Saturday, April 8, 2017

Assabet River Rail Trail - April 2017

New photos on status of Assabet River Rail Trail, Maynard and ActonMassachusetts. The replacement footbridge in Maynard was installed February 8th (photo). Work on the approaches, including the loss of parking spaces behind the post office, began April 10. The bridge remains closed to traffic.

February 8, 2017: A crane starts to lift and then lower the Assabet River Rail Trail
bridge at the same site where a wooden footbridge had been since 1989, previously
 the site of a railroad bridge, 1850-1979. 
In Acton, the focus has been on the boardwalks over wetlands in front of and to the north side of The Paper Store building, on Route 27. Farther north, the old Acton bridge, over Fort Pond Brook, has been removed. Grading and filling ongoing. Nothing paved yet north of Concord Street, Maynard.  

Older sets of construction photos posted in November, October, December and January. The overall schedule calls for the complete 3.4 miles from near Acton train station to Maynard:Stow border to be completed by fall 2017, with landscaping (tree planting, etc.) wrapped up in early 2018.


Click on any photo to enlarge:

The bridge to cross Fort Pond Brook is being assembled near Maple Street,
Acton. It will be trucked to the site and lowered into place by crane


The bridge is 70 feet long. Like the Maynard bridge, it is to be 16 feet wide.
To be installed summer 2017. Maynard bridge will have lights. Not this one.


At the Paper Store office complex, on Route 27, Acton, a boardwalk is being
constructed over a small retaining pond and over wetlands. The Trail here has
left the original railroad right-of-way to be between the building and Route 27.



The boardwalk makes a right angle turn around a kiosk to connect with the
Trail, which resumes its route on the original railroad right-of-way
in the woods off to the left of the photo. SAAB dealership visible on right.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Revisiting the 2010 Flood (Maynard, MA)

The U.S. Geological Survey has an automated, on-line
measure of river height, but this ruler nailed to a tree is an
old school back-up. This photo from a low water day. Search
on USGS Assabet to get to the on-line site. See "Summary of
all available data on this site" and once there, "Peak
streamflow" for past years' high water.  
In case you missed it, the Assabet River officially reached 'flood' stage on April 7th. Water height at the gauge behind Tedeschi Food Shop reached 5.2 feet. This was the highest the river has been in three years. Officially, anything above 5.0 feet is 'flood,' over 6.0 feet is moderate flooding and over 7.0 feet major flooding. The 2010 flood peaked at 7.11 feet. Nothing since then has overtopped 6.0 feet.

The Assabet River starts in the Westborough marshes that drain into the George H. Nichols flood control basin (more on this later), then works its way first north, then east. For much of its length the Assabet drops 5 feet for every mile. Within Maynard, river elevation is 175 feet over the top of the Ben Smith Dam and 145 feet out the east side.

All this downhillness means that water moves quickly through the Assabet watershed. Although there were four major storms in forty days spanning late February to early April 2010, collectively delivering more than fifteen inches of rain, much of the high water subsided between storms. The river's high water caused minimal property damage and no road flooding anywhere in Maynard or Stow. In the much flatter Sudbury River watershed the river did not subside between storms, the river set a new record for height, and some roads were under water for weeks.    

There is a history of severe floods on the Assabet River, especially before three major flood control dams - George H. Nichols Dam, Tyler Dam and Delaney Complex - were completed. The impoundment area behind Nichols is kept partially full in order to be able to provide water to the Assabet in times of drought, but has a 500 million gallon flood hold-back capacity. Tyler’s impoundment area stays low between floods and has a hold-back capacity of 1,800 million gallons. Delaney adds an estimated 300 million gallons hold-back at full capacity. The amounts sound huge, but the Assabet River’s 2010 peak of 2500 cfs equated to 1,615 million gallons per day. The three dams are enough to mute the worst outcomes of these every 10 to 20 year floods, but not enough to prevent them completely.

Water outlet at Delaney Complex. Slow flow through the lower
bars, then more water exits once the level surpasses the lowest
horizontal bar, about six feet up. Click on photo to enlarge. 
To put all that flood water into perspective, water usage for Maynard and Stow combined is less than two million gallons per day. There is no place in either town to create a reservoir capable of retaining a useful amount of water, so we depend on what sinks down into the soil to refill the groundwater under our feet. Neither town connects to regional reservoirs. Maynard has town wells. Stow depends on privately owned wells.

Back before any flood control dams were in place, the November hurricane flood of 1927 washed away both the dam and the bridge at what is now the Route 62 crossing. A flood in 1936 took out the wooden Mill Street bridge. Hurricane Diane, August 1955, brought the most rain recorded in any one month and the highest water on the Assabet since modern record-keeping began in 1942. The river crested at 8.94 feet. Streets were flooded. No bridges were lost.

More recent floods of note occurred March 1968, cresting at 8.15 feet, and January 1979, cresting at 8.11 feet. Both flooded Main Street. Retirees from Digital Equipment Corporation remember sandbagging the buildings in 1968 in an attempt to keep water out of the production facilities.  Jack MacKeen noted, “I have a clear mental picture of Ken Olsen [President of DEC] in suit and boots, helping place sandbags between the buildings.” Afterwards, DEC had the river retaining wall built higher along the lowest stretch next to the mill buildings. The wall kept the river out in 1979.

Mill Street bridge, Maynard, at mid-summer low water. Note
sewer pipe. There is a narrow range of river height high enough
to float a kayak but low enough to fit under the pipe.
This month's high water was courtesy of two soggy snow storms followed by a significant rain storm. Vernal pools were topped up, which should bode well for the spring-mating frogs. Collectively, the storms were enough to temper but not end local drought status. Total precipitation for the last twelve months is still roughly ten inches below recent averages. Unless the rest of spring is abnormally wet, expect water restriction rules for this summer.

Mark's first book, "Maynard: History and Life Outdoors," (2011) has an entire chapter on the Assabet River. Parts of this column are from the book. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Assabet River by Other Names

1830 map shows Elizabeth River as the
border between Stow and Sudbury
River exploration tends to start at a river's mouth and work upstream, with naming following. At a major branching a decision is needed - is one the river and the other a tributary? Or better to think of the situation as two branches of the river? The Nashua River flows into the Merrimack River in Nashua, New Hampshire; upriver it splits into North Nashua and South Nashua. River naming was once as simple for the Assabet.

When Concord was established in 1635 the land - purchased from Native Americans - was originally referred to as Musketaquid for "grassy plain," and perhaps also meaning the river, as another history translates Musketaquid as Reedy River. This was descriptive. Both north and south of nascent Concord the river was slow-moving, with a very wide flood plain. The colonists coveted the reedy marshland as meadow, fodder for cattle and horses.  

Upstream the river forked at Egg Rock. Concord maps from 1753 to as late as 1835 refer to the north branch as North River, or on some maps Concord NR. An echo of this naming is the present-day North Branch Road, near the Concord/Acton border and parallel to the Assabet River. Settlement did not expand up both rivers at the same pace. Sudbury was named a town in 1639. Meanwhile, surveyors described the territory along the other river as "meane land," not settled until Stow was a named town in 1683.  

An early name for the Assabet River. Click on photos to enlarge

In Stow the river's name was in flux, with various maps and documents reading Asibeth, Assabath, Elsabath, Elsibeth, Elizabeth, Assabett, Assabet... One map even had it as Stow River. There was a consensus in 1830 that Elizabeth Brook flowed into Elizabeth River into Concord River, but by 1856, when Middlesex county was being remapped in great detail, it was Assabet Brook flowing into the Assabet River, with the pre-Maynard community identified as Assabet Village. (Nowadays it is Elizabeth Brook into Assabet River.)    

There is a well-known quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne (1846) which when cited now usually has the "Assabet" spelling, but what he actually wrote was: "Rowing our boat against the current, between wide meadows, we turned aside into the Assabeth. A more lovely stream than this, for a mile above its junction with the Concord, has never flowed on earth..."

Native American name? No one
knows for sure. Or what it meant.
As for how "Ass-a-bet" came to be the name of a river - a mystery. Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time. Our problem here is that various 19th century history attribute the origins to a Native American name, but if that is true, it would have been from the Nipmuc dialect of the Algonquian family of Indian languages. There is no resource to pursue this theory back to an original source. Supposed translations are to the reedy place, the miry place, or the backward flowing river place. A mire is more permanent - a marsh or bog - than a temporally fleeting muddy place. 'Backward flowing' is a reach. On infrequent occasions the Sudbury River, immediately upstream from the junction of the Sudbury and Assabet, flows backwards. This happens after heavy rain, and it happens because water from the steeper Assabet reaches the junction sooner than water from the flatter Sudbury. Place names are rarely for rare events, so this last theory feels unlikely.  

An alternative theory is that the various names of the river were corruptions of spelling of "Elizabeth." But it is more of a reach to go from this perfectly good person-name to Aisbeth or Assabath, both dating to late 1600s, than it is to consider all those Elizabeth-names as attempts to Anglicize the native name.

There are other examples of changeable naming. In southeast Stow, Bottomless Pond became Crystal Lake. In Harvard, Hell Pond became Hill Pond, became Mirror Lake. In early Sudbury documents the Sudbury River was referred to as the Great River, while at the same time the upper end from Framingham west was for decades called the Hopkinton River. And lest we forget, in 1902 the Town of Maynard almost changed its name to - Assabet.