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Reading Room - Watershed Perspectives - History

Past History
by Jim French, MDC Land Acquisition Coordinator

The landscape of the Nashua River watershed (as the rest of New England) is the beautiful aftermath of the advance and retreat of an unimaginable quantity of ice. While you may pick up a stone that is millions of years old, its present shape and location is entirely due to the glacial forces which worked it some 13,000 years ago - the blink of an eye in geologic time. This most recent glacier may have plucked this stone from some bedrock miles to the north, rolled and dragged it beneath and within tons of ice and debris, and deposited it in a torrential tumble of melt water down a retreating front of ice. This ebb and flow of glaciers has occurred several times over the millennia. Mountains once rivaling the Himalayas are thus reduced to gentle hills and rolling plains.

With the glacier gone, rains, rivulets, and rivers reduced and leveled the land. A few protrusions of very resistant rock have resisted these eroding forces, leaving us with worn down lone mountains called monadnocks (after their namesake in Jaffrey). Our Wachusett Mountain is such a peak.

The Nashua River watershed would not take the shape we know today until the last glacier had finished its work here. Its departure is not a cleanly chronicled event, now here, now gone. The gradual retreat was punctuated with Battle of the Bulge style advances. Glacial lakes were created and destroyed as massive ice dams temporarily spanned valleys, then broke, and formed again. Trillions upon trillions of tons of stones, sand, and gravel mixed and washed through and around an equal bulk of ice and bedrock - forming and reforming as the freeze/thaw energies of the era kaleidoscoped. Some material was sorted by melt water to form sand and gravel deposits. Some fine silts suspended in the water columns of ancient lakes, slowly settling to the bottom to form beds of clay. Most was simply abandoned by melting ice as a hodgepodge of rock and sand we call till. These various land forms, together with a warming climate, would largely determine the evolution of our present day landscape.

To know what the Nashua watershed region looked like 10,000 years ago (post glacial) one needs only travel to the treeless tundra in the northern reaches of Canada. With the passing centuries, ice shrunk further toward the world's top and the Nashua region slowly warmed. Tundra gave way to spruce and fir which in turn yielded to the boreal forests of birch and tamarack. The occasional band of the first people here - Paleo Indians of asian origin - may have followed the Nashua while tracking herds of large, now extinct, game. As the summers lengthened, the forest phased to what is called the northern hardwood type with a preponderance of maple, birch, pine, and beech. In time the Appalachian hardwood type of oak and hickory would make an appearance from more southerly environs. These two forest types now mingle in the Nashua watershed in what is called the transition zone, giving us a wonderfully diverse array of forest types to enjoy today.

Human occupation passed to the Early (7,000 - 5,000 years ago) and Late (5,000 - 300 AD) Archaic Indians. Populations were nomadic, sparse, and subsisted on hunting and gathering. Technological advances some 2,000 years ago, most notably in agriculture and pottery, permitted people to live in one site for extended periods of time. The Ceramic-Woodland Period followed the Late Archiac and lasted until European contact. Growing and processing food led to more substantial shelters, the establishment of villages, and a more complex social infrastructure. The bottomland soils of the Nashua River valley supported a number of settlements, with hunting still an all important activity. The landscape was rich in forests, game, pristine and teeming rivers, and the occasional agricultural opening. Large-scale burning of upland forestlands was routinely practiced to keep woodlands free of thick undergrowth and more favorable for game habitat and hunting. Intermittent periods of peace, tribal conflicts, paucity and plenty kept populations keyed to a social and natural resource equilibrium with the land. A carrying capacity of the natural world ruled then as now. Unlike now, however, that capacity could not be imported, allowing a populace to be propped up by non-indigenous resources.

The Contact or Historic Period began with the earliest European visitors in the 16th century. Within a few short decades, the inhabitants relying on the Nashua (an algonguin word meaning "land between") system of streams, rivers, and contributing lands would enjoy the wonder of iron pots and steel knives, but suffer greatly from decimating disease brought from across the great water. Most of the native Indian population of New England was lost to the plague of 1617/18, paving the way for the pilgrims' progress along the coastal regions.

The pace of events and changes in the landscape since the Mayflower is dizzying. In human life spans that can be counted on one hand, the seeming limitless wilderness of New England would be subjected to an unprecedented metamorphosis. English common law, with its concept of land ownership and partition, gained a foothold with puritan settlement - a concept unknown to native peoples. By 1776, the white population of the thirteen colonies stood at six million. Land ownership patterns in the Nashua basin followed the regional model, affording each family the acreage necessary to carry out agricultural pursuits. By 1840, fully three quarters of the landscape would be open fields and pasture. One of the world's greatest temperate forest zones was thus reduced to pocket remnants along rocky ridges and stubborn swamps. The mighty Nashua meandered through an open English-style landscape that would be unrecognizable to today's inhabitants.

Burgeoning industrial/urban development and the opening of western lands following the Civil War meant fewer young men and women returning to rocky New England farms. Large scale farm abandonment in the second half of the 19th century resulted in the shrinking of open fields and the expansion of returning forest cover. Working lifestyles changed. Wildlife habitats and populations changed. Food and fiber was increasingly imported from elsewhere. The Nashua, like so many rivers in the region, once again drained wooded slopes laced with stonewalls which fenced trees rather than cattle and sheep. The population of Massachusetts is now six million — less than one acre per capita - the equivalent of crowding all colonial residents of 1776 into one small state.

The dizzying pace of landscape change shows no signs of abating. Massachusetts' service and high tech economy forces workers to rely on automobiles, shopping malls, and tract housing. We have come a long way from subsistence villages keyed to the land's carrying capacity for local food and fiber. The present rate of land consumption for transportation, businesses, and housing in the Nashua watershed is typical of the entire region, where each year thousands of acres are reverted from a natural to a built environment. Ours is the Wooded Suburbia Period.

Changes in the Nashua River watershed landscape will continue: from month to month and from millennia to millennia. One can only imagine.

Recent History
by Marion Stoddart, NRWA Founder

Over the past 3 decades, monumental changes have occurred in the Nashua River Watershed. Population and new building have increased dramatically. Growth in several of our watershed communities has outpaced growth throughout the Commonwealth. Most of the mills along the Nashua River have closed. A few of the mills have been converted to other uses: mostly, small start-up companies. Others lie vacant. Agriculture, once an important part of the region's economy, has become almost a relic of the past. Small rural towns are becoming burgeoning suburban communities.

Many orchards, dairies and farms now grow industries, businesses and houses instead of apples, cows and pumpkins. Open land, once fertile fields and shaded woods have been converted to asphalt and crisscrossed with roads. Ridiculously, wastefully and shortsightedly, expensive infrastructure is being constructed to service new industries being built on top of irreplaceable open space and farmland. Mill cities, e.g., Fitchburg, with existing infrastructure of roads, rail, airport, sewage treatment facilities and available industrial buildings are being ignored as places to locate new industry.

Environmentally, the most significant improvement that has occurred in the Nashua River Watershed in the past 3 decades is the restoration of the Nashua River and the establishment of a greenway along much of its riverbanks. During the mid-1960's, the Nashua River was considered one of the 10 most polluted rivers in the United States. It was an open sewer. It was septic. It stunk. It looked horrible. It flowed in different colors. It was matted with sludge. Birds and small animals could walk across the top of it. Land along the river was given little or no value because of the nuisance condition of the river.

Paradoxically, because the River was so polluted, land along the river was mostly undeveloped and remained in its natural vegetative state. Thanks to visionaries who believed that the river could be restored and to all of the leaders and people who worked together on local, regional, state and federal levels to secure the necessary funding to construct the needed waste water treatment facilities, the Nashua River is once again a beautiful and healthy river for all to enjoy. Importantly, too, is recognition of the need to create a plan to protect what has been saved and that what is threatened.

Another very important change that has taken place in the watershed in the past 3 decades has been the organization of a multitude of dedicated and effective conservation organizations that are working collaboratively and synergistically to protect the watershed's natural resources. In the mid-1960's, the Nashua River Clean-Up Committee was formed.

The Committee was comprised of thousands of watershed citizens, businesses, industries, organizations and governmental agencies including Fort Devens. The Clean-Up Committee's mission was to restore the Nashua River for all uses. In 1969, the Nashua River Clean-Up Committee reorganized as the Nashua River Watershed Association to complete the clean-up, protect clean water, establish a continuous greenway along both sides of the Nashua River and its major tributaries and to develop a conservation plan for the whole watershed.

Throughout these collaborative organizational efforts, planning has been and continues to be at the forefront of all activity making possible the protection of thousands of acres of open space including farmland, vital wildlife habitat and wildlife and recreational corridors. In 1970, the first Plan for the Nashua River Watershed was produced. Since publication, efforts have been ongoing to implement the Plan and to update and broaden its scope. Environmental education is a strong new element. The notion that a good economy and a good environment go hand-in-hand is at the heart of the Plan. Volunteers and a professional staff and our own River Resource Center that is located near the Nashua River in Groton enable us to advance our goals. Membership interest and support from individuals, businesses and organizations funds our work. This support continues to grow.

As history has amply demonstrated, there will always be a need for a protector of the Nashua River Watershed!


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