Historians, river stewards take different positions on dam

GREENFIELD — A small 77-year-old timber crib dam that spans the Green River at Meridian Street is once again attracting a lot of attention.

River stewards are set to remove the Wiley & Russell Dam at Meridian Street, which was built in 1936, and restore the river closer to what they say will be the natural-flowing river it was more than 200 years ago. That could happen as early as next summer.

At the same time, historians have kicked up a fight to save the dam by starting a signature campaign, because they believe the dam would provide great educational opportunities to residents, tourists and area students.

The removal, part of the Green River Restoration Project, is a partnership of the town, Connecticut River Watershed Council, American Rivers, Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eric Twarog, the town’s director of planning and development, said after five years of study and preliminary work, it has been determined that the dam should come out. He said the town is discussing mitigation, which is required by the state, so historians could save a piece of the dam for display somewhere.

The Army Corps of Engineers came to town in 2008 with the idea to remove both the Wiley & Russell Dam and the Mill Street Dam, which is located a quarter of a mile upstream.

Recently the town decided it would cost too much to remove the Mill Street Dam, because removal would end up exposing town sewer and water mains there, which would then have to be protected, so the town would have to build a structure to cover the pipes.

So now it is only the Wiley & Russell that will be removed. The town has said the Mill Street Dam may come out in the future, when it either has the money to cover costs or can secure funding from somewhere else.

The Wiley & Russell Dam will cost between $300,000 and $350,000 to remove. The town’s partners are going to use grants to cover most of the cost — the town will provide $150,000 from its Sewer Enterprise Fund to build a retaining wall to prevent erosion along the riverbanks once the dam is removed.

Andrea Donlon, river steward for the CRWC, said removal will most likely begin next summer.

Local historians weigh in

Greenfield Historical Commission Chairman John Passiglia said the history of the Wiley & Russell Dam is “staggeringly important to the area and beyond.

“It represents a diamond in the bracelet,” said commission member Terry Ruggles III. “It powered a good part of this area’s industrial revolution.”

Passiglia and Ruggles said that though the Wiley & Russell, as we know it, goes back only 77 years, they believe there were other dams there that could go back as far as the 1830s, when the cutlery factory opened on the river there.

“Actually, we believe it could go back even further,” said Passiglia. “We believe dams have been in that location since the 1700s.”

Both men said they are concerned that if the dam is removed, and gone forever, so will be the educational opportunities that could be generated from that site.

“A sign or a picture of the dam isn’t going to do it,” said Ruggles.

They said the angular dam, which is built like a “V,” was designed to work both sides of the river.

“That was very unusual,” said Ruggles.

The dam powered Russell Cutlery Co. and later powered Wiley & Russell Manufacturing Co. and then Greenfield Tap and Die.

“The dam was put there for a reason,” said Passiglia. “It’s not powering anything now, but we could use it as an incubator for low-impact experimental hydro projects.”

The commission and the Museum of Our Industrial Heritage on Mead Street together have launched a signature campaign to preserve the dam, which was built in 1936.

The commission has received letters from Timothy C. Neumann, executive director of Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield, and Joseph Peter Spang, curator emeritus of Historic Deerfield, who both want to see demolition plans abandoned and the dam saved.

“If this dam is removed, that’s it, history is gone,” said Passiglia. The men said the dam could become the linchpin to one of Greenfield’s historic corridors. They both would like to see it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The dam is the reason so many came here to work in factories,” said Ruggles.

Passiglia said the dam would be a nice place for people to stop, once a town-planned bike path is built in that area.

The two men said that because the Mill Street Dam, which is located about a quarter-mile upstream from the Wiley & Russell, is no longer slated for removal, it doesn’t make sense to remove the other dam.

“What’s the sense?” asked Passiglia. “There’s not enough room to do anything along that stretch of river, and the fish will only have a few more feet to swim before they’re stopped by the Mill Street Dam.”

“We don’t want to see the hard work of generations before us lost,” said Passiglia. “History is all we have at that site now.”

A river steward’s perspective

Donlon said the purpose of removing the Wiley & Russell Dam is to restore the ability for fish to move up and down the river.

She said that some people, including historians, claim there was never a fishery on the Green River, but said just because there is no documentation to be found, doesn’t mean that anadromous fish didn’t travel upstream to spawn, and Native Americans and others didn’t fish on the river before dams were installed.

Donlon said habitat and water quality improvements are just a couple of the reasons for removing the dam.

“The dam serves no purpose any longer,” she said. “It’s a safety hazard at this point, whether someone gets injured on it or another huge storm hits the area and the town suffers infrastructure damage.”

Donlon said the project isn’t quite as exciting as it was when both the Wiley & Russell and Mill Street dams were going to be removed and fish ladders were going to be built on the dams at the Green River Swimming and Recreation Area and the town’s pumping station on Eunice Williams Drive.

“Our long-term hope is that someday the Mill Street Dam will be removed and ladders on the other two dams will be built,” she said.

Donlon said she understands people’s attachment to the Wiley & Russell Dam, but said that when the issue of removing both dams was brought up five years ago, it was the Mill Street Dam that people seemed to be concerned about.

“That one is actually closer to working order, so that would be a great dam for education and experimentation,” she said. “It’s just that physical access is more prominent at Wiley & Russell.”

She said even though Wiley & Russell Dam was a timber crib dam, it has been repaired so many times over the years that it is now mostly concrete.

“An engineer poked around the dam last summer and found that the little bit of wood left is in bad condition,” said Donlon. “If the town wanted to repair it, it would be very expensive.”

Donlon said there are still thousands of dams across the state that could be used for educational purposes.

“We need to do this dam justice,” said Donlon. “It served its purpose.”

She said the partners have been working with the National Marine Fisheries Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the project has already been approved by Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) and the town’s Conservation Commission.

“We’re just waiting for Berkshire Gas to finish its cleanup upstream and then the project will go out to bid,” said Donlon.

Donlon said according to American Rivers, the Green River, like many throughout New England, was once home to several thriving mills, which helped drive the nation’s Industrial Revolution, but that is no longer the case.

Today, the Green River is fragmented by four dams in Greenfield, and American Rivers says the “outdated infrastructure blocks passage for migratory fish, like Atlantic salmon, American shad, blueback herring and American eel.”

American Rivers says a healthy river can increase property values, boost recreational activities, attract tourists, reduce water pollution, and protect people and property from flooding.

Donlon and American Rivers said dams like the Wiley & Russell disrupt the natural functions of a river, leaving them lifeless and cut off from communities.

The town weighs in

According to the town, removal of the 14-foot-high, 165-foot-long Wiley & Russell Dam will provide multiple benefits, including the elimination of the town’s long-term liability and maintenance costs.

It will also alleviate the town’s responsibility to address dam safety deficiencies and hazards, according to town planners.

Many town leaders are also hoping that the river will eventually provide opportunities for passive recreation, like fishing and paddling, which will bring visitors to town. They also hope a revitalized waterfront close to the town’s downtown will generate economic potential for new and current businesses.

Mayor William Martin and town planners are hoping removal of the dam will benefit cold water resident species, including trout and white sucker, because river temperatures will be lower, and will improve water quality and stream health.

“Why at the eleventh hour would they try to stop this project?” asked Twarog, who said the town has involved the Historical Commission in discussions about the project since the Army Corps of Engineers came to Greenfield in 2008. “As a matter of fact, the town has been talking about this since 1998 and two mayors have supported this project.”

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