Rock Dam’s Most Important Component Is Long Gone

A hectic five or six days it was. Yes, a bit of a whirlwind leading up to and culminating this past weekend.

In-laws converging from here, there and everywhere. Places like central Maine, the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and Guatemala. A strong hint of NYC in the air emitted by the Northeast Kingdom-ites, Sixties back-to-the-earthers of the Scott Nearing mold; by chance, friends of Bernie — yeah, that Bernie — and his ex-wife, Susan, dating back to ’69.

“Hey,” interjected Vermont brother-in-law Tom Doyle, a Long Island native and no Trump fan, during a Friday-morning parlor chat over organic Guatemalan coffee with a mighty wallop. “I’d like to see that Connecticut River site you wrote about. It sounds like a cool place.”

Hmmmm? A splendid idea. One that would serve two purposes, the second an interesting field trip for grandsons Jordan, 10, and Arie, 6, who would likely eat it up with curious and dynamic gusto if framed by indigenous mystique, often a speedy vehicle to fantasy, creativity and you name it, even for an old-timer with spunk.

Closing in on 6 p.m., hard rain falling after a cookout eaten in, we embarked on our short journey to the Connecticut River. Our destination sits just above Cabot Station and Cronin Lab, behind the Farren and power-canal impoundment in Montague City. The air was gray, still and wet, the rain just short of a downpour but manageable for our short wooded hike to a place of high spirit along the eastern shore of the Pioneer Valley’s aorta. A geological wonder known as Rock Dam, it on optimal days displays as large chunks of ancient basalt bedrock protruding from the river’s bed, extending east/west as a natural obstruction crossing the river. Midstream, it passes the north end of Smead Island and terminates at the steep western base of Rocky Mountain, home of Poet’s Seat Tower.

It was not an ideal day for a maiden journey. Several days of rainy overcast weather had swelled the river so that it was breaching the natural dam that just a week earlier had funneled the full flow of the river east, through a turbulent 12-foot-wide channel overflowing and concealing a narrow, 8- to 10-foot summer waterfall that also takes the river’s full flow under normal conditions. So, no, with water overflowing, Tom and the kids couldn’t really get a feel for Rock Dam, the feature of our Friday-evening curiosity. We must return someday when the impressive line of irregular boulders is visible, a thought-provoking sight on many levels for any student of deep history and/or deep ecology. Kids, too, for entirely other reasons.

The site has a documented fishing history for shad, salmon, sturgeon and other fish dating back at least 8,600 years, according to three 1970s archaeological surveys conducted and/or supervised by Dr. Peter A. Thomas on the adjacent, more iconic, site called Riverside. No one is certain who first set eyes on this important section of New England’s largest river between Turners Falls and the Deerfield River confluence, or, for that matter, when. But some experts believe human beings have been aware of the site for 13,000 years or more, which borders on unimaginable to devoted students of the Occidental New World history, which starts with Christopher Columbus.

Viewing our place through this long-accepted European lens is limiting and short-sighted to near blindness. Unfortunately, what’s lacking is the indigenous creation and transformer myths lost by institutional removal of the people who guarded and maintained their oral history through song, dance, poetry and all of the above during annual celebrations. These festivals of thanks saluted the arrival of anadromous fish, the ripening of the upland nut groves, and the fall fattening of deer and bear and whatever bigger prey preceded them in deep-history lore.

Discussing cultural erasure recently with Dr. Thomas, he agreed with the lamentable realization that the native tales surrounding our spiritual landscape are likely forever lost. Not by accident, either. This is not entirely true in South and Central America, where extant histories written by Catholic monks and priests who witnessed the Spanish conquest do exist. These devoted teachers spent their lives chronicling the colonial conquest, describing the vanquished cultures, and recording the destruction of the protected written histories of Mayan, Aztec, Inca and other advanced Western Hemisphere tribes that were burned, obliterated and slaughtered in the name of converting pagan savages to Christianity. Canadian history is backboned by the “Jesuit Relations,” similarly written by Catholic scholars. These “Realtions” chronicle the observations of what greeted French explorers at the contact period and beyond, and what was done to convert Native tribes to Christianity; they offer many helpful cultural observations about the Indians. Unfortunately, that type of detailed information about the indigenous tribes is much rarer from the earliest New England Protestant clergy, which kept records far less sympathetic to the Indians, dismissing their spiritual customs as irrelevant and sinful, not worthy of historical preservation.

What we are left with here in the Happy Valley is a vanquished tribe of River Indians, including Pocumtucks, Sokokis, Norwottucks, Agawams and Nipmucs. All that’s left is the Beaver Myth, miraculously rescued by deep-rooted Deerfield historians like Epaphras Hoyt and George Sheldon, but told with little context and supplying no relationship to other distinctive features of the landscape. Here, we’re talking about the Pocumtuck Range, Sugarloaf, Rock Dam, and the majestic falls descending from the Barton Peninsula to Fall River, once a surreal geological formation of intense spirit, now submerged and previously blasted to oblivion by industrialists interested in supplying water-power and canals.

The long-lost Indian spiritual-landscape tales regarding this special slice of the upper Pioneer Valley — where five six rivers join the Conecticut within a few miles (north to south, Millers, Fall, Deerfield, Green and Sawmill) to create a number of important habitable watersheds — would bring added perspective crucial to anyone infected with a sense of place and committed to putting together the pieces. “It’s incredible and extremely rare for six rivers like that to meet in so small a space,” said well-known Paleo archaeologist Dr. Richard Michael Gramly during casual telephone conversation. “In fact, I can’t think of another place like it. Six rivers. It had have had exceptional significance in the ancient world.”

Sadly, contemporaries don’t even know what the Indians called the natural falls at Riverside or Rock Dam, and we also know nothing about how these important sites connected in the ancient mind to other prominent landmarks like Mts. Sugarloaf, Toby and Warner, Canada Hill, Rocky Mountain, Mts. Tom and Holyoke, and the Pioneer Valley oxbows in Northampton, Hatfield and Whately. The people who best knew the tales and recited the oral history, often in verse, are long gone and hard, if not impossible to find. Even if the tales did continue verbatim for generations after diaspora, the audience had been displaced and was so far removed that it had no familiarity with the relating landscape. By then, these people had for too long lived in another place, without a visual relationship and intimate knowledge of their ancient homeland.

Once a culture is displaced, it doesn’t take long for historic meaning and imagery to vanish, leaving only the conquerors to reinterpret the place through a foreign-invader’s lens.

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The hot sun and warm days should raise the Connecticut River temperature and nudge the American shad run toward its annual peak.
Through Wednesday, with Holyoke water temperature at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, 47,959 shad had been counted in the river, the lion’s share of them (47,678) passing by fish lift over the Holyoke dam.

“Things are on the upturn for the shad run,” said Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle of Gill. “My observations for (striped bass) abundances are low. Anglers may say different. I’m basing my observations on what I observe during herring survey/assessment activities. So far, the blueback (herring) run is slow. Numbers are not great. I’m hopeful they are just running a little late. We’ll see. We are most focused on the bluebacks because the alewife run has ended in the lower Connecticut River. We see only a few spent fish for that species now.”

Sprankle also wanted to publicize the upcoming May 21 World Fish Migration Day (http://www.worldfishmigrationday.com/events), saying: “I’ll be at Holyoke Fish Lift that day. I’ll give talks, have radio telemetry gear etc. We are, of course, expecting a high volume of shad passing if there are no weather events. This celebration is designed to raise awareness for the challenges facing migratory fishes worldwide.”

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The Millers River Fishermen’s Association and affable Peter Mallet have their final Kids’ Stocking adventure scheduled for Saturday morning, rain or shine, at 11 at Alan Rich Parking Lot, Main Street, Athol. Kids will get to help release trout into the Millers River there before fishing for the fish they stock. According to Mallet, many kids from the Greenfield/Turners Falls area showed up for the last stocking event, also held in the Orange/Athol region. It’s fee. Just bring your fishing tackle and bait.

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3 Responses to Rock Dam’s Most Important Component Is Long Gone

  1. Alan

    Thanks Gary, I’ll look for that reference. I also recall reading somewhere, perhaps in Sheldon or Judd, a speculated original name but have long forgotten what, where or by whom. Maybe H. A. Wright? If I come across it I’ll post here. I’m hoping there’s a letter yet to be found in some old attic roundabouts that will prove to be a Rosetta Stone for the valley. Best of luck with your future endeavors.

  2. There is a reference somewhere here in my writings, Alan, about the origin of the name for Mt. Tom coming from Eastern Algonquian word beginning in T that means Tomahawk Rock, a chert that is found on the mountain. If my memory serves me, a mountain in Connecticut carries this name in its entirety. The reference, I think, came from Trumbull, or maybe even Judd. … I’ve been 6 months “inactive” in retirement and am getting itchy with the indoor season on the near horizon, if the snow ever does fall.

  3. I’ve long wondered if Mount Tom was named by the valley algonquins something similar to “Montaup” (mispronounced as “Mount Hope” by the English there) which is the seat of the Pokanoket sachems in Narragansett Bay. I’ve read in several places that it has been translated to mean “high place” or “lookout place” so it seems possible that the valley English settlers may have made the same mistake and heard the local word for it as “Mount Tom”. You may have already considered this though. Really appreciate all your local history writings, particularly those that relate to our valley’s original people. Hoping you produce a book compilation some day.

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