Charles River Dams

What can be so interesting about a dam? you ask. Well, just as there are some interesting bridges on the Charles, some of the dams are also worth considering, starting with the Milford Dam and waterworks where the the river begins. When a friend and I decided to visit the dam years ago, guided by one of the employees of the Milford Water Company, we were surprised to learn how small this stone structure really is because although the Charles is small by most standards, the fact that twenty-three towns have established themselves along its borders and that various sites along its shoreline are known and loved by thousands are reasons why one might expect a large dam.

The Milford dam began in the 1880s with the flooding of a pasture for use by the surrounding community and was built for strength in a semicircular design with granite quarried from neighboring Hopkinton. Echo Lake is on the border between Hopkinton and Milford, fed by springs, and some believe there are headwaters beginning along Granite Street in Hopkinton. The water is used by the growing community of Milford, and two other nearby communities may have rights to “tap” into the supply if there is a shortage.

As many are aware, the dams on the Charles River were originally constructed to provide water power for grist mills, the first one having been built by Thomas Mayhew in 1634 in what is now Watertown Square.* This was at the head of the great estuary where Atlantic tides from the harbor mingled with the fresh water of the river, producing a rich fishing area. Today a smaller dam is in its place, and this and other dams upriver have fish ladders to facilitate the passage of the anadromous fish* that live mostly in saltwater and swim upriver to spawn in fresh water where they live until they are ready to swim back to the sea, and these include salmon, smelt, shad, striped bass, and herring.

In 1817 a dam next to a paper mill in Waltham was enlarged to run the Boston Manufacturing textile mill, the first in this country to carry out the production of cotton into cloth under one roof and where the young women from neighboring farms came to work and live in housing built for that purpose. At this site where Moody Street crosses the river, you can enjoy a tour of the Charles River Industrial Museum.

At one time there were twenty dams on the Charles, but as industry no longer needs these small power sources, and the water behind the dams is unhealthily stagnant, lacking in oxygen for wildlife, some dams have been removed, most recently in Bellingham. At the CRWA website there is a discussion about this, and Watertown’s dam may be next for removal.

To the delight of my angler friends, alewives and striped bass have recently been spotted around the dam in Watertown Square, the hovering seagulls giving evidence to the  presence of the fish.


*Maud de Leigh Hodges wrote a wonderful history that you can download from the Watertown Public Library: Crossroads on the Charles: A History of Watertown.



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