Devil’s Den to Lickingwater: The Mill River Through Landscape and History tells the multifaceted tale of the Mill River in Western Massachusetts, from its emergence after the glaciers 20,000 years ago to the present. This is in fact the story of New England, and much of America, as told by environmental historian John Sinton (co-author of Water, Earth and Fire: The New Jersey Pine Barrens and The Connecticut River Boating Guide). Little escapes Sinton’s voracious historical appetite – the creation of the landscape, the disappearance and reappearance of native fish and animals, the Mill River as a Native American crossroads, the contrast between English and Native ways of managing the land, the transformations wrought by war, floods and industrial disasters, the extraordinary role of the Mill River in the Industrial Revolution, and exceptional personalities from Sachem Umpanchala to Calvin Coolidge: all this is told through the arc of the Mill River’s history—beloved, abused, diverted, and ultimately reclaimed as an integral part of the landscape. 

Devil’s Den to Lickingwater, while describing a specific landscape, contains that element of universality that links readers to their own stories. It connects us with our past, and evokes a sense of what it was like to live along the river long ago. 

Beautifully written and lavishly illustrated with maps, drawings and other images, Devil’s Den to Lickingwater will serve as an exemplar for readers and authors of local and public history, proving that local history is a reflection of the larger world. Sinton’s unique book is a delight for the eye, the intellect, and the heart.

About John W. Sinton

Born in San Francisco in 1939, I spent my first thirteen winters there and my summers on the Truckee River outside Tahoe City, California. I spent the next four years at school in New England, then returned to the West Coast for college, after which I left the Bay Area to spend my graduate school years in Indiana and Paris. After receiving a doctorate in Russian and Early Modern European history, I taught history for two years and then changed my life’s trajectory. I went to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst as a post-doctoral scholar in environmental planning where I taught natural resource conservation from 1967-1972. 

After a 4-year stint as principal in an environmental planning firm from 1969-1972 in Amherst, I went to the newly-opened Stockton State College in southern New Jersey to help establish an environmental studies department. I spent twenty-seven years there as an environmental planner while teaching environmental planning, history, and geography. I became active in the creation and management of the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve, co-authored a book on it, and then studied and published articles on rivers both in the US and Europe. 

I retired in 1999 and moved to the village of Florence, Massachusetts in the City of Northampton, living some two hundred yards from the banks of the Mill River. I became an environmental activist and an integral part of the resurgent Connecticut River Conservancy for whom I co-authored The Boating Guide to the Connecticut River: Source to Sea. I remain an honorary board member of the CRC and an adjunct professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the Univ. Massachusetts, Amherst. I am a founding member and current co-moderator of the Mill River Greenway Initiative based in Williamsburg and Northampton. 

I have been married to Wendy Sinton since 1970. We have five sons, three grandsons, and eight granddaughters.

Where to Purchase a Copy of Devil’s Den 

Collective Copies: you can order online from 

    Collective Copies in Amherst on 71 S. Pleasant St. or Florence on 93 Main St.

Local Bookstores: Broadside or Booklink in Northampton; Odyssey in S. Hadley, or Amherst Books in Amherst

…or from Amazon

Praise for Devil’s Den to Lickingwater

Christine DeLucia, Assoc. Professor of History, Williams College. Author of Memorylands 

The Mill River that flows through western Massachusetts forms the centerpiece of John Sinton’s fine-grained study of water, land, people, and their complex interactions over extended spans of time. Sinton… weaves together environmental, social, economic, and cultural approaches to illuminate the minutiae and larger significances of this twenty-mile waterway, which flows into the larger Connecticut River. Moving fluently between birds-eye vantages and the perspectives of paddlers, and written in accessible prose, the book is well illustrated with images and maps from local historical collections that illuminate diverse facets of the river’s transformations. It blends commitment to critical localism with attentiveness to regional, national, and global developments, offering a compelling lens into the past, present, and future of a dynamic watershed.

Christopher Clark, Head of the Department of History, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs, Author of Rural Roots of Capitalism and The Communitarian Moment 

An important book, Devil's Den to Lickingwater is a fine environmental and industrial history of the Mill River in Williamsburg and Northampton. Its lively text, accompanied by beautiful maps and illustrations, tells a dramatic story of the river's many transformations through community enterprise and development, ecological challenges, disaster, decline, and rejuvenation. Both as an account of how the Mill River came to be as it is, and as an inspiration for ensuring its healthy future in the life of the region, this book will have lasting influence. 

Neal Salisbury, Richmond 1940 Professor Emeritus in History, Smith College, Author of Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England (1982) 

John Sinton has given us a masterpiece that is at once environmental history, local history, and a microcosm of New England, American, and global history. It interweaves the latest findings on all manner of scholarly topics with countless anecdotes of human beings, both inventive and foolish. Especially notable for incorporating Native Americans’ presence and perspectives. Beautifully written and illustrated. 

Elizabeth M. Sharpe, co-director of Historic Northampton, Author of In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874 

This is a must read for anyone interested in New England cultural and environmental history. John Sinton is a companionable and knowledgeable guide as he brings to life the cultural and landscape history of Northampton and Williamsburg through the story of the region’s lifeblood, the Mill River. Aided by many newly crafted maps and illustrations, Sinton describes in great clarity the river’s geologic history, its use and meaning to indigenous people, its industrial phase, and its revived place in the landscape today. A cogent discussion of the environmental impacts of deforestation, pollution, and invasive species places the Mill River in a national context. This highly readable volume should be on every New Englander’s bookshelf. 

Bruce Laurie, Professor Emeritus of History, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst, Author of Artisans into Workers, Beyond Garrison, and Rebels in Paradise: Sketches of Northampton Abolitionists 

This gem of a book offers an elegant yes to the question “Does nature have a history?”—along with us humans—through a detailed chronicle of the Mill River. This current trickle of water once had a heroic past, a sacred place to the early Native Americans and an invaluable resource to the first Anglo American settlers and later generations that harnessed its power to the region’s first mills and factories. John Sinton, the longtime environmental historian cum environmental activist, captures the history of the Mill in loving detail, exposing the changing shape of its flora, fauna, and aquatic life and larger impact on our landscape. It is beautifully written, richly detailed with maps and other illustrations, and informative throughout--a must and compelling read for everyone from environmentalists to local historians and general readers wishing to learn why we reside in such a special place. 

Helen Horowitz, Parsons Professor Emerita of History and American Studies, Smith College, Author of Rereading Sex, Alma Mater, and Traces of J.B. Jackson  

With rich knowledge and clear, evocative language, John Sinton interweaves the natural and engineered history of the Mill River in Western Massachusetts with the complex stories of settlements along its course. Sinton deftly traces the interactions of the river and its flooding waters with the forces that built farms, villages, towns, and cities alongside its banks—forest clearing, agriculture, industrialization, dams, transportation, and politics. Abundant maps and images enhance understanding and help bring this past world to life. Today, inspired by environmental awareness, interest in recreation, and tourism, a growing number of river walks allow new appreciation of the Mill River’s beauty. Sinton offers a compelling story and an important contribution to the growing literature of the interplay between nature and human action. 

Ted Steinberg, Distinguished Professor of History and Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve Univ., author of Gotham Unbound (2015), Down to Earth (2002), Acts of God (2000) 

A beautifully written microhistory that will make you care deeply for this winding little New England tributary in ways you never dreamed. A remarkable book and lavishly illustrated to boot. 

Larry Hott, Award-winning filmmaker at Hott Productions and Florentine Films. Wild by Law, John James Audubon, Rising Voices and many more.

Take a dollop of geography, a tablespoon of industrial history, and a pinch of city planning, blend them together into a compelling tale of a New England river and you’ve got a recipe for John Sinton’s fascinating book. I’ve lived along the Mill River for decades but I never knew just how many hundreds of mills dotted its banks, or the details of the utopian and abolitionist movements that sprung up nearby, or the impact of the many devastating floods that affected the layout of Northampton. Sinton is a master storyteller who knows that a river’s history is far more entertaining when its central players are people who not only changed the course of the river but the character of the region as well. 

Richard Smardon, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse NY, author of Revitalizing Urban Waterway Communities, Sustaining the World’s Wetlands, and many others.

John Sinton takes us on a full-immersion journey in environmental history with his book Devil's Den to Linkingwater: The Mill River through Landscape and History. He utilizes intensive historical research, a la Paul Krugman and William Cronon, to give 'voice to the river' in what he terms an awikhigan – the Abenaki word for representing the world in different ways. He covers the Mill River's history from early geologic times, through Native American eras and the period of early European settlers all the way up to the present. Major hydrologic events like floods and river diversions are covered, as well as their interactions with riverine communities. This book will be of interest to those whose appetites include; natural and cultural landscape history, environmental interpretation, cultural ecology, and river-related planning and management