How A Small, Little-Known River Once Powered An Economy And Shaped A Landscape

May 15, 2019

Patrons of a coffee shop in Florence, Massachusetts, along with their morning joe, get a dose of the sound of a small river that winds down from the hill towns of Hampshire County.

Michelle Marroquin of Easthampton was drawn to the spot at YUP Coffee Roasters.

"It inspires connection to an environment, to a space, to the place," she said. "Versus when you are indoors, and you don’t know where you are."

And yet Marroquin wasn't sure which river it was.

"Don’t ask me!" she laughed. "I don’t know what it’s called, even. What's it called? The Mill River?"

It doesn’t help this Mill River’s name recognition that there are lots of mill rivers throughout New England — and even within 10 miles of here, said environmental historian John Sinton.

"There’s one up in Whately, in North Hatfield, there is one over in Sunderland. There's one in North Amherst," he said. Sinton is author of "Devil's Den to Lickingwater: The Mill River Through Landscape and History."

John Sinton on the banks of the Mill River in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

Sinton, 80, said this river takes him back to a river from his childhood in California. He would ride on his father’s shoulders as they floated downstream.  

"It simply fills me with joy just to be here," he said. "I love to see it when it’s quiet. I love to see it when it’s loud and noisy. Every place I go on this river has a story to tell."

On a road trip along the river, Sinton shared some of those stories with me. We drove to a spot on Old Springfield Road, near the border of Northampton and Easthampton, where the flood waters stopped us.

The Connecticut River was just off to the right.

"The mouth of the Mill River is right here running into the oxbow," Sinton said.

Spring floods temporarily cut off Old Springfield Road in Northampton, Massachusetts. The site is at the mouth of the Mill River near the Connecticut River oxbow.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
Near the oxbow in Northampton, Massachusetts, where the Mill River spills into the Connecticut River.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

This is where the river spits out everything it has carried about 20 miles downstream from its source in the hills of Goshen.

"Rivers actually create the landscape," Sinton said. "They create the valleys. They push water and sediment downstream, depositing it on the flatlands where people live."

And that has shaped human communities in the area going back centuries.

Not far from the oxbow, we came to an intersection of three roads in Northampton, where the Nonotuck Indians once planted corn, beans and squash together in mounds. A 1920 photograph from the location showed the mounds still there.

"They had these semi-permanent, or permanent, corn hills that lasted for decades, maybe even centuries, that were planted over and over again," Sinton said.

The corn hills, which are no longer visible, were planted in a meadow — part of the Mill River’s flood plain — where the river deposited rich soil. Nearby, a Nonotuck settlement on Fort Hill was hugged by the Mill River on three sides.

Nonotuck corn hills in a Northampton, Massachusetts meadow in 1920.
Credit American Anthropological Association / anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com / Public Domain

About a mile upstream, along the banks of Paradise Pond at Smith College, trees were blooming. Swallows swooped over the water.

At one time, this pond wasn’t so pastoral, according to Sinton.

"This pond that’s very nostalgic for everybody around here, Paradise Pond — this nostalgic, this wonderful, this rural place is, in fact, the industrial center of the city of Northampton," Sinton said.

In a spot where water once cascaded over rocks, a dam was built here in 1666. Early on, it powered a grist mill. Later, in 1866, a four-story factory made farm tools.

"Hoes, and rakes and scythes," Sinton said. "It was very loud. It was as loud as the dam was, with pounding hammers. It produced some of the most wonderful products that the town of Northampton ever produced."

Paradise Pond at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR
A map of the Mill River, as shown in the book "Devil's Den to Lickingwater: The Mill River Through Landscape and History," by John Sinton.
Credit Transit Authority Figures / Courtesy John Sinton

The water that powered these early mills flowed down to Northampton from Williamsburg. The mills there and in Haydenville, Leeds and Florence multiplied in the 1700s and 1800s. They made brass, buttons, and brushes as well as wool cloth and silk thread.

But one day, the mills as far downstream as Leeds were silenced.

"All of a sudden in 1874, on that day in May when the dam burst and 600 million gallons of water poured out of this steep valley here," Sinton said.

In Williamsburg, the "dam disaster" was, at that point — as Sinton writes in his book — "America’s deadliest industrial accident."

On the east branch of the Mill River, a big earthen dam gave way. It had been overfilled on purpose to make sure the mills would have enough water in the drier season. Melting spring snow added to the high levels.

Sinton said the sound of the flood was thunderous.

"Had you been here, you would have been swept away in a 30-foot wave of water downstream," he said. "It was trees and houses and animals and carcasses. It was everything all churned up in a huge mass. It was like the end of the world."

Men galloped on horseback ahead of the flood, warning mill workers and residents. But 139 people died, 50 in Leeds alone — many of them women and children who worked and lived at the mills.

Much of the debris landed miles away from the dam in the meadows in Florence.

An 1874 illustration depicts a "bird's-eye view" of the Williamsburg dam disaster, originally published in "Harper's Weekly."
Credit Theodore R. Davis / Harper & Brothers / Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association / Public Domain

A year later, the state of Massachusetts passed its first dam safety regulations.

"This dam disaster really spelled the end — the doom — of several of the mills downstream, and totally wiped out one small village. It never returned," Sinton said.

That was the village of Skinnerville. There were other disasters — natural ones — like the floods of 1927 and 1936, which turned Northampton’s streets into rivers. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers then diverted the river to prevent flooding.

A 1936 photo shows flooding on Pleasant Street in Northampton, Massachusetts. This view looks toward Main Street. After the flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers diverted the Mill River.
Credit Courtesy Forbes Library, Northampton, Mass. / forbeslibrary.org

Sinton said people have often turned their backs on rivers.

"Why? Because they're industrial," he said. "They powered things, and they were not pretty. They were only pretty when the industries died. And even then, it takes a lot of work to resuscitate them."

Sinton, and other volunteers, are breathing new life into the Mill River by building access to it through a greenway of trails and bike paths.  

On a trail just below the dam disaster site, Sinton stooped down, reached into the water and turned over a fist-sized rock.

"Here! You see. Take a look at that," he said. "This is a little mayfly nymph."

Sinton wants kids — the future river keepers — to have the same kind of river joy he had as a child.