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Historians want to save dam

GREENFIELD — As a 13-year-old project to remove the Wiley & Russell Dam near Meridian Street finally started moving through the town and state permitting processes, local historians, at the proverbial eleventh hour, are kicking up efforts to stop what they say would be a “real shame” if the town loses the 177-year-old dam.

The commission and members of the Museum of Our Industrial Heritage on Mead Street have launched a signature campaign to preserve the dam, which was built in 1836 to power local factories.

John Passiglia, chairman of the town’s Historical Commission, along with commissioner Arthur “Terry” Ruggles III, said the commission and museum do not want to see such an important piece of Greenfield’s history removed.

“When it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Passiglia. “There’s no getting it back.”

They said if the town would preserve the dam, it could end up being a tourist draw that could help boost economic development.

Eric Twarog, the town’s director of planning and development, said it has been determined that the dam should come out and that’s what’s going to happen.

He said the town is still discussing mitigation, so local historians could come up with a plan to save a piece of the dam for display somewhere.

“Why at the eleventh hour would they try to stop this project?” asked Twarog, who said the town has involved the commission in discussions about the project since the Army Corps of Engineers came to town in 2008 with its idea to remove it and the Mill Street Dam to restore the Green River to the natural-flowing river it was more than 200 years ago, before the dams were built for industry.

“As a matter of fact, the town has been talking about this since 1998,” said Twarog. “Two mayors have supported this project.”

Twarog said the dam has been deemed a “significant hazard” by the state, which has been working with the town and its partners to complete studies on the Wiley & Russell. He said the town could probably fight to lower that designation to low-hazard, but doesn’t need to because of the demolition plans.

Twarog said removing both dams was always part of the Green River Restoration Project plans, but recently the town decided not to remove the Mill Street Dam, because it would cost more money and cause more headaches than letting it stay where it is.

A study by Princeton Hydro showed that it would cost too much to demolish 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 those pipes.

Passiglia and Ruggles said they have expressed concerns in the past, but most recently have started worrying about how much it is going to cost the town to tear down the Wiley & Russell. They said they believe funding from places other than the town was contingent on both dams’ removal.

Twarog said it will cost the town about $150,000 to remove the Wiley & Russell Dam, because much of the funding is coming from partners. He said the town will use $150,000 from its Sewer Enterprise Fund to build a retaining wall to prevent erosion along the riverbanks once the dam is removed.

Money in the sewer fund comes from fees that the town charges users.

One of the partners, the Connecticut River Watershed Council, began working with former Mayor Christine Forgey to push the project forward.

Andrea Donlon, river steward with the CRWC, said when she started with the watershed council 9 1∕ 2 years ago, talk had already begun about removing both of the dams.

“There are three reasons we should save the Wiley & Russell,” said Ruggles. “For its historic value, educational purposes and cost of demolition.”

Passiglia said the history of the dam is “staggeringly important to Greenfield and the surrounding area.”

Ruggles said Wiley & Russell Dam represents the “diamond in the bracelet.”

The two said the dam powered a “good part of the industrial revolution in this area.”

“No question about that,” said Passiglia. “Its history goes way back more than 150 years.”

Ruggles said he believes there has been some sort of dam in or near that location on Meridian Street since the 1700s.

“It’s the site of the birthplace of Greenfield’s industrial history,” said Ruggles.

“I’m really concerned about losing it,” said Passiglia. “The educational opportunities alone could generate a lot of interest in that site.”

Passiglia said a sign with a picture of what used to be there just wouldn’t be the same.

“There are engineering students from surrounding colleges that could study the dam,” he said. “There’s a lot to learn about hydropower there.”

Ruggles said the dam is unusual, because it was built like a “V” and designed to power plants on both sides of the river.

“The dam was put there for a reason,” said Passiglia. “It isn’t powering anything at this point, but we should still respect it and keep it there.”

The men said 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.

The Greenfield Historical Commission sent Mayor William Martin a letter requesting that he apply for a grant to repair the timber crib dam, instead of tearing it down.

Passiglia said he is convinced the dam would be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Twarog said because of all of the repairs done to the dam over the years, it is now more cement than timber, he does not believe it would be eligible to be listed on the national register.

The dam was built in 1836 by John Russell Cutlery to power its factory there. Later, the dam powered Wiley & Russell Co. and most recently, the Greenfield Tap & Die Corp, thus it became a symbol of Greenfield’s growth and prosperity, said Ruggles.

Passiglia and Ruggles said the Wiley & Russell Dam is viewed as a centerpiece in Greenfield’s development of the Mead Street-Green River Recreation Area, which will include a bike and walking path along the Green River.

“The dam could be the linchpin to the historic corridor there,” said Ruggles.

Twarog said the town has held many public meetings and hearings over the years and came to the conclusion, with its partners, that the Wiley & Russell Dam must go. He said to save and restore it would cost $1 million or more, which the town does not have to spend on such a project.

It is estimated that it will cost between $300,000 and $350,000 to remove the Wiley & Russell Dam and that the town’s partners will be seeking grants to pay for the work.

Those partners include the Connecticut River Watershed Council, American Rivers, the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Twarog said before any work can be done on the dam, Berkshire Gas Co. will have to finish its cleanup project near the Mill Street Dam, which is expected to be complete in November. Therefore, removal of the Wiley & Russell Dam will most likely begin next spring.

The town’s Conservation Commission has given the project its approval and the state Department of Environmental Protection will have to give its approval.

The goal of the project is not only to restore the river to its natural conditions, but to reduce the town’s liability and costs to maintain it.

You can reach Anita Fritz at:
afritz@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 280.

Greenfield has an opportunity to keep and utilize an important part of its history and potentially an important part of its future. One of the World’s leading growth industries is heritage tourism and Greenfield, with a tradition of skilled artisan toolmakers, has a story to tell. The Wiley Russell dam is where it all began and the Museum of Our Industrial Heritage is a good place to tell that story. It is an important story. There are four dams on the Green River and three of them will have fish ladders. The Wily Russell dam could also. It is not too late to do the right thing. John W. Haigis

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