Mill River Greenway Initiative helps protect watershed, preserve artifacts and improve ecological health

Last modified: Wednesday, November 19, 2014

As rivers go, the 13.5-mile-long Mill River is relatively small, and it inconspicuously flows along often unnoticed except when it periodically floods. But this little river has some big stories to tell.

The Mill River Greenway Initiative is helping to tell those stories and focus attention on the river. Established in late 2009, it is dedicated to protecting the Mill River watershed, preserving its cultural and historical artifacts and enhancing its ecological health. Work continues on the goal of designing and creating a greenway along the river from Williamsburg to Northampton.

“A greenway focuses on river flow and restoration, ecology, environmental design and recreation, as well as providing an excellent living venue through which to discover rich and compelling local histories,” said member Gaby Immerman of Haydenville, a horticulture instructor at Smith College where she runs the summer internship program for the Botanic Garden. She also owns a landscaping business called Green Thumbs for Hire.

Immerman and John Sinton, a retired professor of environmental studies and landscape history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, are the core members of the greenway initiative. They sought assistance from people with a variety of backgrounds including blue-collar trades, ecological and design professions, landscapers, college faculty and students, local historians, civic groups, and staff from governmental and nonprofit agencies.

There are now some 40 partners involved with the greenway, including Friends of the Northampton Trails and Greenways, and the Smith College Center for Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability.

In 2010, the group set out to research the Mill River’s history, collect species inventories, produce a geographic information system (GIS) and create interpretive materials and activities that would help people understand the river’s place in the past, present and future.

Immerman credits the work of Reid Bertone-Johnson, a landscape studies professor at Smith College, and his students along with the Boston Society of Landscape Architecture with creating a base GIS for the Mill River that allows the greenway group to access vital information on the river and the watershed.

“With the GIS, we can select different layers and combinations of information including things like topography, the location of rare and endangered species, invasive species, property lines, buildings, and sidewalks,” Immerman said. “This is an absolutely invaluable tool.”

Using all of the information gathered, the greenway group can address when and where to control invasive species, how and where to build low-impact connections along the river and where to place interpretive signs.

River walks, paddle

The group’s members also used the GIS information, along with suggestions from individual communities, to create a series of nine river walks and one river paddle, all of which focus on a specific segment or “reach” of the river between Williamsburg and Easthampton.

“These walks represent 350 years of American history. It is an amazing way to learn about early agriculture and industrialization,” said Sinton. “They are extraordinary visions of what became America as it is today. They are really quite unique.”

The walks feature trips around Northampton, Florence, Leeds, Haydenville and Williamsburg. And one tour is a spring paddle in the floodplain forest at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton.

Each walk has a person serving as a local interpretive guide, typically from a historical, environmental, or neighborhood civic group. The guides share information of the area using photographs that allow people to see the dramatic impacts of the river, along with the changes in landscape, agriculture, ecology, manufacturing, and the historic use and transformation of the surrounding buildings.

The walks are roughly one-half-mile to 1.6-miles long with several informative stops along the way.

Participants are provided with pocket sized “passports” that fold open to reveal a map of the river, and the locations of the walks from Williamsburg to Northampton. The reverse side lists all 10 of the trips.

The passports are stamped each time a participant completes a tour. When they have attended all 10, they receive a gift of thanks from the greenway group.

Disaster of 1874

While each walk has a unique story of its own to tell, all share a common thread of destruction.

“Ours is a story that certainly takes place in many other mill towns in Massachusetts, but what sets us apart is that we had the largest industrial disaster of its kind with the flood of 1874,” Immerman said.

In May 1874, a poorly constructed reservoir dam in Williamsburg suddenly burst, sending 600 million gallons of water coursing down the narrow valley lined with factories, homes and farms. It claimed the lives of 139 people and four mill villages were completely washed away. Overnight, the Mill River flood became one of the nation’s big news stories.

One of the walks begins at Meekins Library in Williamsburg and travels to the site where participants can view remnants of old dam and caretaker’s home, as well as the riverbed before the flood.

“The Connecticut River was of course very important to the region,” said Wayne Feiden, director of planning and sustainability for the City of Northampton. “But with the arrival of the industrial revolution, it was the Mill River that powered factories and influenced the development of the surrounding towns.”

Feiden often collaborates with the greenway group by participating in the Northampton walks.

About the river

The Mill river is a tributary of the Connecticut River with its headwaters at the Upper Highland Lake in Goshen, at an elevation of 1,440 feet. The river runs through Goshen, Williamsburg and Northampton and it’s watershed encompasses 52 square miles and includes parts of Westhampton, Chesterfield, Ashfield, Conway, Whately and Hatfield.

The Mill River watershed is widely recognized as one of the state’s most significant because of its wildlife habitat. It contains one of the state’s largest contiguous areas of forest land, a healthy floodplain forest community and is home for more than 20 plants and animals which are endangered or threatened.

The location of the river provides an opportunity for teachers and students to study the complex resource right in their own backyard.

“We have also worked with the students at the Leeds School and the third graders at the (Smith College) Campus School who studied the river throughout the school year,” Sinton said.

What’s next

The greenway group recently produced one full color informational brochure for its “Northampton’s Paradise Pond to South Street walk.”

The pamphlet contains a description of all nine stops along the route, historical maps and photographs, and a detailed time line from the founding Northampton in 1654 to 1947, when the city drained and filled the old riverbed, replacing it with a parking lot.

It allows people to take a self-guided tour. “The brochure for the Northampton walk now serves as the template for the eight other walks,” Immerman said.

To create eight more brochures, the group will begin fundraising in earnest. “We have had a groundswell of support over these last five years,” Sinton said. “Now that we are declared ourselves open for business so to speak, our goal over the next year is to create a sustainable funding source.”

The Williamsburg Mill River Greenway Committee will offer the “Haydenville to Williamsburg: Brassworks to Skinnerville” walk, its last program of the year from 10 a.m. to noon Dec. 6. Anyone interested is asked to email or call 268-2170.

Further information is available online at


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