Mapping the Historic Mill River

1794 Northampton, Surveyor's map

1794 Northampton, Surveyor

1831 Northampton, Selectmen's Map

1831 Northampton, Selectmen

1853 Northampton, Presdee & Edwards

1853 Northampton, Presdee & Edwards

Haydenville 1886, birdseye view

Haydenville 1886, birdseye view

In the 1640s, when English colonists first contacted the local Nonotuck Indians, the Mill River’s mouth was located in Hulburt’s Pond, leading into Easthampton’s Manhan River.  A dike in 1700 diverted the river’s mouth into the East Meadows, and a ditch in the 1840s forced the mouth into the Connecticut River upstream of the Oxbow.  Finally, in 1940, the Corps of Engineers diverted the river from the center of downtown Northampton back into Hulburt’s Pond.

The river itself changed its course and shifted its bed after great nor’easters and hurricanes, and the floodplains of Leeds and Florence attest to this.  We are fortunate, however, since our watershed has been mapped since 1700, so that we have clues about changes in the river.  Because there were no modern mapping standards until the late 19th century, historic maps are difficult to work with.  We can lay one  map on top of another from a different date, and scratch our heads to see how far off the roads and houses are, even though they may not have moved.

However, we have software called Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to rectify this situation and to approximate changes in the river and land use.  Our historic mapping project will take a series of old maps, dating back to the 17th century, and track changes in the Mill River over the past 300 years.  It’s a daunting task, filled with technical problems, but Reid Bertone-Johnson of Smith’s Landscape Studies Department, along with Kassia Rudd ’11, have already begun to create a GIS (geographic information system) that will produce a series of maps, which, when laid one upon another,  will delineate the Mill’s changeable nature.

The project will lead to a deeper understanding of our watershed’s history.  It will even provide the base on which to narrate our industrial history.

We’ll see our first results in April, and we foresee this project continuing over the next several years.

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