John Dickson: Present at the creation — the stone marker at Pontoosuc Lake

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PITTSFIELD >> The stone marker lies face up just inside the chain link fence near the dam at the outlet of Pontoosuc Lake, the headwaters of the west branch of the Housatonic River. There on the ground, it's easily missed for the exercise conscious and soul refreshers who pass by on their way to the lake, the ancient stand of pines and their commanding view up the valley to Mt. Greylock.

Now with a layer of snow and frozen ice, it's impossible to read the inscription underneath: "The top of the iron pin is 50 inches above the old dam."

Of course, no iron pin is in sight, since this marker is dated Nov. 1, 1866, a year after the Civil War ended. Another date is on the green bridge railing, speaking to an upgrade that took place in 1994, shoring up the dam, adding new barriers and stone lining to the canal and redirecting its water back to the river in order to prevent further erosion on the hillside.

The 1866 marker points us back to an "old dam," 50 inches lower. Perhaps there are other stones somewhere still to be found that indicate the 1866 dam was itself raised in 1824, six feet higher than the original dam, built in 1763.

Dam changed city

More than 250 years have passed since the original construction of this dam that harnessed the falling waters of the Housatonic to power the industry that drew jobs and people to the city and the region. Imagine what Pittsfield in 1762 looked like to Joseph Keeler who, approaching the age of 50, uprooted his family of 10 from Ridgefield, Connecticut to settle here. Perhaps what drew him here was the news of Pittsfield's incorporation just one year earlier in 1761 and the promise of jobs and wealth for his coming of age sons.

He settled first in present day Lanesboro, and, after a year of checking out the region, he saw his opportunity on the south shore of the large lake just across the town border. He might have called it Lanesboro Pond, or the unwieldy Shoonkeekmoonkeek, but not Pontoosuc yet, since that was what the whole settlement had been called prior to incorporation.

Keeler purchased over 200 acres from one of the town's original settlers, Col. William Williams. His new plot ranged from the southernmost tip of the lake extending over 100 yards further south. There, in 1763, Keeler and his sons built the first dam, in order to power two mills he also constructed, a grist mill for grinding flour and a saw mill.

In one respect, it was an ideal spot since his neighbor, Hosea Merrill ran a lumber operation taking advantage of the abundance of tall white pines, still in evidence in the area. On the other hand, it was far from ideal, since there was no road between the center of the new town and this outpost.

It took four more years for another entrepreneur, Charles Goodrich, to build that road, only to receive the news that the town refused to reimburse him for the cost. Goodrich had started an iron forge downstream, perhaps taking advantage of the swiftly moving water from Keeler's dam to fuel the bellows for heating the coal fires at the forge. He would also have needed the water as a supply to cool down the newly shaped iron pieces of saws and scythes, axes and axles for wagon wheels and other assorted metal work.

From these origins, from this dam, Keeler's mills and Goodrich's iron forge spawned the early industry of the town. As ownership passed from these two men on to others, the advantages of the upper reaches of the Housatonic attracted still more enterprising and innovative men.

Goodrich's forge eventually became a gun shop that was sold in 1808 to another recent arrival from a Southampton, Massachusetts blacksmith family, Lemuel Pomeroy. Securing a government contract, Pomeroy expanded his business to produce 2,000 muskets a year until 1846.

His business acumen was not limited to guns, however, as Pomeroy built one of the town's first textile mills, on the site of yet another grist mill southwest of the town center. When Pomeroy stopped selling guns, his factory was converted into one of the largest woolen mills in Pittsfield, the Taconic Mills, whose complex stood at the corner of Wahconah and North Streets.

The Keelers had unloaded their properties by 1813, selling off parcels, including one to James Strandring who set up a tool-making factory about 300 yards south of the dam. His manufacture of comb-plates and spindles for carding and spinning wool drew the inventor Arthur Schofield to set up shop in his attic. Schofield had brought to Pittsfield the makings of a carding machine that would transform the production of wool from a hand-spun, cottage industry to the heavy industrial output from the massive brick factories that dominated Pittsfield's landscape over the next 150 years — all powered for many years by, you guessed it, water.

Draw for immigrants

The first upgrade to Keeler's dam accommodated a group of investors who bought the site and Strandring's small factory and, half-way between the two, they started the Pontoosuc Woolen Mill in 1826. This mill outlasted the 10 other woolen mills in the town, which before the Civil War helped make Berkshire County the largest producer of woolen cloth in the nation, and helped attract to the region the thousands of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Quebec, Poland and elsewhere who make up so much of our population.

The second upgrade came as our stone marker suggests in 1866, at the end of the Civil War, when factories sought to ramp up their production with the new peace dividend. And the last upgrade was actually a downgrade that came in 1994, 21 years after the last woolen mill, Pontoosuc, then named Wyandotte, closed down.

It's a simple inscription on this stone marker, that hardly anyone sees. But it tells a story, our story.

John Dickson is a local historian who serves on the Pittsfield Historical Commission.


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