Judy Waters: Going with the flow on Pittsfield dam removal

LUNENBURG — In the post industrial age, river landscapes are changing as more dams are removed in Massachusetts. In Pittsfield a cityscape is due for an improvement as planned removal of a concrete dam near Route 20 and West Housatonic St. receives new grant funding (Eagle, Oct. 24).

Located in an historic part of the city, according to Boltwood's "History of Pittsfield," the Tel Electric dam site connects to Irish immigrant and inventor John F. Kelly. who in the early 1900s operated the Tel Electric Piano Player Company adjacent to the dam on the west branch of the Housatonic River. East of the dam, on former Pomeroy property, the Beech Grove Inn housed women employees working at Eaton's paper company. The Beech Grove Inn was sold and razed; it's the Berkshire Inn today.

When I visit familiar turf in Pittsfield, I take a moment to view the dam. Around from the Hawthorne Mill building, white water rushes down a spillway (photos at Berkshire Eagle; beatnews.org). Closer to Route 20, the river quietly emerges near small businesses. South from the dam, Pittsfield's Clapp Park draws baseball fans in summer, recreation in winter; residents share open space. A river that endured much and empowered mills, helped shape this Route 20 neighborhood.


"Like unblocking an artery in the human body" is the way dam removal is described in a National Geographic article (national geographic.com). Removal of a dam restores a more natural river flow and better life cycle conditions for fish. Some dams can affect the river's oxygen levels, trap sediment or influence the temperature of water, altering habitat and water quality (americanrivers.org) .

Dam removal can encourage better health of rivers and streams; often wetland habitat recovers swiftly (mass.gov/der). A Yale study suggests dam removal is not a panacea for all problems rivers face. As with Pittsfield's Tel Electric, aging urban dams can pose safety risks.

In "The Housatonic River Restoration Plan by the People of Berkshire County" (2000, Rachel Fletcher coordinator), a lifelong Berkshire resident said she had never been close to the river, while others asked about canoeing and access. Some said they had been taught to avoid the river.

Today, attitudes are changing. The Tel Electric dam removal is expected to improve public access to the river and help the river be appreciated as a natural, cultural resource shared by community. Activist W.E.B. DuBois envisioned such in his 1930 speech on the river.

Pittsfield is a unique mix of urban and rural; its natural beauty has been sought out for well over an era. Not far from the Tel Electric dam site, there's open space suitable for bird watching, walking, biking. Near Clapp Park, where volunteers recently took part in a clean-up, ducks take flight. Southwest of the park lies the Barkerville Conservation Area. Much of the natural character of the West Housatonic St. neighborhood depends on the river's presence. The Housatonic River watershed supports a critically diverse ecology (mass.gov).


If a river could talk, what would the Housatonic River say? Endless debris polluted it for decades. The Clean Water Act of 1972 helped protect U.S rivers and streams. In the Berkshires, contamination of PCBs by GE brought renewed advocacy, decades of clean up process; a significant part of Berkshire environmental history, still ongoing. Today volunteers participate in river clean-ups as local advocacy groups educate and inform the public. Relationships with the river are changing.

"The river flows not past, but through us..." said early wilderness advocate John Muir. Connecting Pittsfield's neighborhoods, the Housatonic river glides under bridges, behind streets, a silvery ribbon in the summer; a russet streak against white in winter. Residents, neighborhoods, visitors, wildlife depend on the river's health, safety, protection. Work on a new West Side Riverway park has also begun.

Evolution of the Housatonic River's legacy since Pittsfield's origin has gone from power source, to neglect, to restoration and rediscovery. As Pittsfield's historic neighborhoods are revitalized, the removal of the Tel Electric dam offers to unblock the river's west branch flow along Route 20. Challenges continue on in 2018. But perhaps discovery awaits in a new chapter of Pittsfield's proud history and a fresh narrative of the Housatonic River.

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident.


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