Carver Cotton Gin Mill Dam, East Bridgewater

 

This is the Carver Cotton Gin Mill Dam on the Satucket River in East Bridgewater. Many years ago it's fishway fell into disrepair and ceased to function. Since that time the dam has also fallen into a sorry and unsafe state of repair. Over the past year and a half we have been working towards the removal of this dam in order to restore both the Alewife runs and the river. Although Alewives were what originally drew our attention to this project there is much more at stake here on the Satucket. It is a question we ask and a theme we follow here. The question is what were our rivers like before industrialization, and how do we or should we return them to that state?

The following is an account of, and some insights into the trials and tribulations we have experienced in our efforts to remove the Carver Cotton Gin Mill Dam on the Satucket River.

All of the following photographs were taken after the spill gate was opened at the dam allowing the Satucket River to flow free once again.

The Satucket River

A 12,000 year old infant

 

Down in the riffles below the Carver Cotton Gin Mill dam the first of the Satucket's springtime visitors were arriving. Several young children gathered on the rusting steel bridge below. Fishing poles in hand one by one they tossed their offerings into the water. After several minutes of casting and reeling with no results their frustration with the big odd looking fish in the shallow water began to show. One boy kicked gravel into the river; another picked up larger stones and threw them down at the fish in disgust. The source of their frustration was the humble white sucker coming up the Satucket to spawn as they have since time immemorial. Normally a somewhat drab looking fish, the male suckers were now sporting their spring spawning coats. They appeared rich bronze color through the tannin stained water. Wide cream colored stripes running along their sides, shades of crimson danced on their undersides in the late afternoon sun. In a couple of weeks a similar scene would be repeated here this time with silver alewives fresh from the sea.                                                                                                   

 Although these two fish are quite different they are both driven by the same ancient force to swim upstream to spawn. For the alewives itís the lure of wide waters at Robbins and Monponsett Ponds. For the suckers itís the long rocky riffles that for so long had been flooded beneath the Satucketís impounded water. Unlike the suckers who would drift downstream of the dam to search for some small scrap of suitable spawning habitat. The alewives were driven by an irresistible urge to move upstream. From time to time I would stop by to visit them.

 As spring wore on they continued their constant vigil beneath the crumbling hulk of the impassable dam. Their bright sea colors had faded; many bore festering wounds inflicted by the beaks of blue herons and seagulls. Others lie dead, scattered among slabs of broken concrete. Off to the side of one such slab, an old moss covered snapping turtle appeared.  From his mouth hung the lifeless body of a battered alewife, its large glassy eye staring up through the mist toward the water cascading over the dam.                                 

 

 Carver Cotton Gin Mill Dam

A Difficult Decision

 

On August 14, 2001, the spill gate was opened at the Carver Cotton Gin Mill Dam due to its failing condition. As the impoundment drained, local citizens and members of the town boards became alarmed.  They were justifiably concerned about the townís wells and wetlands that lie along the Satucketís basin.  Shortly after the impoundment had drained, the damís owner informed the town that it was his intention to remove the structure. The town was now faced with a difficult decision. To take ownership of the dam and rebuild it, build another dam upstream on town property or do nothing and let the Satucket flow free. 

 Over the past several months, the townspeople have had an opportunity to meet and consult with many professionals in the fields of rivers and wetlands, from state and federal agencies as well as private and non-profit groups. The consensus reached by these river people was that the wells should be safe and although some of the wetlands would change in character there would be no significant loss in overall wetlands. They further assured everyone that both the wells and the wetlands issue could be definitively determined by taking some elevation measurements and doing some simple calculations. Despite all these assurances from these various river people, it was clear that something was still troubling those who were opposed to a free flowing Satucket.

 

 A Gathering by the River

 

At one of these meetings we gathered on a high bank overlooking a long meander, which had been underwater when the river was impounded. It was a place that was quite beautiful both as an impoundment and now as a free flowing river. The meeting had been going on for quite sometime, needing a break from all the technical talk, I took a seat on a nearby bench.

 Looking out over the river to the wide grassy flats that just a month before had been filled with lily pads and pickerel weeds, it occurred to  me that all the technical answers, diagrams drawn and future studies would still not put some of these folks at ease. It seemed the change itself rather than a threat to the river was the source of much of their uneasiness.

 Although we looked out over the river from the same vantage point we were clearly seeing two very different scenes. Not having grown up on the Satucket it was difficult for me to see the river as they did. Thinking back to my own special places where I grew up and how I felt about them, it dawned on me that this was perhaps not just a river to these folks. It was more like a living room so to speak, an extension of their own homes. Where as children they had played, swam and explored in comfortable surroundings, just as I had done in the special places of my youth.  Now suddenly it had all been changed. It was as if someone had come along and rearranged all the furniture, the familiar pictures on the walls were all different. The living room they had grown up in was now someone elseís; I wondered how I would feel standing in their shoes.

 While still sitting on the bench a bit lost in my thoughts, a young girl that had come along with her mom said hello to me. She took a seat on the bench and we began talking. After several minutes of exploring the trials and tribulations of grammar school, homework and other such things our attention turned to the stone memorial that sat in front of us overlooking the river. We agreed that it was a beautiful memorial.  The top of the stone had been carved into a birdbath. On the face of the stone was an etching of a great blue heron standing at the water edge. We proceeded to talk about great blue herons and how fortunate we were that so many of them lived close by. We laughed together when I stood and cocked my head sideways to imitate the herons that watch for passing alewives from the gravel bars of the Kennebec River. As our conversation continued, I found myself more and more detached from the more pressing discussions taking place along the riverbank.  We went on to discuss whether partridge really ate partridge berries and why the Indian pipes grew in one particular spot and not another. I was disappointed that the princess pines would not make smoke when we brushed our hands across their pollen cones. We agreed that they ought to be about ready to put on their smoky display in a couple more weeks. Looking back out to the river, I thought that perhaps it would be helpful if we could see the river through the eyes of a child.

 

 The walkway in the riffle

 

 Let us assume that our child has had the good fortune of growing up in the cradle of the Satucket; she is about twelve years old. She has seen the river as an impoundment and now she has had an opportunity to see it flowing free. For the moment we will assume that the dam is removed and the river remains free flowing. Let us also assume that our child has the gift of an insatiable curiosity towards nature. Perhaps one of the most precious and enduring gifts a child can receive is an insatiable curiosity for natural things in their own backyards, and she loves exploring her changing river.

 Moving down stream dad steering his daughter watching from the front, our child comes around a bend to a short stretch of riffles. As they guide the canoe through a narrow gap between two boulders dad grumbles. Whatís wrong his daughter asks? Looks like we will have to get out and walk the canoe through. Thatís ok she replies it looks like a nice spot to take a break. When the dam was in we could zip right through here. Oh daddy, stop it. Listen to the river talking to us itís a beautiful spot, she smiles as she hands him an apple.

Being the first time down their new river she looks around curiously. At the top of the riffle where the water had once been quite deep, she notices a peculiar arrangement of flat stones crossing the riffle. They look as if they had been placed there, not in the fashion of a stonewall but more like a footpath. She remembered her grandfather had once told her about an ancient stone foot path that the Indians built across the river below Monponsett Pond. She wondered if this might also be one. As they pushed off down stream she looks for a landmark to guide her back, this time by bicycle.

 She arrives early the following morning. Stooping to duck under the thick brambles she looks in at the walkway through the riffles. The morning sunlight shining through the bubbling tea colored water gives the river bottom a rich amber glow. At the base of the riffles she sees several large fish moving back and forth along side one another. They appear to be the same fish that frustrated her brother below the dam last spring. While watching them perform their strange underwater dance she hears a screech from above. Flashing wings catch her eye as the quiet water explodes, jumping back with a gasp she watches as the huge bird beats his wings against the water, struggling to the sky with the bronze fish in his talons. Our child has met her first Osprey feeding on one of its favorite early spring foods the humble white sucker. This scene would become the first entry in her Satucket Journal.

 

April 4, 2002

 

Spent the morning down at the riffles, where I had a most unusual encounter. While wading through the water I was startled by an odd looking eel. It was larger than any I had seen before, about three feet long and nearly as big around as a bicycle tire. Although it was somewhat intimidating there was also something strangely attractive about it. Unlike other eels this one was chestnut brown, mottled like a leopard with caramel spots. He seemed to effortlessly stay in the same spot, flowing with the rhythm of the river. He then turned and rolled gracefully; twisting and turning now he moved downstream with a baseball size stone and placed it on the bottom. As strange as it may sound the stone appeared to be stuck to his face. As he continued his stone moving, another long mottled shape appeared. Flowing steadily along upstream she appeared to be part river bottom and part living thing. When she reached the spot where her counterpart was working she to attached her face to a large stone. She then began to thrash her body violently against the river bed, clouds of fine sand billowed up, sparkling in the sunlight as they drifted downstream.

 This process continued for quite along time, as it did what appeared to be a nest began to form. The downstream side was piled with a horseshoe shaped wall of stone. The freshly exposed gravel lining the depression gave it a warm rusty red color, the whole thing being about the size of a car tire. Apparently having finished this task they slowly circled the nest, as if to admire their own handy work. Once again she dropped to the bottom and anchored herself to a stone, this time rather than thrashing about she remained calm. The other eel then came down to meet her. His head just above hers he seemed to stick to her as he had done with the stones. He then wrapped himself around her like a wild grape vine twists around a sapling; she seemed to shudder slightly as they swayed with the current.

Never having seen an eel like this before I stopped by my grandfathers on the way home thinking he might know what they were. When I told him my story he laughed. Thatís the first time I have ever heard beauty and sea lamprey used in the same sentence. They have a face only a mother could love. He went on to tell me that sea lampreys were an ancient fish that come up the rivers from the sea to spawn. They are somewhat of a scourge in the Great Lakes where they were introduced through canals. But around here where they belong they are harmless enough.