Part 5A: The Mill River’s Original Bed, Northampton’s Layout, and the First Bridge

John Sinton © November 2014

Rivers aren’t constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.”  — Jeremy Denk

The Original River Channel and the First European Settlers

Before we describe the original bed of the Mill River, we need to be clear that a river has two kinds of beds – the first is the channel in which it runs most of the year between two banks and the other bed is directly adjacent to the banks, which we generally refer to as a flood plain.  For our purposes, however, it is more useful to think of it as the extra bed during times of high water – just like the extra beds we have when we have an overflow of aunts, uncles, and cousins coming into town.  The river claims both beds, often to our consternation, but both beds serve the river’s purpose of carrying and depositing sediments and water.

Almost the whole of the Mill River we see today runs down its original course from Goshen to Florence, despite the mill dams, which temporarily impede its flow.  Only three extensive secondary beds, or flood plains, exist, the first in Florence at the Bean/Allard Farm and the second at the fields adjacent to Paradise Pond, and the third are the meadows surrounding downtown Northampton.  As we shall see over the course of this story, the Mill did indeed shift its bed quite dramatically in Florence, but the greatest changes occurred in downtown Northampton, where, in partnership with the Connecticut river, the Mill and Connecticut ran almost annually into their flood plain.  The Mill, in particular, became such a nuisance to the town, that the people of Northampton diverted its channel three times between 1710 and 1940.

Nonotuck, “in the midst of the river,” at the confluence of the Mill and the Connecticut, had already served as a settlement for several hundred years of Native Americans, so it was a natural choice for the English.  In 1654, after obtaining permission from the Massachusetts Bay Colony with the help of John Pynchon, a group of 24 men and their families, most of them from Connecticut, settled in Nonotuck, which they named Northampton within a year of their arrival.  As in other Valley towns, the original grantees or purchasers – known simply as “proprietors” – laid out the town, granted house lots, and apportioned the arable and mowing lands, which were surveyed, then subdivided into strips, and distributed to settlers by lot.  Settlers generally received 25-40 acres of farmland plus a house lot, with a few holdings running well over 100 acres.

At that time, the channel of the Mill River ran south from Paradise Pond, then east along the north side of Fort Hill, around the back of Veterans’ Field, continuing eastward around the northeast end of Fort Hill near the Roundhouse parking lot, then turning southward along the rail trail, and then it finally took a sharp turn to the west, following the southern edge of Fort Hill that borders the Manhan Meadows. (see map of Hypothetical Mill River Before 1710)  It entered Hulburt’s Pond in the about the same location as it does today.

Mill River’s Historic Reconstruction

Layout of Northampton’s First Streets

The settlers built their first houses on the first five streets they laid out: King, Pleasant, Market, Hawley, and Bridge streets.  The latter was named for the bridge over Pomeroy Brook, a tributary to the Mill that ran from North Street and paralleled Market and Hawley near the current railroad tracks, joining the Mill near the juncture of Hawley and Pleasant Streets.  (Pomeroy Brook is clearly delineated on an 1831 map and is still there in 1860.)  Shortly thereafter, lots were laid out on Main and South streets, and the Meeting House was built on the site of what is currently the Old Courthouse.

1700 Northampton from Trumbull

The First Bridge Over the Mill River

Six years later, in 1660, settlers crossed the Mill River at South Street and laid out house lots on Maple (now called Conz) and Fruit Streets on uplands bordering the Manhan Meadows to the east and next to a low-lying area called Licking Water that ran through the area now occupied by the Round House.  The historian J.R. Trumbull took the trouble to map all the house lots that existed in 1700, and from his map we can see the initial layout of the town and its relationship to the Mill River.

However, the first bridge over the Mill was not constructed until 1673, no doubt because the settlers were squabbling over who should pay.  According to the town meeting notes of December 9, 1662 the town “voted affirmatively that they will build a bridg ouer the Mill River:  that is when the meeting house is finished so as is comfortable to meet in likewise this vote satisfied the inhabitants on the other side for the present: also they haue liberty in the meane time to build a bridg if they see cause: So they are freed from working in the common highways til the town do build a bridg ther.”[i]  Bridges, of course, need upkeep, and, as we shall soon see, tend to be short-lived due to floods, such as the one in 1691, which damaged the South Street Bridge.  Apparently nothing was done for several years, so the town chose Joseph Parsons and Enos Kingsley to “make good foot Bridges ouer the Mill riuer so as to Sute the Inhabitants on that sied of the riuer vpon the Towne charge in a way of proportion As we repair other high waies.”  Even then, no work had begun, so in 1698 the inhabitants of Fruit and Maple Street apparently took the matter all the way to the Court of General Sessions (the colonial legislature), which required Mr. Parsons and Mr. Kingsley “to repair and make good the bridge at the town’s charge and call out men to work,” upon a penalty of 2 shillings 8 pence a day should no work be done.[ii]  The South Street Bridge is but one disagreement of what will be many in this town of contentious citizens.


[ii] Trumbull, vol. 1, 130

[iii] Trumbull, vol. 1, 452

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