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A Dam Removal Reunites A Mass. Neighborhood With The Housatonic River05:34
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The West Branch of the Housatonic River on Mill Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, after an old dam was removed in the spring of 2020. (Nancy Eve Cohen/NEPM)
The West Branch of the Housatonic River on Mill Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, after an old dam was removed in the spring of 2020. (Nancy Eve Cohen/NEPM)

Over the past two decades more than 60 dams have been torn down in Massachusetts with the goal of restoring river habitats and improving safety. One came down this year on the West Branch of the Housatonic River with yet another, more neighborhood-focused goal.

The Housatonic River takes many twists and turns from the Massachusetts Berkshires to Long Island Sound. One way to picture it is to imagine a squiggly letter Y. The right or East Branch is where toxic PCBs from the former General Electric plant have been dug up. The tail of the Y includes the stretch that GE has yet to clean up.

The left or West Branch, the site of the former dam, winds through a Pittsfield neighborhood known as the West Side.

"It was a neighborhood hangout for all the neighborhood kids," said 59-year-old Tony Jackson.

(Kristopher Houle/Mass. Department of Fish and Game)
(Kristopher Houle/Mass. Department of Fish and Game)

Jackson grew up on the West Side in the mid-1970s near the Mill Street Dam, also known as the Tel-Electric Dam, that just came down. He and his friends would skip rocks across the river upstream of the dam and catch frogs.

"My friend was like, 'Hey man — let’s take the frogs, cut their frog legs off, bring them home, and fry them up.' And they were delicious," he said.

Jackson and his friends honed another special skill, which involved slipping their hands into what he describes as the "still water" under the dam.

"So the fish basically just sit there," he recalled. "And there is so many fish there that if you're quick enough, you can grab them. And that's what we did."

Jackson remembers catching bass, pickerel and perch without a rod or reel. It was a bit of paradise. But over time, things changed.

"There was broken glass and [hypodermic] needles all over the place," said Seth Nash, whose family owned the dam that was removed.

A 1912 photograph of the Tel-Electric Player Piano Company, which was powered by a dam on the West Branch of the Housatonic River in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Courtesy the Berkeshire Athenaeum)
A 1912 photograph of the Tel-Electric Player Piano Company, which was powered by a dam on the West Branch of the Housatonic River in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Courtesy the Berkeshire Athenaeum)

The dam hasn’t generated power in decades. But back in the early 1900s, it powered the Tel-Electric Player Piano Company.

In the 1800s, there was a dam at the same site for a textile factory, the Upper Pomeroy Mill.

From 1993 until last year, Nash ran a business, BlueQ, in one of the mill buildings near the dam. Sometimes he’d see people fishing.

"But there was also an element of people that shouldn't have been there, that were hanging out, doing hard drugs and burning things and just up to no good," Nash said.

He said two deaths occurred near the dam while his family owned it.

The Massachusetts Office of Dam Safety determined it was in poor condition 20 years ago.

"There were environmental reasons for taking it down, but also I think it was becoming a public nuisance," Nash said.

Even river-loving environmentalists avoided the area.

Standing near the dam site, Jane Winn, Executive Director of Berkshire Environmental Action Team said she stopped taking river cleanup volunteers here not only because of the drug paraphernalia.

"Just tons and tons of dumping and it was more than we could deal with. People would drive their trucks up and empty them under the railroad bridges here. Right up near where that backhoe is," Winn said. "Couches, refrigerators and bags and bags of garbage."

Jane Winn, executive director of Berkshire Environmental Action Team, stands next to the West Branch of the Housatonic River, where an old dam was removed in spring 2020. (Nancy Eve Cohen, NEPM)
Jane Winn, executive director of Berkshire Environmental Action Team, stands next to the West Branch of the Housatonic River, where an old dam was removed in spring 2020. (Nancy Eve Cohen, NEPM)

The backhoe and construction equipment were part of the $3.8 million dam removal project completed this spring, and paid for largely by state and federal funds. Engineer Kristopher Houle with the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration was in charge.

"Right now we’re looking at the back of the dam. So, essentially the part of the dam that was underwater or buried by sediment," Houle said.

When the dam was taken down, some of the sediment had to be removed. Houle said more than 5,000 tons of contaminated sediment containing low levels of PCBs and other toxins, including PAHs, were trucked away.

“Based on feedback and comments received during the regulatory process, the project team elected to advance offsite disposal of those contaminated sediments,” Houle said.

It cost about $1 million to remove and ship them to a disposal site in Clinton County, New York — more than a quarter of the entire cost of the project.

Kristopher M. Houle, senior ecological restoration engineer with the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, was the project manager on the Mill Street / Tel-Electric Dam removal project. (Nancy Eve Cohen, NEPM)
Kristopher M. Houle, senior ecological restoration engineer with the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, was the project manager on the Mill Street / Tel-Electric Dam removal project. (Nancy Eve Cohen, NEPM)

Finding the funds for that was one challenge. Another challenge had to do with where the dam sat.

"Any dam removal in an urban setting is much more complicated than doing one out in the middle of the woods, say," Houle said. "You have a city that gets built up around a dam, which creates its own complications."

In this case there’s a water main, a historic bridge — and two active railroad bridges that needed to be protected from erosion when the dam came down.

"You're essentially changing a slow moving water environment to a fast moving water environment," Houle said. "We'll be left with a free-flowing river that helps to restore the natural ecological processes that most rivers have."

The water, which is no longer dammed up, will become cooler and better for many fish. And a once-hampered corridor is now open to aquatic organisms, fish and wildlife, Winn said.

"Bear, otters, mink tend to move along streams and rivers, so this could be a huge benefit to them," said Winn. "And I’m hopeful that now with the dam removed we can actually have a greenway, so that people can move along the river as well."

About 100 trees were planted upstream of the West Branch of the Housatonic River after the Mill St. dam was removed. (Nancy Eve Cohen/NEPM)
About 100 trees were planted upstream of the West Branch of the Housatonic River after the Mill St. dam was removed. (Nancy Eve Cohen/NEPM)

Elliot Bulkeley has walked by this river for 32 years.

“Oh it’s flowing nice. Look at it! It’s beautiful now. You can hear it and it’s lovely!" said Bulkeley, who supported removing the dam. “About time! They should’ve done it 100 years ago."

Now that the dam is down, dozens of trees — mostly oak and maple — have been planted upstream.

The water levels are low due to a dry summer. Come spring, they should be higher.

The city has approximately $30,000 of state funds left over from the dam project to design a pedestrian walkway.

Tony Jackson, who caught fish and frogs here long ago, said the river can be a great place for kids — and adults — to have fun again.

This story is part of the New England News Collaborative, and first appeared on New England Public Radio's website.

This segment aired on October 7, 2020.

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