Monday, July 20, 2009

The Trout Brooks of Easton, Mass.

Easton, Massachusetts is at the watershed divide of two rivers: the Taunton (Cohtuhticut) to the south and the Neponset to the northeast.

All of Easton's brooks have their headwaters in the northern end of town and all flow to the south and southeast, eventually arriving in the Taunton, which empties into Narragansett Bay.

Correspondingly, the two towns directly north of Easton, Sharon and Stoughton, are the southernmost end of the Neponset River watershed and their brooks flow to the north and east toward the mouth of the Neponset at Milton and Boston. This drainage divide is also documented in the county lines of southeastern Massachusetts. Easton is the northernmost town in Bristol County, while Sharon and Stoughton are the southernmost towns in Norfolk County.

The boundaries of Easton were first laid out in 1662 as the northeastern corner of the Taunton North Purchase. The imprint of the Taunton/Neponset watershed boundaries on the boundaries of Easton and Bristol and Norfolk Counties are not coincidental. They are the direct imprint of the tribal boundary between the Pokanocket Wampanoag Indian tribe to the south and the Massachusett tribe to the north and east. At the time of English colonization, the center of the Pokanocket tribe was at the mouth of the Taunton River, near Bristol, Rhode Island. The center of the Massachusett tribe was at Massachusetts Bay in Boston, at the mouths of the Neponset and Charles Rivers. The northern boundary of Easton follows the watershed boundary of the Taunton and Neponset because the sagamores of the Pokanocket tribe possessed ancient title to the lands south of this watershed divide. The lands north of this divide were recognized as under the ownership of the Massachusett. What is now called Easton was most likely a lightly populated "buffer zone" between the formally recognized territories of the Pokanocket Wampanoag to the south and the Massachusett directly to the north.

Easton is also the drainage divide between the uppermost and lowermost Taunton River watersheds. The brooks in the eastern side of Easton, the Queset Brook, Whitman's Brook, Dorchester Brook, Black Brook and Dailey's Brook, all flow into the Hockomock Swamp which forms the headwaters of the Nunketetest, the Town River, which flows east out of the Hockomock Swamp in West Bridgewater to form the headwaters of the Taunton River.

The brooks on the western side of Easton, Poquanticut Brook, Beaver Brook, Mulberry Meadow Brook, Gowards Brook and the Canoe River, flow into Winneconnet Pond, which is the natural headwater pond of the Cohannet (Mill River), which enters the Taunton at its head of tide. Because the Taunton River takes a nearly circular course to the southeast and southwest before it enters saltwater, the brooks on the western side of Easton would have made a much shorter and faster canoeing route from Easton to the Pokanocket tribal center at Mount Hope (Montaup) Bay. This canoe route would have started at the junction of Poquanticut and Beaver Brooks at Route 106, down Mulberry Meadow Brook to Winneconnet, down the Snake River to Sabbatia Pond and down the Cohannet to the head of tide near Weir Village in Taunton. By this route, saltwater is only about 15 miles from South Easton.

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This aerial map of Easton shows Bay Road at its center. Bay Road, which is an ancient Indian path from Narragansett Bay to Boston, forms the east-west drainage divide in Easton. Every drop of water which falls west of Bay Road flows into the Cohannet at the head of tide in Taunton. Every drop of water which falls east of Bay Road ends up in the Hockomock Swamp and to the headwaters of the Taunton.

Lincoln Street is the only north-south drainage divide in Easton. All of the water which falls on the north side of Lincoln Street ends up in Queset Brook, which flows southeasterly into the Coweeset and enters the northwesterly end of the Hockomock Swamp via the Hockomock River. All of the water which falls on the southerly side of Lincoln Street goes into the Black Brook, which flows south and enters the northwesterly end of the Hockomock near Foundry Street (Route 106). That Lincoln Street is a principal drainage divide in Easton and intersects with Bay Road on its western end suggests it was an ancient east-west Indian path.

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Lincoln Street almost perfectly follows the drainage divide between Queset Brook to the north and Black Brook to the south.

Most, if not all, of Easton's brooks probably supported native brook trout prior to damming in the mid 1700s. However, Queset Brook is the only brook in Easton where there is historic evidence for the presence of Eastern brook trout, the only trout species native to Massachusetts. This evidence is found in Chaffin's History of Easton, which includes a very old map showing Queset Brook with the name "Trout Hole Brook." Many North Easton residents from the 1950s through 1970s remember well when Mr. William Parker annually stocked his small pond along Main Street with brown trout each spring. Many of these trout survived for many years and grew to nearly two feet long in the short, free-flowing sections of Queset Brook between Hoeshop Pond, Parker's Pond and Shovelshop Pond.

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Queset Brook rises from Ames Long Pond (top left of image) and the now drained Flyaway Pond (lower left of image) and flows east through Picker Pond, Hoeshop Pond, Shovelshop Pond and Langwater, or Fred's Pond. In this short distance, the brook falls 50 feet.

The Great Bend of the Queset

Unlike all of the other brooks in Easton, the Queset flows from west to east from its headwaters until its junction with the south-flowing Whitman Brook at Langwater Pond. The reason for this unusual direction is that the only large outcrops of bedrock in North Easton village keep the brook from flowing south. These bedrock outcrops have their most prominent exposures at Oakes Ames Memorial Hall, which is built on them, and in a north-south line from Pond Street and the Langwater Estate to Sheep Pasture. These bedrock outcrops force the Queset to flow east from the Ames Free Library, across Main Street, across Sullivan Ave. and Pond Street, to Shovelshop Pond, and to Langwater Pond, where the Queset does a right angle bend southward through Sheep Pasture. Just below the mouth of Queset Brook into Langwater there is a tall, slightly rounded bedrock exposure called Big Pout, which forms the corner of the Great Bend of the Queset. Just across the pond is a smaller bedrock knob called "Suicide Hill" by local sledders because it is one of the few hills in North Easton that made for good winter sledding. This east-west course around the bedrock outcrops of North Easton Village creates a significant fall in the brook, which made it ideal for colonial dam builders seeking convenient sites for mechanical water power.

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Center Street in Easton follows a north-south ridge of high ground that neatly separates the southerly course of Black Brook on the west from the southerly course of Queset Brook on the east.

Washington Street (Rt. 138) is a high north-south ridge which divides the watersheds of Queset Brook and Dorchester Meadow Brook. Dorchester Meadow Brook, which rises in a wetland just north of Union Street at the Easton/Stoughton line, flows through Knapp's or French's Pond (now almost a wetland) and Monte's Pond (drained in the 1970s) and Bigney's Pond (now almost a wetland) to Torrey Street just over the Easton/Brockton line. From the 1950s and 1970s, the defunct Brockton Fish & Game Club stocked trout in Bigney's Pond. These trout survived many seasons in the free-flowing sections of Dorchester Brook north of Torrey Street to Monte's Pond and also south, to where Dorchester Brook enters the Coweeset Brook near the Brockton/West Bridgewater line.

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Dorchester Meadow Brook flows south along the Easton-Brockton line from Knapp's Pond to Monte's Pond to Bigney's Pond, all of which have now reverted to wetlands since being first created by small stone dams in the mid 1700s.
A young beaver in Seven Mile Stream, Vassalboro, Maine. Photo by Tim Watts.

The Beaver's Imprint on Easton

Few have ever considered the profound effect the beaver had on shaping the early development patterns of Easton. Due to intense trapping for its fur in the 1600s, beaver have been extinct in Easton for 200 years and have yet to recolonize the town. Yet, we know that beaver were once common in Easton due to the name of one of its brooks, Beaver Brook, and the road in South Easton that crosses it, Beaver Dam Road.

Further evidence of the beaver's imprint on Easton is found in the use of the word "meadow" in the name of many of Easton's brooks, from Dorchester Meadow Brook near the Stoughton line to Mulberry Meadow Brook in Furnace Village. It is probable that the freshwater meadows for which these brooks are named resulted from the long-term damming activities of beaver. These dams would have kept trees from growing along the banks of the brooks and maintained a field-like meadow with a single sharp drop at the dam outlet. This meadow effect would have been further maintained by the beaver continually cropping and removing young trees growing at the water's edge. The effect would be a stair-step of shallow, sinuous ponds dominated by annual aquatic vegetation with a shoreline of mature trees many yards away.

A typical meadow created and maintained by beavers. This one is on Worromontogus Stream, Randolph, Maine.

It is not a coincidence that many of the oldest ponds in Easton were created by dams located just upstream of some of the oldest roads in town. Monte's Pond and Knapp's Pond are created by dams just upstream of West Elm Street and Union Street, respectively. New Pond and Old Pond in Furnace Village are created by dams just above Foundry Street. Morse's Pond is created by a dam just upstream of Central Street. Langwater Pond is created by a dam just upstream of Main Street. Historic documents show these dam sites are some of the oldest in town, dating back to the early or mid 1700s. These roads most likely take their present routes because they were aligned to cross shallow wading places in the streams directly below very old beaver dam sites. These road crossings, in turn, became convenient places for colonial mill builders to construct rough stone dams on top of the dam foundations built by countless generations of beaver. The earliest development pattern in much of Easton was most likely: ancient beaver dam > wading place > Indian foot path > fur trapping site > colonial foot path > mill dam at wading place > improved road with mill dam just upstream.

Because southeastern Massachusetts has lost its native beaver for so long, most Easton residents are only vaguely aware of how beaver build their dams. Having lived in Maine since 1982, where beaver are common, I have examined countless beaver dams in various stages of construction and destruction. One of the things that most surprised me was that beaver incorporate large numbers of fist to melon-sized stones in their dams, especially at the early stages of construction. Basically, the beaver build a lattice of cut saplings and brush as a first layer and then use their front paws to lift and place stones from the stream on top of the branches. This has the effect of solidifying the dam structure by keeping the first layer of saplings from floating away in the current. As the dam grows in height and width, the beaver use fewer stones and more saplings and branches.

A beaver dam under construction on Worromontogus Stream, Randolph, Maine. Note the softball sized stones placed by the beavers on the first layer of sticks. It is likely the stones help to keep the first course of sticks from floating away in the current and create a more flood-resistant base to the dam. Beaver can erect a foot high dam in a single evening.

But like any dam, even the best-built beaver dam will wash out eventually in a flood. When this happens, the saplings and branches are swept downstream but the stones layered into the dam tend to fall straight back into the river channel, creating a natural berm and riffle that the beaver use as the foundation for their new dam. In this way, over decades and centuries, the beaver create a shallow, stony wading place just below a flat, winding and open meadow. If there is no beaver dam present, these wading places look completely natural. But they aren't. They were made by beaver.

It is likely that most of the early dam sites on Easton's brooks were built on top of these ancient beaver dams and their park-like meadows just upstream.

Flyaway Pond and Native Easton Cranberries

Like many things we see and buy in supermarkets, we rarely stop to think where cranberries or cranberry sauce or cranberry juice comes from. Sure, they come from cranberry bogs, but those we see look like neat, rectangular golf courses of red and green, split by perfectly straight, mathematically arranged ditches of bright yellow sand with a little white shed in the far corner.

Actually, cranberries are native to Easton's freshwater meadows and still grow in them in abundance. They can be seen, picked and eaten in their full splendor at the freshwater meadow which used to be called Flyaway Pond, just north of Lincoln Street.

Flyaway Pond is a large, natural, rock-filled meadow fed by groundwater that flows from west to north to form Queset Brook. In the 1800s a dam was built at its outlet to create a pond to provide storage water for the various mills in North Easton village, since the Queset Brook ran so low in the summer that it provided little water to move waterwheels and machines. By the late 1800s, an enormous gravel berm was built at its outlet which made the pond nearly 20 feet deep, extending from just south of Canton Street all the way to Lincoln Street.

My father, who was born in North Easton in 1936, recalled fishing and canoeing on Flyaway Pond as a youth and young adult. He said the water was so clear and unstained that you could see every stone on the bottom even in its deepest spots. By the 1960s, the various mills that Flyaway Pond had been built to power were long gone and forgotten. The pond remained, but the old earthen dam at its outlet was inspected by various officials and deemed unsafe. Using an influx of public monies, professional engineers were called in to design and supervise construction of a new, safe "modern" dam of poured concrete. This was promptly done to great fanfare. Unfortunately, the new concrete dam was not secured to any solid surface at its base, and instead sat on loose glacial sand and gravel. In 1968, a very rainy spring caused Flyaway Pond to get very high, which caused the pressurized water at its bottom to want to make tunnels through the loose sand and gravel beneath the massive concrete outlet. Which it did. And on one rainy night in April 1968, the tunnels became so deep that the concrete dam turned over like a dog on its side and all of the massive concrete stopped holding back water. And in a few hours, all of the 100 or so acres of Flyaway Pond poured downstream and destroyed much of North Easton village. Flyaway had flown away.

In an age where dams were considered as sacred as the flag, the dam at Flyaway Pond was never rebuilt in 1968 and the pond was allowed to revert toward its natural condition for the next 40 years. In 1996, the pond's owner, Robert Mailiff, Sr., sold the land upon which the pond had once resided to the Town of Easton as conservation land. As I was only 3 years old when the Flyaway dam collapsed in 1968, I never saw the pond. My brother has vague memories of it.

In 1986, on a lark at Thanksgiving, I was home from Maine and took a walk to and through the remains of the pond, getting my feet and pants soaking wet and freezing cold. And in the old remains of the pond, where it used to be 15 feet deep but was now only a foot, I discovered gigantic patches of ripe, wild, native cranberries. It was the first time I had ever seen or eaten actual wild cranberries growing in a wild cranberry bog. They tasted good. I then realized that prior to its damming 200 years earlier, what we called Flyaway Pond had been for thousands of years an immense and lush natural cranberry bog.

A decade later, in July of 1996, returned to Easton from my home in Maine to see my father, whom I never saw because he died of a massive coronary as we were going down the dirt road to our beach cottage in Mattapoisett where he was helping a neighbor pull out their boat before the onset of a hurricane. A few days later, at his wake at George Copeland's funeral home on Center Street in North Easton, John Grant moved up to my spot in the receiving line. Like my father, John was one of the founding members of the Easton Conservation Commission in the late 1960s. I had not seen him for many years. John clasped my hand and said, "We just bought Flyaway."

Four years later, in 2000, there was a short-lived movement in town to attempt to rebuild a dam at Flyaway. The effort was well-meant, led by people my age and younger, so as to recreate the pond that had been there 40 years earlier. I knew that under modern wetland protection laws, the chances were nil that a permit could be issued to destroy and flood the freshwater meadow even if the money to build the dam could be raised. So I said nothing. The money was not raised, the permits were not issued, and the dam was never built.

There is no doubt in my mind that Flyaway, the vast, tangled, natural freshwater meadow, was created in part by beaver that lived there for millennia, periodically damming and flooding the small brooks that flow into and through it. Prior to European settlement, Flyaway was most likely a prime habitat for moose, which colonial records show occupied Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands as late as the 1750s. And with the moose and beaver were their chief predator, the wolf. The Flyaway that I am now seeing, 40 years after the dam broke on a dank spring night in 1968, was reassembling itself into that same place.

The Chestnut Woods of Black Brook

In the 1960s the Town of Easton's school department bought many hundreds of acres of thickly wooded land south of Lincoln Street for future school construction. The Oliver Ames High School and junior high school now occupy part of this land, which adjoins the Easton Town Forest and runs west all the way to Bay Road and Randall Street. If not for this fortuitous purchase, and the Town taking ownership of the land for open space, this immense tract of woods would now be an endless daisy chain of McMansions, cul de sacs and subdivisions.

As junior high school and high school students, these woods were known as "the woods," which meant the place right across the bus parking area where you could sneak in and smoke pot and sneak out without getting caught. So while smoking pot before and after school was probably not the smartest thing to do, at least we did it in a highly natural setting. And in doing so, you couldn't help but sit there on a log and look around at the woods you were sitting in.

Because I was an extremely shy person in high school, and also had the affliction of becoming very paranoid after smoking pot (like, from afraid of getting caught), I tended to only smoke pot deep in the woods, where nobody could find me. And because I was so shy that I often went into the woods anyways, just for something to do after school, buying a pinnah for a buck and walking deep into the woods sort of fit in with the plans I had.

Only a decade after I graduated Oliver Ames High School, and even more so now, 27 years later, did I realize that the infamous "woods" next to Oliver Ames High School are American chestnut woods. Except that all of the American chestnuts in these woods died when my father as born in the 1930s. And only last year, after walking through these woods for the first time in 20 years, did I understand how devastating the chestnut blight was, and continues to be.

My father, who was a forester, could not tell me of the great chestnut forests of Easton because they were all nearly dead and gone by the time he was born. Even he had no memories of them. And it would be odd for someone to be compiling detailed memories of tree species distribution patterns when they are six.

As my brother Timothy said the other night, "The only reason there are any chestnuts left is that they can keeping putting out suckers from the old roots. If they were like oaks, which don't put out suckers, they would be extinct."

One of the places where the stumps of old American chestnuts, bludgeoned to non-existence by the chestnut blight pandemic of the 1930s, still bravely put out suckers is along the long ridge of sloping high ground between Randall Street and Lincoln Street in Easton, just east of Black Brook.

The American chestnut blight occurred because a closely related species of chestnut, from China, was imported as lumber to the United States in the early 20th century. These Chinese chestnut logs carried a fungus, the chestnut blight, for which American chestnut trees had no resistance or immunity. Once this fungus spread from eastern U.S. ports to the surrounding forests it was unstoppable. The native American chestnut from Maine to the Carolinas had no resistance to the fungus and they all died. Imagine every white pine tree or every maple tree in the United States dying in a few years. Imagine every cardinal or robin or crow or squirrel or daisy dying.

The American chestnut blight is a compelling window into how Darwinian evolution works. Evolution occurs because every time an organism reproduces there is the chance of a copying error (a mutation) in the DNA as the parent gives its own DNA to its children. These mutations pop up in the same random way as the chute of water pouring over a stone in a tiny brook will produce a big bubble sometimes, a small bubble sometimes, and sometimes no bubbles at all, but in no predictable way, hence the term "babbling brook." While it is 100 percent predictable that mutations will occur in the DNA of a species, it is impossible to tell where and when these mutations will occur and what affect they might have on the baby animal or plant which inherits these mutations from their parents.

It is likely that the chance mutations that would have given resistance and immunity for American chestnut to chestnut blight arose countless times in chestnut trees from Massachusetts to the Carolinas over tens or hundreds of thousands of years. But because there was no chestnut blight in North America for these mutations to be useful against, these mutations blinked on and then off again from the chestnut genome without a trace, much like a melody that comes into your head while you are working, and then disappears when you get in the truck and go home. A key aspect of evolution is that it has no foresight. It cannot predict or prepare for the future. Species are the future as viewed through the rear view mirror.

For this reason, the American chestnuts of Easton in 1200 A.D. could not "save" genetic mutations in their DNA that would save it from chestnut blight that would only come onshore from China 700 years later and reduce its towering forests to rubble. Which is what happened.

What do Poquanticut and Queset mean?

Despite that people have lived in Easton for nearly 10,000 years, only a handful of Indian place names are recorded within the town. Two of the most prominent are the names of brooks.

Poquanticut is the name given for the brook that rises in the natural ponds and bogs at the Sharon line, in Borderland State Park, and flows due south across all of Easton to Furnace Village, where it joins Beaver Brook to form the Mulberry Meadow Brook. Poquanticut is also the name of Poquanticut Ave., which runs north and south from Foundry Street to Rockland Street.

Queset is the name of the brook that rises from Flyaway Pond and Ames Long Pond and flows through North Easton Village and then southeasterly until it meets Dorchester Meadow Brook east of Turnpike Street to form the Coweeset River.

So what do these names mean?

New England Indian historian Kerry Hardy offers the following suggestions:

Poquanticut, according to Huden, is "at the clear, shallow stream" (if its spelling accurately reflects how the Narragansetts said this name). However, if they said Pokan-, pogon-, pogun-, or something like that, it would mean "at the river of nut trees" (or specifically, butternuts).

And ...

Coweeset, Queset, Cohasset -- all the same word: Kuwes, white pine; -et, the place of. Coos County, NH; "Cowasessick" on the ancient Sheepscot River; and today's Cowasuck people (who have a cool website) all share this root, along with a million other places in New England.

These two Wampanoag Indian words introduce us to the wondrous complexities of the Wabanaki language. If the ancient Greek writer Heraclitus said "you cannot step into the same river twice," then a Wabanaki speaking person might have said, "you cannot give a river the same name once."

In the most simple terms, Wabanaki people did not name rivers the way Europeans do. Europeans give the mainstem of a river the same name from its mouth to its headwaters. Like the Amazon, or the Congo, or the Mississippi or the Connecticut.

In most, but not all cases, Wabanaki assigned "place names" to very specific places on rivers, based on an easily discernible physical feature. This name might refer to a falls, a gravel bar, a grove of white pine, or the location of a fishing weir. But in most, but not all cases, this name referred to the place on the river, not the entire river from its mouth to its headwaters. This difference in how things are named -- and what is actually being named -- caused endless confusion with English and French visitors to Wabanaki country.

A perfect example of this confusion is seen in a 1686 court deposition by a Wabanaki man named Perepole who lived in central Maine. In this deposition, which involved a land dispute between two Englishmen, Perepole describes how his people had at three different names for what we now call the Androscoggin River. The lowermost reach of the river, Perepole said, was called Quabacook, the middle reach was called Pejepscook and the upper reach was called Ammoscongon:

I Perepole of Lawful age testify and say that the Inden name of the river was Pejepscook from Quabacook what is now called Meremeeting bay up as far as Amitgonpontook what the English call Harrises falls and all the river from Harrises falls up was called Ammoscongon and the largest falls on the river was above Rockamecook about twelve miles, and them falls have got three pitches, and there is no other falls on the river like them and the Indens yousd to catch the most Salmon at the foot of them falls, and the Indens yousd to say when they went down the river from Rockamecook and when they gat Down over the falls by Harrises they say now come Pejepscook."

The Wabanaki of Massachusetts, as far as is known, did not have standardized units of distance such as inches, feet, yards and miles or centimeters, meters and kilometers. But they did have a very unique and useful measure of distance: the "look." To understand what a look means gives a great deal of insight into the Wabanaki mindset. It is a unit of measurement completely derived from canoe travel on a river, especially a large river. A look is the farthest distance up or down a river that you can see from your vantage point.

No matter how straight a river looks on an aerial map, it still has subtle bends and corners in it. These corners prevent you from seeing all the way down the river. Even on a fairly straight river channel, there is a point in the distance where the channel curves just enough to the left or right that all you see is the opposite river bank. The distance from where you are to where you can no longer see the channel continue is one look.

On the Kennebec River in central Maine, where I live, the looks on the Kennebec are 1-3 miles long. When my nephew and niece first canoed down the Kennebec as young children, they were very perplexed because as they looked ahead in the distance, the river channel seemed to stop in the distance at a solid wall of trees and hills. To them, it looked as if the river had become a long, narrow lake with its end in the faraway, but viewable distance. One day my niece Hallie, who was in the front of the canoe, said, "Uncle Doug, the river stops down there. What are we going to do?" Without consciously knowing it, Hallie was correctly discerning a look.

In canoe travel, units like feet or yards or miles have no useful meaning. Canoes do not have odometers and rivers do not have mile markers and exit signs. Even if a map tells you that a dangerous falls is three miles below where you put in, it is nearly impossible to gauge three miles while paddling a canoe. But if someone tells you that a dangerous falls or an excellent camping spot is five looks below where you started, you can keep perfect track of your movement towards it and know exactly when it is coming just by counting looks.

This is one look at Negwamkeag on the Kennebec River in Sidney, Maine. This look is about two miles long.

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