Judy Waters: Pittsfield buoyed by dam removal, greenway
RICHMOND —; Pittsfield has a dynamic history of growth, change, and vision for the common good. From town to bustling city, histories affirm that gifts of a public library, a museum, and public parks gave Pittsfield new identity, encouraged unity, and brought the city into the 20th century. Public institutions "stimulated a local pride," wrote one historian, and "conferred direct good."
Today, the city presses forward, facing 21st century challenges, taking on new neighborhood initiatives. One change, near West Housatonic Street, is the removal of the Mill Street dam, also called Tel Electric dam. A feasibility report (beatnews.org) describes the privately owned dam dating to 1920, and posing safety risks.
Though having grown up in Pittsfield just south of the dam, the name Tel Electric remained a mystery. In a 1906 city directory, the Tel Electric Company, with a location at Hawthorne Avenue, advertised manufacture of "high grade electric player pianos." Linked with Tel Electric, the dam possibly had textile mill origins: in 1896, the entrance to Mill Street was the address of Pomeroy Woolen Mills (milltour.org).
Curious, on an overcast June day, I became an observer. Within safe distance, the view west revealed a rectangular mass of concrete. To the right, white water jetted out of a large metal pipe, or penstock, as I learned. Above, old rail trestles blotted out part of the sky. A sobering reminder of life in the city's industrial days, I thought about workers who came here to survive. Humbled, I accepted that, representing Pittsfield's past, the dam was part of both the city's and my heritage.
Historical landmarks cluster around the dam site, including the former Pomeroy and Redfield schools, the Eagle Clock Tower building, and now the Berkshire Carousel. Close by is Clapp Park, home to Pellerin Field, remembrance to a coach's contributions (Berkshire Eagle, July 6).
In 1919, land for Clapp Park was donated to the city by former Pittsfield mayor Allen Bagg, in memory of his first wife, Mary Clapp Bagg. Decades later, his gift of Clapp Park had a profound effect on my quality of life and that of my family and neighbors. Mayor Bagg's story has merged with mine, and more stories continue to ripple outward today. I owe some gratitude to the former mayor and his wife.
Like many Pittsfield neighborhoods, West Housatonic Street is defined by another gift, the Housatonic River. From the dam, the river flows under bridges, meanders to Clapp Park and continues on to Barker Road. Without the river, there would have been no mills; without the mills, life here would have unfolded in a very different way.
Freeing the Housatonic River's west branch of the Mill Street dam will return it to a more natural flow; that in turn creates healthier river ecology. Though post-industrial dam removal is debated, benefits are well documented, including stronger fish survival. Restoration of the river's ecology will have benefits for residents as well, who will be able to experience the river as a vital natural resource.
One of those benefits, under consideration, includes a greenway from Wahconah Park to Clapp Park. Greenways — urban open space areas — have been around since the 1800s. Greenways can encourage exercise, bring people of different backgrounds together, reduce crime, and help residents connect with their surroundings. They also allow a respite from 24/7 screens, electronic devices, traffic, and congestion.
As far back as 1967, Berkshire Eagle columnist Morgan Bulkeley talked about a "multi-purpose greenway belt or water park" for the Housatonic River from Pittsfield to Lenox. From Bulkeley's vision it is not difficult to imagine greenways as public museums of the new century. In that view, initiatives that support open space preservation, such as the Community Preservation Act, are drawing new attention (preservepittsfield.org).
Leaving behind the Mill Street dam that gray June day and looking south, light returned and the sky opened, a misty blue over the green expanse of Clapp Park. Rounded contours of South Mountain rose in the distance, like some benevolent presence looking down at the neighborhood. I had a sense that, as in the past, common good values would endure and maybe a little Berkshire splendor would somehow play a role. Even the recent sale of The Eagle to local ownership seemed to signal positive change on the horizon.
Today an economy very different from those early days of the city presents complex questions. Still, the dam removal and a planned greenway seem promising for the environment, community, and the public good, as the city enters the next chapter of its changing narrative.
Judy Waters is a former resident of Richmond and Boston, and currently resides in Lunenburg. The column was written in Richmond.
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