Mill River Alewife Restoration

Achieving the Impossible


In the year 1920 fisheries biologist David Belding completed a survey of the condition and possibility of development of the alewife fishery of Massachusetts. The following is his assessment of the potential for alewife restoration in Mill River.

Mill River, formed by the union of Canoe River and Mulberry Brook, passes through Winneconet Pond and Sabatia Lake to empty into the Taunton River. Since it is badly polluted by manufacturing wastes, and obstructed by dams, the re-establishment of the old fishery is an impossibility.”

Today, in 2005 what David Belding considered impossible can become a reality. Through the years, and through the hard work of many Mill River is no longer fouled by the sort of pollution that David Belding must have witnessed. The only obstacles to alewife restoration are four physical barriers, dams, which have no passage for sea run fish. The most significant of these obstructions was the Whittenton Dam, its height, age and instability made it unsuitable for a fish ladder. Because of this Mill River has not been an attractive candidate for fishery restoration until now.

Recent events which led to the removal of Whittenton Dam and the installation of a friendlier, perhaps temporary structure opened the door for restoration of this once bountiful watershed. It has given us an opportunity to achieve what was thought to be impossible 85 years ago.

New news from Old Cohannet

The wheels of restoration turn slowly at times but turn they do. Late this summer dam removal should be underway on the first Mill River Dam at the State Hospital. Once again our persistent friends the herring were below it this spring checking things out. Follow the links below for updates and info.

Feasibility Study...... HERE

Project Summary...... HERE


It Goes Beyond Fishery Restoration.

The challenge Mill River presents us with today is; how do we want future generations to view our reflection in it? The opportunity we have today to define and determine the future of this river is unique. Since the time native folk broke down their last fishing camp at Cohannet, and for some 300 years since, the Mill Rivers fate has been determined and defined by industry. Today it no longer is, free of its former constraints, like a fresh canvas, it awaits our brush strokes.

Each individual river has its own character, its own footprint on the canvas. The footprint of Mill River is quite different from other tributary streams of the Taunton River. In many ways it is a smaller version of its parent stream, the Taunton River. Unlike the Nemasket or Town Rivers, the lower basin of the Mill was transformed into a sprawling manufacturing center. The upper watershed of Mill River is made up of ponds, wide wetlands and forested areas drained by numerous brooks and streams. The fact that the lower basin of Mill River has been heavily developed and remains so makes it of no lesser value than its more “natural” sister streams. It makes it no less worthy for restoration efforts. In fact, Mill Rivers unique foot print offers us an opportunity that few other streams do, an opportunity to restore and recognize its natural history while celebrating our own history of industry and innovation. In a circular sort of way, it has been our continued innovative industriousness through the past three hundred years that has provided us with this unique opportunity today.

Care must be taken not to apply our brush strokes on two separate canvases for this undertaking. Too often we make the mistake of partitioning off parts of the whole as if they were separate entities. These boundaries do not exist within watersheds. River and stream names have no meaning in the workings of water, they are a creation all our own.

Continuity, flow and exchange are essential for a rivers ecological well being. The flow and exchange of energy from freshwater to salt was vital to the ecology of the Mill River Watershed before dams were built. Much of this ecological energy is exchanged in the form of river herring.

How would river herring restoration benefit the Mill River watershed and the Taunton River watershed? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is by visiting the Nemasket River several miles upstream of the Mill River.

An often repeated observation of people traveling the Nemasket is its abundance of life. From its headwaters to the Taunton River paddler’s delight in the bald eagles, ospreys, great blue herons, green herons, bitterns, night herons and kingfishers to name but a few. River otters, mink, muskrats, raccoons and foxes also surprise the quiet river traveler, both by their tracks in the mud and in person. Fishermen tell stories of the game fish of Assawompsett and Nemasket, how they are bigger than those of other rivers and ponds. This abundance is no accident; consider the herring for a moment.

About two million adult alewives swam up the Taunton River and on through Nemasket to spawn in the Assawompsett Pond complex in 2002. Think of that in terms of fuel for the ecosystem, it is an irreplaceable source of food for all creatures higher on the food chain. Beyond the obvious benefits of adult river herring as a food source for larger creatures, consider the often over looked contribution of juvenile herring.  

Assuming half of the adults migrating into the Assawompsett Ponds were female, there were approximately one million egg-laying females casting eggs in the ponds. A single adult female river herring lays about one hundred thousand eggs; therefore approximately one hundred billion herring (100,000,000,000,000.) eggs were cast in the Assawompsett Pond complex in 2002. Of the one hundred thousand eggs cast by each female perhaps 1,000 will grow large enough to migrate out of the ponds. Therefore through late summer and fall in the year 2002 approximately five hundred million two inch long alewives migrated down Nemasket with hopes of reaching the Taunton River and Mount Hope Bay. Three years later in the spring of 2005 only one adult alewife will return to Assawompsett for each one hundred thousand eggs cast. For every one thousand juveniles that set out for Mount Hope Bay from Assawompsett only one adult will return to spawn. What does this mean? It means that Assawompsett is the grocery store and Nemasket is the conveyor belt which delivers this incredible bounty to all the critters that abound in Nemasket and beyond. The impacts of such numbers are just too big to be ignored. The contribution of a restored Mill River System would have a significant ecological impact from Winnicunnet Pond and Sabbatia Lake to Mount Hope Bay.

The primary headwater ponds of Mill River are Sabbattia Lake 266 acres, Watson Pond 100 acres and Winnicunett Pond 140 acres. In total these ponds offer about 400 acres of preferred alewife spawning habitat. This amount of acreage is equivalent to Lake Nippinecket which is the headwaters of the Town River in Bridgewater. Despite problems with inefficient fishways in the past, Lake Nippinecket has supported a run of over one hundred thousand fish and has the potential to support one half million or more.

Snipatuit Pond in the Town of Rochester, although somewhat larger could be used for comparison as well. Snipatuit Pond is the headwater pond of the Mattapoisett River. Town Reports of 1906 recorded that the total herring catch for Mattapoisett River was 626.000 alewives, 1907 reports recorded a catch of 465.000 alewives. 

If passage were provided on the Mill River we could expect to see a run of several hundred thousand herring in the future. The only system in the Taunton River Watershed with more unrealized potential is Satucket River and its headwater ponds, Robbins and Monponsett. 

Continuity and flow are also important factors from a human use and viewing perspective. Our architecture strives for it in landscapes, cityscapes, and in individual dwellings. When Fredrick Law Olmstead designed Queset Brook and the meadow it runs through at Sheep Pasture he did not partition it off with barriers and dams. He allowed it to flow, bend and turn through the meadow, pleasing the minds eye. It is interesting to think about; what our human designs in architecture strive for is what free flowing rivers deliver naturally. We strive to design living spaces to flow seamlessly into one another like a river because it pleases us, yet at the same time we allow dams with no purpose to clutter and destroy the continuity of our rivers.

The four dams which fragment the continuity of the Mill River need to be looked at with fresh eyes today in 2005. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to be the architects of the space and ecology of Mill River. We should view ourselves as such, and look into it with the same careful creative thought that an architect would. The goal should be to reconnect the watershed, maximizing its ecological diversity and wellness while making it more accessible and highlighting its cultural richness and diversity.

From the book History of Taunton a vision of Cohannet


The ancient purchasers, of whom some account has been given in preceding chapters, were drawn hither from various localities in the old country, and from a temporary residence in other parts of the new, by the reports of special advantages for a permanent settlement which had reached them. Among these may be mentioned the chance for subsistence from the fisheries. What is now known as Mill River had long been visited by the Indian Tribes, in spring time, for herring, which came in immense quantities, almost filling the river to its banks. We have documentary evidence from a direct descendant of one of the first settlers, not far from the year 1700, that this was so, and these settlers guarded nothing with greater care than these same fisheries, which gained for them the reputation of being a herring town. The Indian name of the town was given it, according to this same authority, not from its much snow, as has sometime been said, but from certain falls in the Mill River, which fixed the spot where, at their first coming, the white men built their grist mill.

'The Indian name for Taunton is Cohannet, at first given to the falls in ye Mill River where the old Mill (so called) now stands, being the most convenient place for catching alewives of any in those parts. The ancient standers remember that hundreds of Indians would come from Mount Hope and other places every year in April, with great dancings and shoutings to catch fish at Cohannit and set up theyr tents about that place until the season for catching alewives was past and would load their backs with burdens of fish & load ye canoes to carry home for their supply for the rest of the year and a great part of the support of ye natives was from the alewives. 

The first English planters in Taunton found great relief from this sort of fish, both for food & raysing of corne and prized them so highly that they took care that when Goodman Linkon first craved leave to set up a grist mill at that place, a town vote should be passed that fish should not be stopped. It is well known how much other Towns are advantaged by this sort of fish. Middleboro will not permit any dam for any sort of mills to be made across their river to stop the course of fish nor would they part with the privilege of the fish if any would give them a thousand pounds and wonder at ye neighboring town of Taunton, that suffer themselves to be deprived of so great a privilege.

It seems to be a sort of fish appropriated by Divine Providence to Americans and most plentifully afforded to them so that remote towns as far as Dunstable (as we hear) have barreld y'm up and preserved them all winter for their reliefe. No wonder then that the poor people of Taunton were so much concerned when such sort of a dam was made at Cohannit that should quite stop the fish from going up the river and therefore prosecuted the man that did it in ye law (which process in law how it came to a full stop as it did is mysterious and unaccountable) and it was difficult to persuade the aggrieved people to forbear using violence to open a passage for ye fish and to keep in the path of law for y'r reliefe.

It is very strange and matter for lamentation that those who complain'd for want of fish were so much derided and scoff'd at as contemptible persons. Strange that any of mankind should slight & despise such a noble and bountiful gift of Heaven as this is of the plenty of this sort of fish afforded to Americans for their support; nay, 'tis very sinful that instead of rendering thanks to our Maker and Preserver for the good gift of his Providence for our support, that wee should despise them. Be sure, many, who formerly saw not that stopping the fish would be so great a damage to the Publick are now fully satisfied that it is an hundred pound damage in one year to Taunton to be deprived of these fish & as the town increases in number of people, the want of them will be found & perceived more and more every year.

These fish may be catcht by the hands of children in theyr nets while the parents have y'r hands full of work in the busy time of Spring to prepare for planting. Some of Taunton have been forced to buy Indian corn every year since the fish were stopped, who while they fisht, they'r ground used to have plenty of corne for y'r family & some to spare to others. The cry of the poor every year for want of the fish in Taunton is enough to move the bowels of compassion in any man, that hath not an heart of stone."

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