passersby a view of the falls from above. I’m hoping the new walkway will follow the fish ladder to the tide below.
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The changing face of downtown Dover

The Robbins Block storefronts are now gone and a five-story Orpheum is rising in their place. The hardware store, lower right, is still there. From the top left are the library, community center, and district court.

When I moved to New Hampshire 32 years ago, downtown Dover – like many other city centers across northern New England – had definitely seen better days. The old textile mill dominating the heart of the city was largely boarded up, and the retail stores that remained did so out of faith and loyalty and family tradition. How could they hold out against the big-box stores at the mall?

And then along came some visionary developers like the late Joseph Sawtelle and David Bamford, as a turnaround slowly took hold. Sawtelle restored the mill as it welcomed offices and incubated entrepreneurial businesses, while Bamford rebuilt mixed-use retail and housing on Central Avenue – some of it tastefully looking more natively New England than what it replaced.

Now that I’ve been a Dover resident the past 19 years, let me say it’s wonderful living within walking distance of a living downtown, one with a small-town feel. As I tell my wife, when we venture out for a weekday brunch, many people drive halfway across the continent for this.

Big change is in the air, though. That center is shifting from being primarily a financial, retail, and office center to more of a residential destination, presumably for young adults, child-free couples, singles, and retirees – people looking for an urban setting close to the ocean and mountains.

Part of the shift has already happened with the top floors of the two biggest mills being converted to apartments, a reflection of soaring residential demand in our part of the state. But now it’s getting serious.

For a city of 30,000, having four significant and mostly residential buildings going up in the central business district is exciting, even before we get to the waterfront development about to unfold across the Washington Street bridge. (Admittedly, some of us do miss the quaint covered bridge for children and other pedestrians that was there when I moved to town 19 years ago, but I’ll go with the tradeoff – landing the children’s museum was a definite coup.)

This doesn’t just happen by accident. A lot of incremental steps over the past two decades have made this a more desirable place to live. And now it’s kicking in big time.

The former Strafford Bank building sits at the corner of Lower Square. The Barley Pub is gone, replaced by the Thirsty Moose.

Steeple repair

Scaffolding surrounds the St. John tower on Chapel Street. This view is from the other side of the Cocheco River.

When St. John Methodist moved from its home a block from the Upper Square in downtown Dover, the city acquired the landmark and converted it to low-cost housing. Today the spire is undergoing repair. A few years ago, the steeple on First Parish required similar maintenance.

The long yellow building at the top of the hill and the gray one to its right are new additions to the skyline.