The Sudbury River

I am constantly amazed at the power of Mother Nature. Every New Englander has felt her wrath in one form or another and I’m sure each of us has a story to tell our grandchildren. The Blizzard of ’78, Hurricane Bob, you name it. But the rain event of the last couple of days serves as a reminder of what a good ol’ Nor’easter can do to us especially if a river runs through your town.

All the Boston weather stations predicted the same. Up to 4″ of rain will fall over the weekend, and that flooding will likely occur in low lying areas. No kidding. The part they didn’t predict was the 6″ of rain that actually fell in some of our communities. Compound that with a river and here we go!

The river is the Sudbury. As a brief history it originates in the Cedar Swamp of Westborough travelling 32 miles to Egg Rock in Concord where it merges with the Assabet River to form the Concord River. It wasn’t always called the Sudbury here in Ashland, and as late as 1854 it was actually penned as the Concord River on local maps of Ashland. Along with the railroad, the Sudbury River is credited as being one of primary reasons Ashland exists today. Multiple mills and businesses harnessed its power dating back to Colonel John Jones’s mill in the early 18th century. Today, unfortunately, the Sudbury River is probably more associated with Nyanza contamination than the majestic waterway that it is.

Although it stretches along multiple west suburban Boston communities, I am going to concentrate on the Ashland portion of the Sudbury. Starting along Cordaville Road and coming from Southboro, the river basically follows the railroad tracks until it reaches Pleasant Street at the site of the old Metcalf’s Mill (known as the original starting line of the Boston Marathon).

Now following Pleasant Street behind the houses, the river pools at Mill Pond at the end of Main Street and the bottom of Myrtle Street. This area is probably the most recognized due to the dam at Mill Pond. After all this rain I’m sure there was a fair amount of concern about the rising water level. The water was coming dangerously close to coming over the roadway.

Moving on, the river flows along Main Street, under Concord Street next to the new addition for the library, and down Front Street where it crosses under the road just before the Fountain Street Bridge. This is the point where the river fills Reservoir #2 of the MDC, or the Metropolitan Water Works as it was known in the late 1800s.

Apparently we were not paying attention to the proposal from the City of Boston in 1872 to use the Sudbury to supply water via basins to the city. Several acts were passed by the General Court clearing the way for the creation of multiple water basins, and this was one of them. Not only did this fill once valuable land in Ashland, it also effectively slowed or stopped the Sudbury via the dams that were constructed to fill the reservoirs.

This created havoc all along the Sudbury River for mills and factories that once depended upon the river for the generation of power. Two more reservoirs were constructed. One in the valley of the Cold Spring Brook called Reservoir #4 in 1885 and entirely in Ashland, and one more in Hopkinton known as Reservoir #6 in 1894. The City of Boston tried another bite of the apple in Ashland but this time we were ready. A committee was formed to draw whatever funds were needed to defend the town against any more water “privileges” being granted to the City of Boston. As it worked out we were spared by the creation of the Wachusett Reservoir which filled the needs of the city. In addition, the General Court passed an Act granting the town of Ashland $2200.00 per month in damages “until ten years after the reservoirs or basins situated in said town of Ashland cease to be part of the metropolitan water system.”

I often wondered what the Sudbury, and the accompanying land in Ashland, would have looked like today if these reservoirs were not built. That whole stretch of water between Waverly Street and Fountain that now graces every New England calendar’s October page may still have the roads and some of the mill buildings that were taken for the reservoir. With the advent of electricity in the late 19th century there was probably no real need for additional water power so I doubt many more mills or factories would have been built right along the river. But who knows. With all the attention directed to solar and wind power lately there may be renewed interest in water power. Probably more now after watching the river run the last couple of days. Don’t worry about gearing up to this old but new technology because I’m sure there must be a few of Lombard Governor’s water speed regulators lying around somewhere. Maybe at the Smithsonian next to Henry Warren’s Master Clock.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions

April 2010