Friday, September 18, 2015

Assabet River Clean Up 2015

The 29th annual OARS Rivers Clean Up took place September 19, 2015. Teams of volunteers were assigned locations along the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord Rivers. Information and photos will be posted at

Consider donating money to OARS if you cannot contribute time. In addition to the annual clean-ups, OARS conducts a water quality monitoring program and periodic efforts to remove invasive water plants.

From a 2010 write-up of that year's event: "Cleanup tasks roughly divide into muckers, heavers and drylanders. Muckers work in the river, either wearing waterproof waders or old pants and shoes that they are willing to get very wet. Trash found in the river is loaded into canoes which serve as shallow draft barges to transport trash to the haul-out sites. Heavers work at the edge of the river. They remove trash from the canoes and either drag or heave it to the top of the riverbank. There, drylanders drag everything to the piles that will later be collected by the Department of Public Works trucks from the various towns. Drylanders also collect trash that can be reached along the riverbanks without getting wet."

View under Walnut Street Bridge (1974, Maynard Historical Society)
How bad was it before OARS (originally OAR, for Organization for the Assabet River) started the trash removal efforts? For whatever reasons, there had been a tradition of dumping old tires and other trash into the Assabet River off of the Walnut Street Bridge. Maybe the thinking was that all this would be washed downstream by high water in the spring. To some degree that was true. Well into this century hundreds of tires were still being removed from the stretch downstream of the Elks Lodge parking lot. Either those had been being dumped at that site or had washed down river from Walnut Street.

Beyond tires and scrap metal and glass bottles and aluminum cans and pottery shards and plastic bottles and foam coffee cups, these rivers have had pollution problems that date way, way back. From the 1913 Annual Report of the State Board of Health "The Assabet River has at various times been seriously polluted in different parts of its course, the most serious condition in recent years below Maynard where the river receives sewage and manufacturing waste from a very large woolen mill and a considerable quantity of sewage also from the town... the river continues to be objectionable in appearance and odor, especially below Maynard."
View under Walnut Street Bridge (2015)
Wool straight off a sheep, known as "wool in the grease", contains lanolin - the greasy substance which coats each hair - plus a year's worth of dead skin, dried sweat residue, dirt, dust and dead plant fragments (and some dried urine and feces). Clean yield is 50 to 60 percent of original fleece weight. The mill's contributions to the river included all the waste from scouring raw wool and also dye chemicals rinsed off after the dyeing process.

Present day, no mills operate on the Assabet, Sudbury or Concord Rivers or tributaries. Industrial pollution has ceased. The various municipal wastewater treatment plants are compliant with much stricter phosphorus release limits than in the past (phosphorus being the critical promoter of algae and other water plant growth). However, there are still problems with phosphorus and nitrogen contributions from storm water, plus phosphorus leaching out from sediment behind the obsolete mill dams. By the end of summer the view looking down from the Main Street Bridge in Maynard is of an emerald-green river bottom consisting of long strands of algae clinging to the rocks.    

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

1816: Year without a Summer

Two hundred years ago - April 1815 -  the volcanic mountain Mount Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, blew its top in a massive, multi-day, explosive series of eruptions, blasting rocks, dust and ash as high as 20 miles. The mountain lost 1/3 of its height and an estimated 35-40 cubic miles of mountaintop. Sounds of the explosions were heard more than 1,000 miles away. As with all things measurable, there is a scale: the volcanic explosivity index (VEI), is similar to the Richter Scale for earthquakes, in that each number is ten times larger than the previous number. Mount St. Helens (1980) was a 5. Mount Tambora (1815) has been retroactively designated a 7, making it the last 7 to occur in recorded history.  

Almost 10,000 miles away from Maynard and Stow - what's the point?  The answer is that across New England, the next year - 1816 - was known as "the year without a summer." High altitude dust and ash from Mount Tambora had spread across the entire globe, reflecting sunlight and causing global cooling. Worldwide, calamitously abnormal weather resulted in drought in some areas and massive flooding in others, crop failures, famine, political unrest, rampant cholera in Asia and typhus in Western Europe.

There were frosts every month. Rare warm spells were pushed out by blasts of cold air descending from Canada. In Salem, one day in late April saw a high of 74F, followed by a night's low of 21F. Snow flurries fell on Boston on June 6th, with snow blanketed the land to the north and west. People wore winter coats and mittens to Fourth of July events. The August 15th issue of the Middlesex Gazette, published in Concord, MA, stated that the weather was " cold as to render a fire [in the fireplace] not uncomfortable."

Cold-sensitive crops such as corn never came to harvest. The cost of animal feed tripled. By fall, farmers across New England were butchering their pigs, cows and oxen because they did not have feed to get through the winter. Horses starved. Keep in mind that this calamity predated railroads, so food was difficult to transport from less afflicted regions.

In 1817, spring came late. People feared that a repeat was due. From one account: "Many thought that the wild weather was evidence of God’s divine will. As a result, there was an upswing in religious revivals in 1816 and 1817. Others thought the perverse weather was the result of sunspots, or that cold air from Atlantic icebergs was blowing inland, or that New England’s deforestation was allowing cold winds to blow in from Canada. Many New England farmers, done in by a combination of depleted, rocky soil and merciless weather, decided to head west, which at the time meant western New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. In the decade ending in 1820, more than 200,000 people migrated west from New England."

Locally, not so much. The populations of Sudbury, Stow, Acton and Concord all increased by about ten percent from 1810 to 1820. (Maynard did not exist until 1871.)  Perhaps this near to the coast the effects had not been as severe as in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, by Lake Geneva, Lord Byron and his co-travelers were having a horrible summer - gloom, unrelenting rain and howling, lightning-ridden thunderstorms. Indoors most of the time, and bored, they challenged each other to create ghost stories. Byron's narrative poem "Darkness" contained the lines: " Morn came, and went—and came, and brought no day/And men forgot their passions in the dread/Of this their desolation; and all hearts/Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light."

Byron's physician friend, John Polidori, was inspired to pen "The Vampyre," with a plot that was the first known to portray this bloodsucking monster as an aristocratic fiend who preys among high society. Mary Wollencraft Shelley began her work on what became her famous novel, "Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus."

For those in fear of a super-volcano apocalypse, know that the last major eruption of the Yellowstone Park hotspot, approximately 640,000 years ago, rated an 8 on the VEI scale. It ejected an estimated 240 cubic miles of rock, dust and ash. Doomsayers point out that Yellowstone is thought by some to have a history of erupting roughly every 500,000 years.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Suburban Ravens in Massachusetts

EXTIRPATED: the condition of a species that ceases to exist in the chosen geographic area of study, though it still exists elsewhere, i.e., locally extinct. Often tinted with a meaning that incorporates a deliberate destruction and eradication of an evil presence.

For those with an attentive ear to bird calls, Maynard's summer has been host to a mystery which, depending on how you feel about scarily large black birds, is either a return of nature or a return of evil. Amongst the common "Kaws" of crows there has been the occasional deeper-voiced "Awk, Awk." First guess was that this was a crow with a sore throat, or perhaps a vocal dyslexia (Kaw versus Awk?). However, many sightings confirmed that what Maynard has is a resident pair of ravens, which this year successfully raised a family.

What's interesting here is that dogma on ravens states they are people averse. Most habitat maps show ravens in Alaska, Canada and down the spine of the Rocky Mountains, but in the east limited to northern parts of northern states. The reasons are three-fold. First, ravens prefer forests. As this part of Massachusetts became settled by European colonists the forests were cut to make space for farming, for housing, for industry and to provide firewood. Even unfarmable hilltops became sheep pasture.

Three exposures of one raven in flight (internet photo)
Second, ravens prefer not being shot. Past times, there were no hunting/shooting restrictions on crow and ravens. Both are known to damage crops, including pulling up seedling corn to eat the kernels. Both are carrion eaters, but ravens have been known to be more proactive, for example, raiding chicken coops for chicks and eggs, and killing newborn lambs. For good reasons, generations of ravens taught their offspring to stay far away from humans.

Third, ravens like to eat. Pre-colonial forests had been home to deer, elk and moose. Wolf kill and winter kill provided carcasses for these carrion feeders to dine on all winter, and of greater importance, hair to line nests and early spring food sources for their hatchlings. The recent explosive growth of the deer population contributes to a year-round food source, supplemented by scavenging road kill, nest robbing, and so on. Ravens will eat almost anything, including food left outside for pets and garbage from open-top dumpsters behind restaurants and food markets.

So, much akin to other extirpated species which have been returning to eastern Massachusetts - deer, turkey, beaver, bear - a decline of hunting combined with an expansion of preferred habitat (forests over farmers' fields) has led to a return of ravens. For birds, especially, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it "...illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter... any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations." There is a hunting season for crows (and deer, and turkeys, and black bears), but not for ravens.

Ravens are wanderers but not migrators. An adult pair will defend a territory that can be ten miles in area, chasing away interlopers, including their own chicks from previous years. Younger birds, up to five years old, will gather to roost at night, or to take advantage of a food bonanza (dead deer) by day, but otherwise are opportunistic feeders and solo travelers.  

In conclusion, if ever you hear a bird call louder than any crow should be, look to the sky. The size difference is hard to perceive without a side-by-side, but ravens in flight glide more often compared to crows' flap, flap, flap. At wing ends, the primary feathers of a raven are splayed. What you are seeing is an extremely intelligent, playful, ruthless, long-lived species, known throughout history as a battlefield follower, gallows haunter, trickster, thief and oft-used symbol or omen of evil.

In 2014 Chris Renna posted a video of ravens hanging out in Maynard, some of it on rooftops of mill buildings. See YouTube (search Ravens Maynard). A 2015 video of ravens raising a family at/on the Wellesley College Science Center is posted at Mind of the Raven, by Bernd Heinrich, provides great detail on raven intelligence and lifestyle.

Cornell University has audio at

Beak to tail-tip, ravens are 50-60% larger than crows, and weigh twice as much. The head and neck is larger in proportion to the rest of the body. In flight, a crow's tail is straight across the back end, while a raven's widens, then narrows. Both can walk or hop (many smaller birds only hop).

As to why we sometimes see small birds in flight chasing and harassing much larger birds, that is nest defense. The smaller birds are agile enough to fly above/behind the larger bird, then dive in for a peck or two. On a different scale, in Alaska, ravens have been known to harass bald eagles in the air, and on the ground, when feeding at the same carcass (left behind by wolves or polar bear), to sneak up and pull an eagle's tail feather.   

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How Old are the Mill Buildings?

The existing mill buildings date from 1859-1918. Older, wood-frame buildings were either replaced or destroyed in a 1920 fire. A walk/bike tour can help visualize the evolution of the mill complex - older buildings in the center surrounded by newer buildings on all sides - first under the Maynard family (1846-1898) and then as part of the American Woolen Company (1899-1950). Digital Equipment Corporation started as a tenant in 1957, in time owned everything, but did not add or remove major buildings. Clock Tower Place (2000-2015) added the parking garage in 2001. Saracen Properties LLC, the new owners/operators, intend to remove two of the smaller buildings both dating to 1887 (#10 and the west end of #2) to create more open space.  
"You are here" map with present-day building numbering of Maynard's mill buildings

Viewed from the parking lot next to Main Street, three large buildings face the pond. Building #1, with Powell Flutes sign on the end, was built in 1911 as Building #21. The larger building to its right was completed in 1918 and initially designated Building #1, is now #3. Its construction required draining the pond. There are photos of people walking on the pond’s bottom. Building #5, on the far side of the pond, and the largest at 640 feet long, was completed in 1902.

Walking under the parking garage traces the path of the railroad tracks that delivered coal for the steam engines. Continue forward here, keeping in mind that there was nothing but mill pond to the right of the tracks. The buildings on the left, now bannered as #2 at the near end and #4 at the far end were originally #'s 2-7 and among the oldest still standing (parts back to 1859). These were where the pre-steam waterwheels were sited. Outflow, on the river side, was through what is now a red-painted gate. Situated between the waterwheels and river were a number of low-storied brick buildings in which water was pumped out of the millrace for purposes of washing raw wool and the dyeing process. Discharges discolored and polluted the river.

 Mill pond control gate(click on any photo to enlarge)
At the end of Building #3, on the right, is the old pond control apparatus. From here, water was released to the river whenever the pond level got too high. Prior to the installation of steam engines this channel powered a saw mill. Afterwards, it provided water for the engines, as roughly six tons of water were needed for every ton of coal. Spent steam and coal ash were vented from the top of two 200 foot tall chimneys, of which one remains, obsolete.

Our walk continues toward Walnut Street. Building #4 (left) went up in 1871. The powerhouse building, unwindowed, dates to 1900. Current maps show it as #9. After a left turn onto the sidewalk along the river, pass Building #6, completed in 1901. It’s possible, but in need of researching that this is when the river was narrowed and walled from Florida Street to the Walnut Street Bridge.

The next building on this tour was originally #11 (1893) but now designated Building #8. Behind it is the old #8 (1870). Between the two is the clock tower, which was erected in 1892 atop the external freight elevator structure for the older building. Continuing left onto Main Street, the building currently bannered as #12 was built in 1866 (as Building #1).

#10 (1887) slated for removal
Completing the walk along Main Street back to the starting point passes two modest brick buildings on the left and two wooden buildings on the right. The first wooden building, on the corner of Florida and Main, was the residence of Amory Maynard before he built a mansion south of the mill. The next over belonged to Lorenzo Maynard, his oldest son. The brick building at 146 Main, medical offices on the first floor and current home of the Historical Society on the second, was built in 1903. The last building before reentering the parking lot was built in 1905. These two buildings housed mill offices.

While on this tour, look for architectural details, particularly the varying styles of brick arches over the tops of windows and decorative brickwork at the rooflines. Most of the buildings were well windowed to provide natural light for the workers, but from the very beginnings the mill also has gas lighting.


OLDEST # (YEAR)        INTERMED #       NEWEST #        COMMENTS
#21 (1911)                         1                            1                      1, 3 and 5 face pond
#1 (1918)                           3                            3                      second largest
#5 (1902)                           5                            5                      largest
2-6 (1859-1887)                  3                            2                    the west end of #2 (two stories)
                                                                                                   will be torn down
#7 (1871)                           4                            4                      called "new mill" when built
#7 (1906)                           7                            7                      one story, restaurant area
#6A-6D (1901-2)                 6                            6                    faces river
#8 (1870)                           8                            8                      "old" 8 and "new" 8 connected
#9 (1861)                           9                            ---                    no longer exists
#10 (1887)                         10                          10                    will be torn down
#11 (1893)                         8                            8                      new 8
#1 (1866)                           12                          12                    described as weave mill
#16-19 (???)                      these were one-story dye buildings, all replaced by #7
Powerhouse (1900)            no #                       9                      few windows
146 Main (1903)                no #                       146                  med offices and MHC
150 Main (1905)                no #                       150

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Assabet River Rail Trail Update - August 2015

A long write-up of years of progress and current (2015) walkability and ridability on the Assabet River Rail Trail is posted at this blog ( as a June 2013 entry. The content below is about the construction plans for 2016-17.  

NOTE: As of Sept 21, 2015 the section at the north side of Maynard (north of Concord Street) cannot easily or safely be walked, as there is ongoing sewer pipe installation construction. 

The Assabet River Rail Trail website has posted the latest blueprints for the rail trail section to go from the Acton train station to the White Pond Road Bridge at the Maynard:Stow border. This is considered the final plan. Construction is scheduled to begin summer of 2016 and be completed by summer of 2017. See:

The 32-page PDF document starts at the west end. The first part of each page is an overhead view of the proposed trail. The second part of each page is the side view, showing change in elevation.

No surprises. Most of it is 12 foot wide, paved, with 2 foot stone dust shoulders. Parts have a flanking fence and/or a drainage ditch ("swale") on one side or both. Sections through the center of Maynard are narrowed to ten feet wide - a few squeezed spots to eight feet wide.

Parents of young children will need to be warned that in Maynard, heading west behind the Knights of Columbus building, and again on Railroad Street, after crossing Florida Road, there are short stretches with grades of 6 to 8.6 percent - too steep for a young child to safely ride a bike.

There will be a small parking lot at Ice House Landing, just off Winter Street, near the Department of Public Works (Maynard). This will also serve people planning to put a canoe or kayak into the Assabet River. Not possible to put in a boat from a trailer. Small parking lots will also be at the end of Sylvia Street (Acton) and off Maple Street (Acton). Mid-town Maynard has metered (25 cents per hour) parking.

Sites along the Assabet River Rail Trail will have benches, bicycle racks and information kiosks. Some parking spaces will be lost in the municipal lot behind CVS and the Outdoor Store.

This does not complete the Assabet River Rail Trail. The south end was paved years ago, but the completion of this north end will still leave the middle unfinished. From the White Pond Bridge on the Maynard:Stow border it is possible to walk or bike on a dirt road ("Track Road") past Sudbury Road, in Stow (almost to Lake Boon), but not much farther, as there is no bridge over the Assabet River. Any connection between north and south is years away.