History of MRGI

The Mill River in Williamsburg. Photo: Helen Symons

In the summer of 2009, several members from the now defunct Northampton Design Forum, which had fought for better planning in Northampton,  assembled a splinter group to focus on the former bed of the Mill River where it used to flow in the city's downtown prior to 1940.  In October of 2009, John Sinton, the group's first moderator, along with a dozen residents from Williamsburg and Northampton held the first meeting of the Mill River Greenway Initiative (MRGI) at the house of Carl and Sue Larson in Florence.

By March 2010, MRGI numbered some three dozen members whose backgrounds ranged from blue-collar trades to the ecological and design professions to staff from governmental and non-profit agencies.  We established a Google Group and held bi-monthly meetings to develop an agenda for the Greenway, beginning with the collection of archival materials. We then started work on a series of projects, any of which are ongoing.

Peter Flinker, landscape architect and original supporter of MRGI, contemplating greenway plans in 1911.


In November, we asked Neal Bastek of Williamsburg to build a website; Neal became our second co-moderator.  We then  reached out to the general public for help in designing and building a Mill River Greenway.  That same year, MRGI received the support of Smith College to begin a partnership that continues to this day.  Working with Reid Bertone-Johnson and other faculty and staff from CEEDS (The Center for Environment, Ecological Design, and Sustainability), we have initiated and completed a series of projects, many of which receive support from the College. Smith remains MRGI's institutional backbone, creating the MRGI geographic information system (GIS) and providing student help for many projects.

Wendy Sinton at Hulbert's Pond, near the Mill River's confluence at the Oxbow. Photo: John Sinton

In 2011, MRGI began its series of Mill Riverwalks and paddles from the site of the 1874 dam in Williamsburg to the river's end at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton. The walks became so popular that we repeated them over the next several years and gave each participant a "Mill River Passport" in which we stamped every reach our walkers completed.

We also began our work on invasive plant species with a workshop in partnership with CEEDS at Smith College. the Friends of Northampton Trails and Greenways (FNTG). and Grow Food Northampton (GFN). This was MRGI's first opportunity to welcome Gaby Immerman, Smith College horticulturist and all around organizer, as an active member.

Kassia Rudd (Smith '11) contributed groundbreaking work in 2011 with her completion of a special project, guided by Reid Bertone-Johnson of the Landscape Studies Program. Kassia studied the history of power sources for Mill River industries from the 17th to the early 20th century. Here is a link to Kassia's poster: Kassia Rudd Poster  This was the beginning of MRGI's geographic information system (GIS), a spatial data base that has grown enormously since that time, including the mapping of greenway options, property lines along the river, invasive plant concentrations, among many other kinds of data. Reid, with the help of Smith's GIS guru, Jon Caris at the Spatial Analysis Lab (SAL), have become keepers of this amazing resource.

The year came to an end with the frightening specter of global warming when Nor'easter Irene hit New England. Little did we know that we would be following weather and climate so closely thereafter.


A Vision for Mill River Greenway Trails Photo: Peter Flinker

We began 2012 with a Mill River event, sponsored by the Boston Society of Landscape Architects and led by Peter Flinker and colleagues in the Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The result was a charrette, that displayed several options to develop paths and access to the Mill River throughout our watershed. This work has formed the basis for MRGI's strategic plan, suggesting how we should prioritize our projects.

Walks and other public events in 2012 began drawing attention to the river, and the charrette prompted John Sinton to begin writing about the Mill River's history, beginning with the short piece that remains on this website. Simultaneously, Gaby Immerman and Reid Bertone-Johnson introduced students to research and interneship possibilities with MRGI that would shortly bear fruit.

Maggie Leonard, a landscaper designer and original MRGI activist, leads a discussion of Hidden Mill River at the 2012 Charrette.

We also began working hand in hand with two partners, the Friends of Northampton Trails and Greenways (FNTG) and a new Williamsburg Mill River Greenway Committee, officially sanctioned by the town and charged with developing a feasibility study for a multi-use transportation and recreation corridor between the villages of Williamsburg Center and Haydenville.

The year 2013 was MRGI's annus marabilis, our auspicious year. First, Gaby Immerman, representing Smith College and the town of Williamsburg, came became our third co-moderator, bringing enormous energy and organizational skills as we continued to strengthen our relationship to Smith College. Second, Reid Bertone-Johnson (Smith College Landscape Studies) and  Sophie Geller (Smith '13) with the help of John and Neal, contributed MRGI's first paper about our initiative at the Fabos Greenway Conference at UMass

Title Page to the Hidden Mill River Brochure


Third, we launched our first of four self-guided riverwalk tours of the Mill River, this one on the "Hidden Mill River" that used to run through downtown Northampton. Thanks to Jon Caris at Smith's Director of  the  Spatial Analysis Lab, this brochure is available online as interactive map. These popular brochures were the product of Smith College students and faculty with a design by the amazing Rob Stewart at Transit Authority Figures.

Fourth, the Williamsburg Mill River Greenway Committee produced its first report, which began the process that will  create a greenway link from Haydenville to Williamsburg Center. And fifth, John Sinton began the five-year process of writing the history of the Mill River and of New England.

In 2014 we ran nine riverwalks to various parts of the Mill River and began work on our second self-guided tour brochure again with the help of students at Smith. Members of the Leeds Civic Associa-

Sue Carbin leading Leeds Tour at Dimock Mansion Photo: John Sinton

tion were the principle researchers and contributors to the brochure, particularly Heidi Stevens, Sue Carbin, and Penny Geis. Working within the boundaries of our first brochure, Heidi designed and produced the one for Leeds.

Working closely with the town of Williamsburg, Northampton city planner Wayne Feiden led the charge to extend the Mass Central Rail Trail from the Northampton village of Leeds to the Williamsburg village of Haydenville with the eventual goal of extending it to Williamsburg Center.

Williamsburg artist and writer Todd Lynch created his first Mill River art installation in 2014 with a series of weirs at the confluence of the West and East Branches of the Mill River. Here is his video of that beautiful and thought-provoking project.  We urge you to visit the Flotsam Weirs

Great Horned Owl Fledgling at Arcadia Refuge. Photo: John Body

In 2015, we continued our river tours, highlighted by two outstanding trips: In April, Arcadia's Dave McLean led a paddle from Mass Audubon's Arcadia Sanctuary near the mouth of the Mill to the barrier a mile upriver under South Street near downtown Northampton. Williamsburg historian Eric Weber ended our season with a walk on the new trail to the site of the dam that collapsed in 1874.

Elizabeth Sharpe at NCF points to site of Williamsburg Dam Disaster

We began work with Grow Food Northampton and Smith College to study options for riverwalks in Florence. Laurie Sanders and Betty Sharpe, co-directors of Historic Northampton, led our first walk there, which prompted Williamsburg's great filmmaker Tom Adams to produce a short documentary on MRGI. You can find that here: introduction to our riverwalks

Bay State Village also weighed in with an initiative to work with Reid Bertone-Johnson and Smith students to develop a walk from Federal Street to the Clement St. Bridge. Work continues on this complicated project.

Gaby and John with the new MRGI t-shirt 5.13.15



MRGI was thrilled to receive the "Trail Neighbors Award" from the Friends of Northampton Trails and Greenways, during which we introduced our Mill River t-shirts.





Glassberg '15 presentation poster

David Glassberg, Professor of Public History at UMass taught a seminar for advanced undergraduates in which the students created signage for several sites along the Mill River. They presented their ideas at Historic Northampton in April of 2015, and we will incorporate their ideas into future greenway work.


Work on the Haydenville to Williamsburg river link continued with a group of four Smith engineering students, who began work with their professor Susannah Howe, engineer Jim Hyslip, and a team from Northampton’s Dept. of Public Works and Dept. of Planning and Sustainability. The students presented their series of alternative designs and costs for the project in April 2016.

Finally, we began our third brochure, this one on the village of Florence. A team of four Smith students started the project with the guidance of Wendy Sinton of the Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee and Kelly Anderson, Smith archivist and oral historian. That brochure became available in 2016.

Florence Walking Tour Brochure Map

The year 2016 saw the completion of the Florence self-guided walking tour by Wendy Sinton and Smith students. Wendy also led tours to introduce the brochure to the public.

Just downriver from Florence, Reid Bertone-Johnson's student developed options for river trails in the Bay State neighborhood. Baystate Riverwalk. Their work will provide the basis for Bay State residents and the City of Northampton to envision the Greenway from Paradise Pond to the Cutlery Building.

In Williamsburg, Smith students continued to work on engineering design options for the rail-trail dismount into Haydenville. During the summer, Peter Flinker and his staff developed options for trail siting across the Brassworks Meadow area in Haydenville, part of the eventual link between Haydenville and Williamsburg Center.

Conway School Document '16

During the winter, landscape designer Maggie Leonard, aided by John Sinton worked with two students from the Conway School to

develop the elements of a strategic plan for MRGI. Thanks to funding from MRGI supporters, the project was completed after two heavily attended community meetings. The report can be found here.

MRGI had the great good fortune to have the help of students from Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts. Amherst College sophomore Gil Wermeling made huge strides in mapping invasive plant species on three large stretches of the Mill River that impact our big farms – Smith Voke’s agricultural fields in Northampton, Grow Food Northampton Community Farm in Florence, and Valley View Farm in Haydenville. Gil's work will be incorporated into a grant proposal to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service next year, seeking to tackle the problem in one comprehensive ten-mile project.

Silke Hensteback, a UMass Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning junior, studied options for a trail from Smith College (Paradise Pond), along the base of Hospital and Yankee Hill from Paradise Pond through Bay State to the Clement Street Bridge.

Making Room for Plants front pag

Our highlight in 2016 was a book done by Gaby Immerman and the New England Wild Flower Society. It is a manual for managing invasive plants entitled  Making Room for Native Plants and Wildlife. The manual, supported by Smith College, is a plant-by-plant guide to the management and removal of invasive plants species commonly found encroaching on the banks and floodplains of the Mill River.

We spent most of 2017 preparing and planning for projects, although we happily finished a number of them. For example, we completed the trail dismount (aka the "Goat Path") in Haydenville from the rail trail, which included grading, guard rails, and native restoration plantings thanks to the work of Williamsburg's Highway Department.

Reid Bertone-Johnson's landscape studies seminar began class  scoping out a path at Florence Fields (Grow Food Northampton) from the parking lot at the downstream end of the recreation fields along the banks of the Mill River. They were searching for a potential crossing into Look Park. In addition, Smith senior Meg Kirsch developed plans for an outdoor classroom at the river’s edge.

MRGI teamed up with the Williamsburg Woodlands Trail Committee to raise funds for a fourth self-guided tour brochure, this one running ten miles from the site of the 1874 Dam Disaster to Florence Fields.

Our most exciting news that year:  Plans for a shared-use path along Route 9, connecting the villages of Haydenville and Williamsburg, were awarded a Mass Department of Transportation Project Number, declaring it eligible for state and federal transportation funding. Nick Dines' and the Williamsburg Mill River Greenway Committee's efforts are truly bearing fruit!

MRGI experienced heart-warming success in 2018.

Heidi Stevens and the Leeds Mill River Greenway Committee now have a great set of historic signs in the center of Leeds that follow the MRGI brochure’s riverwain

Gaby Immerman, Nick Dines and the Williamsburg Mill River Greenway Committee mentored four Smith College engineering majors, led by Professor Susannah Howe as they tackled a difficult section of Williamsburg's Haydenville to Burgy Center link aided by partners from Hyslip Engineering and the US Natural Resource Conservation Service. Working with professional engineers, they are helping design a reconfigured Route 9 that the Mass. Department of Transportation hopes will break ground in 2025. Their report can be found here.

The town of Williamsburg received grants of $9,999 and $50,000 to continue work on completing greenway work in Haydenville. An additional $30,000 in state funds for the greenway came from the efforts of our state legislators Steve Kulik, Adam Hinds and their staff.

A new park was born in Williamsburg when town meeting voted overwhelmingly to approve the acquisition of a new four-acre park located across the Mill River from Local Burgy, Village Green, and Family Veterinary Center. Williamsburg Greenway supporters contributed $8,000 in just two weeks to secure the purchase from our partners at Eversource Energy.

The Williamsburg Mill River Greenway Committee secured $30,000 in State Transportation Bond funds to contribute to greenway engineering design, thanks chiefly to the efforts of Senators Ben Downing and Adam Hinds and Representative Steve Kulik.

Eric Weber leading a hike at Williamsburg Dam. Photo: Candace Hope

Working closely with the Williamsburg Woodland Trails Committee (WWTC) and Smith College, MRGI produced our 4th self-guided tour, this one by car or bicycle. It follows the path of the 1874 Williamsburg Flood from the site of the dam on the Mill’s East Branch to the final resting place of its victims at Florence Meadows/Grow Food

Northampton Community Farm. Williamsburg historian Eric Weber designed the signage and wrote the text with Elizabeth Sharpe for this most extraordinary historic trail.

MRGI celebrated the Golden Spike gathering of cyclists and trail enthusiasts throughout Massachusetts in July when Gaby presented plans for our Haydenville-Burgy Center link. Our rail trail is part of two of the longest, most historic rail trails in New England.

The year ended with the publication of John Sinton's Devil's Den to Lickingwater: The Mill River Through Landscape and History. It tells evocative tales of the river and New England through 20,000 years of natural and human history from the last glaciation through 10,000 years of Indigenous history up to the present. You can find information about it here: Devil’s Den to Lickingwater.

Our work in 2019 built upon the efforts of 2018. Several institutions in the Pioneer Valley hosted events for John's Devil's Den to Lickingwater. In Williamsburg, Prof. Susannah Howe's Smith College design team of Beatrix Dalton, Kelsey Hammond, Serena Cattau, Jess McKnight presented their design and cost options for a significant section of the Haydenville to Burgy Center link, saving our local towns tens of thousands of dollars in project costs.

At the University of Massachusetts, Professor Jack Ahern of the Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning  Department had a team of top-notch graduate students tackle a series of studies to support biodiversity in inhabited landscapes and link these landscapes to protected core areas. The locations were all in the Mill River watershed and will provide design ideas for future land-use planning.

In the spring and summer, we joined with three of our partners -- Friends of Northampton Trails and Greenways, Historic Northampton, and the Connecticut River Conservance -- to coordinate a Mill River cleanup at a half dozen sites, to join in a bike ride to support efforts to combat climate change, and to enjoy a community bike tour of  Northampton's most notable trees.

In the fall we began two initiatives: The first was to gather a group of elementary school teachers from Williamsburg and Northampton to find ways to incorporate material from Devil's Den to Lickingwater into their schools' curricula. This will be an exercise in place-based education in which students learn about the world through the lens of their own landscapes, in this case, the Mill River watershed.

Second, we began the process of revamping our website, a task that will continue into 2020.