The largest city in the western third of Massachusetts has one of the most common names among American places: Springfield, and much of its history is the result of a stream with a very generic name: Mill River. This Springfield happens to be the first in the country to have this name, although I’m not as sure about Mill River.
The water of this stream powered the country’s first great armory and other industries that developed the economy of New England in the 19th and 20th centuries. This river’s reservoir, dams, and course have been subject to more than two centuries of pollution and neglect, but there is also potential for this stream to serve as a green corridor connecting the city’s interior to its waterfront.
Where it Flows
A map of the Mill River watershed from a USGS report published in 2016 shows a sizable catchment area covering most of Springfield, and the neighboring towns of Wilbraham, East Longmeadow, and Hampden. Within Springfield the streams north and south branches merge in a reservoir. It then flows through a narrow channel that is underground for its final quarter mile before emptying into the Connecticut River.
A map from 1882 shows the downtown of Springfield as a railroad hub with streets running towards the Connecticut River parallel to the railroad. Mill River appears on the south side of the city with Watershops Pond as the reservoir. It was formed in 1809 to provide water for a federal armory that was commissioned more than a decade earlier by President Washington.
A property atlas from 1920 shows Mill River downstream from the armory lined with mills and manufacturers that relied on the water and polluted this stream. By the 1950s, the section downstream from Main Street was channeled through a tunnel. On this map, it is left blank as it appears on a different map page.
Conditions of Mill River
Watershops Pond also has the name Lake Massasoit, after an upscale 19th century hotel that stood near this waterway. Throughout its history, the pond has been drained for cleaning and each time the city finds discarded vehicles and human remains on the murky bottom. On account of pollution, swimming was banned in 1984.
At the turn of the 20th century, this lake hosted canoes and public beaches, serving as an inland sea for Springfield. On its north side, Springfield College used the lake for rowing, hockey, and ice skating. The cold New England winters enabled the use of this pond for ice harvesting. Because this college was the birthplace of basketball, in 1956 the sport’s Hall of Fame was proposed on campus, overlooking this lake. Instead it was built on the Connecticut River, closer to the city center. That year the Massachusetts Planning Board received a report arguing for the lake’s restoration on account of its history, recreational and civil defense uses.
On the western side of Watershops Pond is an abandoned trestle that carried the highland Division line across the waterway. The last train ran here in 1993 and since then portions of its right-of-way have been developed, left abandoned, and proposed for linear parks. A century ago, New England had more railroads than today on account of industry and passenger use. Today, with trucking and car ownership, railroads have lost their profitability. Not every rail line can be transformed into a rail-trail, but certainly those with scenic views and this trestle that reduces traveling time around this pond should be considered for public use as a bikeway.
In contrast to the historic Springfield Armory closer to the city center, the former Water Shops Armory is privately-owned. Built in 1858 and reaching its present size in 1941, this complex is on the National Register of Historic Places. I can imagine this light manufacturing site adapted for retail and offices in the style of Chelsea Market, or as a hotel with a conference center. At the same time, some of the industries at this site should be retained as they provide jobs, contribute to the economy and serving as a physical link to the complex’s manufacturing past.
The river flows out of the former armory through a ravine paralleled by the appropriately-named Rifle Street. A quarter mile downstream, Stebbins Park and Jonny Appleseed Park line the stream. But it is hardly visible amid thick vegetation and fences to keep the public away. Above, one can see Jonny Appleseed Park at Hancock Street and Dickinson Street but the stream is hidden by the trees behind the playground. The park’s namesake is the legendary New Englander who spread the Gospel and the cultivation of apples on his travels west from Massachusetts to Indiana.
The river then flows through another ravine paralleled for a half mile by Locust Street. At the six-point intersection of Locust Street, Mill Street, Fort Pleasant Avenue, and Belmont Avenue the river is spanned by the buildings of Mill Park Office Commons, a former mill transformed into small offices.
Downstream from that intersection is a historic former firehouse that is now a funeral hall and cremation service. From its parking lot one can see the stream rapidly flowing through a tight ravine. The stream enters its longest underground section behind 15 Mill Street.
The block where Mill River runs underground has room for daylighting if the sizable parking lots were cleared, as done in Yonkers and its Saw Mill River. Curiously this block features the dead-end Mill River Lane that serves as a reminder of the stream flowing underneath it.
Interstate 91 also covers the stream, which sees daylight again in a tight concrete channel on the western side of the highway. Parking lots line the channel on land that used to be the Hampden County Jail. The stream then dips below the Amtrak Hartford Line and empties into the Connecticut River.
An undated postcard found on eBay shows what happens when the Connecticut River and Mill River flood their banks, resulting in the evacuation of the jail. Its present location is further inland and uphill from any nearby streams.
The confluence can be seen from the Connecticut Riverwalk and Bikeway that follows the river. Presently this bikeway dead-ends near the South End Bridge, and there are plans it extend this trail further downstream. Note the sediment deposited by Mill River at its mouth, reminiscent of my earlier essay on the Kamenka River in Novosibirsk.
Daylighting the Mill River
In my earlier essay on the Slepianka River in Minsk, I noted that among the river’s designers, architect Svetlana Filipovich is now among my colleagues at NYC Parks. Likewise with landscape architect Amy C. Verel, who also worked on a hidden urban waterway outside of NYC.
Back in 2010 as a student at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, she published a Master’s Project titled “Reclaiming the Miracle Mile: A Greenway Park Design & Land Use Strategy for Springfield’s Lower Mill River.” Verel’s report envisioned the daylighting of Mill River’s underground sections and a linear park connecting its dam at Watershops Pond to its confluence with Connecticut River. In the decade since her report, no meaningful action has been taken by the city to realize her vision. Lack of political will, lack of grassroots pressure, lack of funding. For now, this stream remains an afterthought for Springfield.
Elsewhere in Springfield
As with most cities that I’ve documented, Springfield has other hidden waterways with a history. On its southern border is Forest Park whose streams and terrain have the appearance of Mill River and its ravine. The 735-acre park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who is best known for New York’s Central Park.
On the north side of Springfield in the historic Hungry Hill neighborhood is Van Horn Reservoir. Built to provide drinking water for the city, it was decommissioned in 1908 and serves as the centerpiece of Van Horn Park. Excess water from this reservoir flows under the city’s streets towards the Connecticut River. Within the vicinity of Springfield, the city of Holyoke has its network of canals that provided water for paper mills along their banks. Continuing upstream on the Connecticut River near the town of Northampton is the most famous oxbow bend in art history, painted by Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School. As an Art History instructor, visiting this oxbow bend, which appears prominently in my lectures, would be like a pilgrimage to a historic site.
The potential to develop hidden waterways into public resources, and the Basketball Hall of Fame gives me reason to visit Springfield. I have a friend who grew up here, he presently lives in New York. I am curious about life in his hometown.
In the News:
Norwood News reports on the history of Aqueduct Walk in western Bronx.
The Wave reports on the reconstruction of the sports fields at American Park in Broad Channel.
Morgan Messenger reports on plans to restore Warm Springs run to its natural appearance in Morgan County, West Virginia.