Our Berkshires: H.D. Sisson's sawdust dustup



Henry D. Sisson (1836-1914), whose family operated a sawmill on the Konkapot River just outside Mill River village in New Marlborough, got in Dutch over sawdust in 1905.

Sisson, who called his home Damsite, said the Konkapot along the mile and a half of river that he owned was top-notch for fishing. He allowed others to cast their lines in the water. "Several of the hemlock logs which were in the original dam built in 1739 may still be seen in the river near the cottage. Sisson’s grandfather, Henry, bought the property in 1857 and in 1871 it came into possession of his son, Henry Dwight Sisson, who was a 2d lieutenant in the 49th Civil war regiment ... The logs of the ancient dam were held in place by heavy iron rods, which probably were made from ore that was mined in the Corashire district of Monterey," according to the Springfield Republican.

Massachusetts game officials issued the cease order against Sisson in May 1905. He shouldn’t have been surprised; George A. Stevens had been cited by Game Warden Benjamin Smith and Special Officer William S. Proctor in 1897 for polluting the same stream with sawdust from his sawmill upstream in Hartsville.

"On April 3 Mr. Proctor visited Hartsville, where the mill is situated, and saw sawdust being thrown into the Konkapot river and arrested Mr. Stevens for violating the law," the Republican reported. Stevens appeared in District Court in Great Barrington and, despite conclusive testimony as to the misdeed, was let off on a technicality of the warrant.

In 1902, a bill in the Massachusetts Legislature to exempt certain sawmill owners from the ban on sawdust pollution failed. According to a newspaper story, "The sawdust gets into the gills of the fish and cannot be dislodged, which causes their heads to become sore and decay, and soon results in death."

H.D. Sisson and son Frank were each fined $15. They didn’t deny the charges, but said they were given no opportunity for a hearing or appeal. The Sissons said they would not abide by the court’s decision. H.D. Sisson disputed the pollution issue. He said there were more fish caught below his mill than above it. He appealed to Superior Court. He said he and his son had no easy other way to dispose of the sawdust. He said the law was confiscatory. He failed to persuade the judge. The court said the commonwealth was well within its rights to empower the fish and game commission.

Sisson petitioned the Mass-
achusetts Legislature to revise the law "so as to provide for compensation from the state for those who are injured by enforcement of the present law." Sisson testified at a hearing in March 1906.


Fish & Game Commissioner John W. Delano testified he could abide a provision allowing sawmill owners to request a hearing, but to pay compensation "would encourage people to seek damages for something they had no right to do." He said the law had been on the books since 1800. He said it wasn’t that much of a hardship for a sawyer to install a blower. In fact, many sawyers sold the sawdust by the bag or wagonload to farmers for bedding.

There arose a broader debate as to who had more rights: Mill men or fish and game interests. "The law used to designate the rivers of sufficient importance to warrant the requirement that water-power owners shall maintain fishways around their dams; but it was amended some two years ago," the Republican said in 1906, "to the extent of lodging the power with the fish and game commission to be used in its discretion. That is to say, the commission may compel the establishment of fishways wherever they please, and this means a power to put mill-owners oftentimes to ruinous expense -- so they claim.

"If this power is generally applied, as the fish and game commission threaten to apply it, it ‘will destroy many a mill-owner’s business and compel him to take up his dam and let the water run untrammeled to the sea,’ says Henry D. Sisson of Mill River."

Rep. Bart Bossidy of Lee, whose district included Mill River, supported an amendment to the law that included provision for a hearing and appeal. But after the strong rebuttal by the game authorities, nothing was said about restitution.

Truth is, the Sissons had become anachronisms. They were among the last sawyers to rely on waterpower. Everyone else had switched to steam or electricity.

At the same time this dustup was going on, well-to-do New Marlborough horse trainer Hildreth K. Bloodgood was acquiring several unused water privileges along the Konkapot River with it in mind to establish a hydro-power station that could supply electricity to a proposed street railway line that would run from North Canaan to Clayton to Mill River, along the south side of Lake Buel to Great Barrington. Neither power plant nor trolley materialized. And where the Sisson sawdust went after that, we don’t know.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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