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Publication Date

2013

Abstract

Puritans first settled Northampton, Massachusetts in the mid-17th century with a vision in mind – that of a well-ordered community in which the Mill River would play an integral part in their lives. So long as the community hewed to the right path, the river would accommodate the community’s needs. Primary among those needs was waterpower, so the anchor sites for development along the river were the falls. Over the next 200 years, as the Puritan mind metamorphosed into an American industrial mentality, the Mill River’s residents created an industrial necklace with mills and factories decorating a ribbon of water. By the mid-19th century, more than 70 mills and factories were established along 15 miles of river from Northampton’s Lower Mills up to Devil’s Den near the headwaters of the river in Goshen. By the mid-20th century, with the Mill River Valley’s industrial base in rapid decline, the necklace deteriorated into a sad scattering of empty factory buildings with little connection to one another. The vision perished and the river escaped the minds of most residents, especially in Northampton where the Corps of Engineers relocated its flow away from the town center.

Industry along the river is all but gone. Relic industrial sites now dot the Mill River’s banks, separated by flat stretches of the river that were never appealing for water-powered manufacturing. Though more prone to flooding, many of those stretches have been developed as recreational destinations. The Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) State Forest in Goshen and Look Park in Florence are just such places, but substantial inaccessible gaps remain between the old factory sites. The factories turned their backs to the river, severing any remaining connection to residents and visitors. There cannot be a true, continuous greenway if these key spots are not renewed and connected. The industrial sites themselves, called “anchor sites,” can serve as gateways and destination points along one continuous greenway, providing access to the stretches of river between them.

A few anchor sites have been resuscitated or renovated, such as Meekins Library in Williamsburg Center and old mill buildings in Florence. People are returning, but the ways in which people and these sites relate to the river need to be addressed so that people can come back and reconnect to the river at historically and geographically significant locations. The Mill River Greenway Initiative is the story of a renewed vision, which, like the original, is being pieced together by individuals and small groups -- the creation of a new kind of necklace composed of those same sites at falls and bridges, which, when linked, will provide fulfillment for walkers, naturalists, and anglers, history buffs, artists, and tourists. The river will, once again, play an integral role in the lives of residents.

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