Part 6B: Dams, Mills, Floods, and the Fishery

John Sinton © January 2015

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

The Upper Mills at Paradise Pond remained the center of Mill River industrial activity throughout the 18th century, during which little industrial development occurred. It is strange, however, as Charles Dean noted, that we have no information from primary sources on mills and dams on the Mill River for the first 40 years of the 18th century.[i]

The Battle Between the Upper and Lower Mills

Surely the most intriguing dam story was the resuscitation of the Lower Mills, where Northampton’s first gristmill was built, at a spot on what is now Clark Avenue, just upstream from what was then known as Licking Water. Given the increase in the agricultural economy, it is no surprise that more gristmills were needed, and in 1742 Samuel and Moses Kingsley received permission to build such a mill at the abandoned Lower Mills site. They built a very high dam to gain sufficient head to run the waterwheel since there is so little natural drop on that part of the river.

The dam and mill were completed in 1746, and in no time, the water was backed up so far that it interfered with the operation of the grist- and sawmills at the Upper Mills at Paradise Pond. The new owners – Deacon Noah Cook, Capt. Jonas Hunt, and Ebenezer Edwards – were outraged when they discovered that their waterwheels no longer had sufficient drop for the water to power them. A 20-year legal battle ensued. In 1759 the Kingsleys persuaded the town to investigate the problem, suggesting that the Upper Mill owners were persecuting them. The town then voted to save the Kingsleys’ mill and water rights “provided said Moses and Samuel Kingsley keep their mill in order and do not raise the dam over 7 feet, or do not raise the water to the Depth of over 7 feet.” Feeling themselves ill used, the dissatisfied Upper Mills owners asked the town in 1765 to render a new decision, and the town established a committee of 3 people from 3 surrounding towns. The Kingsley’s rejected to suggestion and asked the town to be indemnified for damages, which they won in 1766.

Finally, in 1791, 45 years after the original legal suit, the controversy ended when Daniel Pomeroy and Moses and Enos Kingsley bought the Lower Mill property, built a new dam, waterwheel and machinery, and agreed to keep the water at the same level as an iron bar that the selectmen set in a rock 36 feet above the dam.[ii]

Other Mills

So far as is known, grist-, fulling- and sawmills continued to operate at Bay State and Broughton’s Meadow (Florence). The origin of Hulburt’s Mill in Florence are obscure, but it was in operation by the mid-18th century not far from the Corticelli/Nonotuck dam.[iii] Other mills were built by a Mr. Clapp, Abijah Hunt, and John King in unknown locations.[iv] There are no references to mills in Leeds for this period.

This “Other Mills” section needs a rewrite. See the warning in the Bibliographical Notes on the use of Dean. With what to replace the following? Mention of the first Williamsburg settlers?


There was very little industrial activity in Williamsburg prior to 1780. Although there is an apocryphal story of John Miller building a cabin there in 1735, in fact he moved there from Northampton sometime after 1771. While there was probably a sawmill and gristmill on the East or West Branch of the Mill, the town was only incorporated in 1775.[v] Awaiting further work by Ralmon Black and Eric Weber.


Of major interest to us are the short descriptions of 18th-century floods, which are lacking in 17th-century sources. We will have to wait until the 19th century for detailed newspaper and first-hand accounts of floods, but at least we have hints of what they were like in the 18th century. We should also remember that Northampton remained a very compact town in which only a small portion near the Manhan Meadows was subject to serious flooding. This significantly limited flood damage to any but the mills and bridges, which, as we have seen were subject to frequent fire and flood. We should also remind ourselves that the Northern Hemisphere was still in the grip of the Little Ice Age, which would last another half century, maintaining long winters and significant threat from freshets (see p. 9).

The first decade of the 18th century began with two major floods in 1704 and 1706. The former must have been a rare spring flood in May, for it set the planting all the way back to June 20th. (The average date of last frost currently is May 10). The description of the 1706 flood simply mentions “excessive rain & great flood in Con. River” on October 3rd through 5th, no doubt a hurricane. However we have no corroborating data that suggests destruction to mills or bridges.[vi]

Finally, in the middle of the 18th century, we find journal entries from Ebenezer Hunt’s journal describing a series of floods between 1733 and 1767.[vii]

  • On April 22, 1733, “Heavy rains with melted snow occasioned a great flood especially in Mill river; it carried off the ‘town bridge, Hulburt’s saw mill, and the bridge above it.”
  • Then, in the first week of December, 1740 there was a huge rainstorm, the “greatest in 35 years,” perhaps comparing it to the 1704 storm.
  • The year after that, in what was undoubtedly a hurricane on October 17, 1741, there was a “great rain and flood [that] covered almost all the meadow, drowned more than 100 sheep, and cattle were saved with difficulty.”
  • Hunt’s diary doesn’t mention a flood in 1744, but there was a significant shift of the Mill River’s bed in Broughton’s Meadow (Florence) that year. “Abner Hunt says his father’s meadow [probably Jonathan, who owned much of the south part] was about 20 acres; but some acres towards upper end have gone the other side [sic] of river by its changing its course, including orchards. …Stoddard’s 50 acres of upland this side of river between the two roads, went east to opposite Jewet’s house, or thereabouts.” We are left to ponder this startling news. Who retained possession of the newly configured fields? Was there a new survey ordered? How was this property problem resolved? And was this the “new” riverbed depicted on our first detailed map in 1831?[viii]
  • This was followed in quick order on December 12, 1748 by “heavy rains and great flood. The Mill river carried off the upper grist mills and saw mills, and part of Kingsley’s mill dam. Part of Bartlett’s mill dam went off, and the Newton saw mill dam, and part of Hatfield mill dam.”
  • In March of 1752, Ebenezer Hunt’s property was, itself, endangered by “a great Flood, about as high as that of December 1740. The water was at the height of April 1st & came within about 2 rods (37 feet) of my barn at my barnyard.”[ix]
  • Only 2 years later, on June 23, 1769 came a “great rain and flood. Great part of the meadow covered & much damage done to grass & grain, & many things carried off the banks down the river.”
  • There are no further records until January 5, 1768, when, after a very cold December, there arrived a “thaw and flood – carried off many mills & bridges – Hartford Bridge went off. Windsor Bridge also – and our upper mill bridge. Lickingwater Bridge was much disordered.” We must assume that Hunt’s “Lickingwater Bridge,” is what we have been calling the South Street Bridge.
  • These were stormy years, for it was on July 5, 1769 that another great rain and flood occurred when much hay was carried off and Deacon Hunt’s children were killed by lightning.
  • Just months later on January 6 and 7, 1770, there was a “Great Flood in some places… Iron works of Caldwell at Simsbury carried off.”

If the reader is left breathless with this accounting – 9 floods in 37 years – imagine what it was like to live through them. Exciting, yes, and we’ll get a full accounting of the impacts of flood as we get into the 19th century, but what was it like to invest so much in building dams, bridges, and mills, knowing they could at any time be destroyed? And the floods could come during any season. This is a society accustomed to natural disaster, whose response was to pray to God, fast, rebuild, and prepare for the next storm.

The Fishery?

Yes, the fishery, question mark? The fishery in the Mill River is not mentioned in primary sources. In the Connecticut River, yes, but not a word on fishing in the Mill. Now, fish were a major part of colonial life, up to a third of people’s annual diet, and fishing was a vital activity, important enough to allow any angler access to all streams or ponds over 10 acres. Indeed, for 200 years anglers were permitted walk across private property, without fear of trespass, to get to streams and ponds, a right that was only revoked with the adoption of new fishery laws in the 1860s.[x]

New England journals are filled with descriptions of the great migratory fish runs of shad, salmon, lamprey, eels, and herring that filled the Connecticut River, and Northampton’s Sylvester Judd reminisced about the 30- to 40-pound salmon that were caught in his youth.[xi] Fish were particularly important during their spring migration when the salt pork in colonial larders had run out. Most of the anglers were “industrious farmers and after leaving the falls, they wound over the hills and plains with bags of shad, in every direction.”

Colonial and federalist-era legislatures in New England passed a series of laws designed to ensure both public access to fisheries and to allow fish passage at dam sites. Massachusetts passed a law in the 18th century requiring “whosoever shall hereafter erect or build any dam across any such river or stream where the salmon, shad, alewives, or other fish usually pass….shall make a sufficient passage-way for the fish to pass up such river or stream through or round such dam, and shall keep it open for the free passage of the fish from the first day of April to the last day of May…and owners or dams erected…where fish can’t conveniently pass over, shall make a sufficient way either around or through such dam.” Even as late as 1808, a Massachusetts judge ruled that 2 dam owners in eastern Massachusetts had broken the law by running their mills at full tilt during the migratory fish season. The legislature, then, passed an 1813 law providing that, if fishways were insufficient to allow passage, “the dam may be removed or abated as a nuisance, in the same manner as other nuisances may, by law, be removed or abated.”[xii]

No question that the fishery was a crucial part of Northampton’s life, but why no mention of it in the Mill River, no complaints about dams interfering with fish runs, no legal challenges between anglers and dam owners? On page 3 of this essay, we mentioned that the Mill was an unlikely stream to host migratory fish because its mouth was originally hidden in Hulburt’s Pond. Even after the 1710 diversion into the Connecticut, however, it may well be that there was insufficient current to attract shad or salmon. Without migratory fish runs, the Mill would have held only a few fish of any angling interest, notably brook trout, pickerel, and perch. While the upper reaches of the Mill is excellent habitat for brookies, it supports only small fish in the 6- to 12-inch category, and the Mill from Williamsburg downstream runs so low and warm, that only pickerel and perch are likely to be caught. The common gamefish caught today – rainbow and brown trout and black bass – were only introduced into the watershed in the late 19th century.

Whatever the case, we’ll have to conclude that the Mill was not a vital fishery unless proven otherwise by historical sources.



[i] Dean, 12

[ii] Dean, 12-13

[iii] Dean, p. 27 “Hulburt’s mill is believed to have been built about 1762.”

[iv] Dean, 11

[v] The story of John Miller’s settling in Williamsburg in 1735 was originally written by Benjamin Sydney Johnson and published an article in the Hampshire Gazette in July, 1860 and, anecdotal as it was then, the errors in it have been replicated in many later histories. Ralmon Black’s research leads to this conclusion: In 1735 John Miller’s father died, leaving him land in the Northampton Meadows, along with other resources. He was twenty-three when he purchased the recently surveyed land in Hatfield’s 3rd Division, built a shelter, and dug wolf pits when the bounty was equivalent to two weeks salary. He married in 1754 his children were all born in Hamp and he was not settled in Wmsb until at least until after 1771.

[vi] Judd, misc. 10, 145 and misc. 4, 71

[vii] Judd manuscripts, vol. 1, p. 25 and Misc. 9, 288 and 229.   Hunt was a wealthy man as described by James Henretta, p. 231: “Ebenezer Hunt presided over a store and hatmaking enterprise that had 550 open accounts in 1773. In return for store goods and felt and worsted hats, local men and women provided Hunt with dressed deerskins and beaver pelts, meat, hoops, and barrels. They also spun and wove and lined hats for this small-scale merchant entrepreneur. The returns from domestic manufacturing thus bolstered local farm income and raised living standards.”

[viii] Judd manuscripts, vol 2, 320.

[ix] The 1752 date was marked NS for new style, which means that England had finally adopted the Gregorian (modern) calendar almost 200 years after its adoption by the Pope and Italian states. It meant that 1752 lost 11 days, so that September 2 was followed immediately by Sept. 14.

[x] Cumbler, John. 2001. Reasonable Use: The People, the Environment, and the State, New England 1790-1930. New York: Oxford Univ. p. 96.

[xi] This detail and the following materials are from Cumbler, pp. 15-16 and 24-27.

[xii] Such was not the case in Rhode Island where the legislature sacrificed farming interests for the sake of increasing local manufacturing. Henretta, p. 290

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