Sunday, March 21, 2010

Nemasket Water Levels

Since the City of Taunton constructed its gatehouse at the head of the Nemasket River, controlling the outflow from Lake Assawompsett, one of the principal preoccupations relative to the Nemasket River has been the level of water flowing in the river, with concerns often voiced when those levels became exceptionally low. “With the amount of water running in the River now, [it could not] be expected to float much more than a canoe” [1949].

Prior to the construction of the gatehouse in 1895, the height of the river was also often an issue, not because of too little water, but ironically because of too much water. In the nineteenth century, the water level of the river and particularly the ponds was often considered excessive, and flooding naturally occurred, especially during the spring when heavy rains and melting snow frequently created freshets which saw the river overflow its banks. This state of things became so troubling that in 1834 a strip of land four rods wide running along the old river bed from Lake Assawompsett was purchased from Job Townsend of Middleborough by Hopestill Bisbee. The land was placed “in trust for the owners of land around and adjoining the several ponds in Middleborough and Rochester” in order that these owners might collectively or individually “dig open a canal for keeping down or lowering the water in said Ponds”. Throughout the century, both the river and ponds often reached excessive levels. In 1875, the ponds were described as being “unusually full of water”, the highest since 1852.

Nonetheless, what is generally overlooked is that even prior to the gatehouse’s construction, the Nemasket River could often prove a fickle and inconstant stream in regards to both flow and level of its waters. During many seasons, the height of the river would fall drastically with implications for the industrial enterprises located further downstream in Middleborough. In July, 1873, both the Star Mill at the Lower Factory and the shovel works at the Upper Factory were forced to suspend operations temporarily due to lack of water to power their machinery. Three years later, in August, 1876, the two businesses once more were compelled to place their operatives on half-time because of a similar shortage of water. Low water levels combined with ice could also prove inimical to factory production along the Nemasket. In February, 1875, the lack of water was “severely felt by the mills in Middleboro”.

During the remarkable and prolonged drought of 1883, the Plymouth Old Colony Memorial reported on August 2 that “low water in the Nemasket River prevents excursion parties to the lake from Middleboro. Assawampsett Lake, it is said, has not been so low at this time for many years” though it was still some 4½ inches higher than it had been during the 1865 drought. Rains in late October had little effect on raising the water levels, “all being at their lowest point”. In October, 1891, the water level was exceptionally low. “At the mouth of the Nemasket the water is but twenty-six inches deep, while last year it was forty inches in depth.” Like 1883, 1949 was also an exceptionally dry year and as a result “in some places there was no water running in the upper reaches of the river”.

Contrarily, the river could (and still can) run exceptionally high, as in the present year. During a winter storm in late February, 1903, “the wind swept huge sheets of water from the surface of the Nemasket river and carried it down stream, and the river is badly swollen”. Six years later, heavy rains in late February and early March, 1909, raised the level of the river which overflowed its banks and “across the fields and meadows a lot of water has backed up.” In 1930, following a severe drought, “the rains came so abundantly that by the next December, Ralph Sampson, chief engineer at the municipal pumping station, found the Nemasket river had risen so high that the water stopped running downstream and headed back towards its source in Assawompsett".

And high water levels could result in flooding low-lying land along the river's banks, high river levels frequently were a boon to the industrial operations along the river. In 1909, so much water flowed in the river that the municipal light plant found it could operate the day service on hydro power alone.

Nemasket River Looking Upstream from Vaughan Street, photograph by Michael J. Maddigan, March 21, 2010
This view shows the heights the Nemasket River is capable of reaching during particularly wet springs. Here, the typically low-lying wetlands abutting the river have been inundated, a result of a nor'easter the previous week.


Brockton Enterprise, January 1, 1950; January 10, 1950; January 11, 1950.
Brockton Times, undated clipping, late February, 1903.
Middleboro Gazette, “Middleboro”, March 3, 1909, p. 6; Ibid., March 12, 1909, p. 6
Old Colony Memorial, July 31, 1873; February 11, 1875; April 22, 1875; and May 20, 1875, August 24, 1876; February 2, 1883; September 6, 1883; November 1, 1883 and October 7, 1891
Plymouth Deeds 180:255


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