Punch Brook

We meet as neighbors each morning, soon after subtle chips and chirps have burst into a joyous symphony of birdsong to greet the new day. By then I have strapped on my left-knee brace, and my robust, two-mile, daybreak ramble is underway.

Our paths cross about a quarter mile east and a hair north of my upper Greenfield Meadows home. There, as the neighborhood sleeps, she discretely trickles under Green River Road. Some passersby who cross her on their daily travels – even walkers – probably don’t even realize she’s there; she’s that inconspicuous, especially when hidden under seasonable foliage. Her name is Punch Brook.

With leafy undergrowth hiding her narrow, clogged channel from view for about half of the year, the only visible clue marking her presence is a sturdy, knee-high, five-post wooden fence tucked neatly under the cover of low branches on the south side of the road. There the road opens a thin break in the mature treeline that accompanies her through the modern Mary Potter/Plumtree Lane development, inauspiciously crossing Plumtree on the way to her confluence with the Hinsdale Brook some 1,700 feet downstream.

These two streams didn’t always connect. According to Greenfield historian Francis M. Thompson – whose insight was sharpened by deep family connections in Colrain and Greenfield Meadows – an 1843 flood surge dramatically changed the course of Hinsdale Brook and joined the two previously adjacent streams.

Before that violent act of nature, Hinsdale Brook took a sharp southward turn downstream from my home, traversing the upper Meadows. It pulled in Allen Brook along the way, and joined Green River just above today’s Greenfield swimming pool. The sudden torrent rising from the East Shelburne hills blew through the elbow at the sharp turn, cut a short new eastern path to Punch Brook, and claimed the smaller brook’s hollowed path to the Green River a short distance below today’s Brookside Animal Hospital on Plain Road.

In one fell swoop, that mid-19th-century event had united the two streams, shortening Punch Brook by nearly 1,000 feet and establishing a new Hinsdale Brook-Green River confluence just less than a mile upstream from the old one. In the process, a section of upper Meadows pasture between Colrain and Plain roads was deprived of a major water source for livestock.

David Allen’s Early Maps of Greenfield Massachusetts 1717-1918: With a Narrative History clearly displays the pre-flood streams, and topo maps still show the relict channel of the stream that existed before 1843.

Today, Punch Brook rises from an upland spring-hole basin along the East Colrain/East Shelburne line at Shearer Road and snakes its way to Hinsdale Brook, about two straight-line miles away. The original stream bed would have meandered maybe a total of three miles, making several twists and turns as it pulled in small, cold springs bubbling from the lower lips of the upland base, it curling north and east to the covered Pumping Station Bridge.

Thompson had the confluence of the Hinsdale and Punch brooks pegged as the likely first campsite of the captives marched away from Deerfield following the famous February 29, 1704 French and Indian attack on Old Deerfield, because an early metal broad-axe head was found nearby by a 19th-century farmer sometime after the brooks joined. Although that’s flimsy evidence, it could well be so. The site would have been right off the old Indian trail that led through the Meadows to an infamous Green River fording place, below today’s Pumping Station bridge.

That ancient Green River crossing was the site where captive Reverend John Williams’ wife, Eunice, weakened by recent childbirth and failing in frigid water, was dispatched by her Native captor with a coup de grâce from a tomahawk. A stone monument today marks the spot where her corpse was recovered.

From there, the ancient trail led through the uplands of Leyden and Guilford, Vermont to the Connecticut River near a crossing site later occupied by Fort Dummer.

Before the axe head was found, just west of today’s Plain Road, the site of the Deerfield captives’ first overnight encampment was believed to be a swamp about a mile south. Which swamp is anyone’s guess, forever open to debate. First, Deerfield historian George Sheldon’s 1895 History of Deerfield placed it “east of the old Nims house.” Then, nine years later, Thompson’s History of Greenfield placed it west of “the old Nims farm,” today known as Butynski farm.

The old Nims house stood on what is now the site of Anne Butynski’s yellow ranch, next to her family’s popular produce stand and barn on the west side of Colrain Road.

The question of which historian had the location right is irrelevant if the first campsite was, in fact, at the axe-head site a mile further up the trail. But, for the sake of argument, there are swamps on both sides of the old Nims place, and Thompson had good insight: his wife, Mary Nims, was born and raised on the farm, built by her grandfather Hull Nims and inherited by her father Lucius.

Sheldon, however, was also an insider with great local sources, tradition, and historical insight. The Deerfield historian’s favored swamp to the east seems to make more sense for a couple of reasons: it was directly attached to the well-known trail, and it was sheltered under a steep escarpment forming the raised western and southern perimeter of the Greenfield-pool floodplain, today located across from Harper’s Store. Such natural alcoves protected winter camps from harsh winds, and were thus sought for overnight refuge by Native travelers.

Returning to Punch Brook, in 1904 Thompson saluted it as “50 years ago, a splendid trout stream” whose clear waters were “alive with sparkling beauties” – that is, the native Eastern brook trout that populated local waters before sporting clubs imported brown and rainbow trout. Thompson reported that the brook’s fishing glories had faded in his day due to drainage ditches dug by farmers to lower the water table on level portions of land through which it flowed. Nonetheless, the stream still offered trout into the mid-20th century, and they likely still populate its upper and even overgrown lower reaches, where today it would be nearly impossible to drop a line without a tangle.

A septuagenarian neighbor and friend of mine, who owns his boyhood home on the south end of Green River Road in the upper Meadows, remembers catching a beautiful, foot-long brown trout from the stream less than 70 years ago. That fish had likely migrated to cold, shaded, summer refuge by swimming up Hinsdale Brook from the Green River. Such fish would have been there for anglers, especially during summer rainstorms that increased flow and activated feed in muddy-brown water, concealing them in their midstream feeding stations.

I am most familiar with Punch Brook’s upper reaches. I often hunted deer and turkeys up there, and thus know it better than the lower end closer to home. Recent inspection of its path through the upper Meadows revealed a narrow, loamy, barely discernable trickle of a stream obscured by a mix of tall, mature trees, including large, messy weeping willows and dense brush.

Although it appears to be nearly unfishable for much of the stretch between Green River Road and its Hinsdale Brook confluence, the little brook could still be fished through lush, marshy, private meadowland north of the road and up through the deep Smead Hill gorge to its upland headwaters. Likewise, the 250-yard run from the Hinsdale Brook confluence to Green River is easily fishable.

The state stocked Hinsdale Brook with trout before I moved to Greenfield 25 years ago. Although it is stocked no longer, Green River itself receives a heavy dose of big trout annually, and some of them do find their way into Hinsdale Brook. The stream’s upper Shelburne reaches, where it known as Fiske Mill Brook, also holds brookies, and even an occasional rainy-day brown.

In a recent conversation with another neighbor who’s lived her entire life across Hinsdale Brook from me, she seemed to know little about Punch Brook, and nothing at all about the 1843 flood that changed the course of Hinsdale Brook. As she pondered the topic on the side of the road, a spontaneous thought about Punch Brook suddenly came to her mind. She opined that its water must contain a special mineral because, though small, that little trickle of a spring brook never stops flowing, even on the coldest winter days.

Hmmmmm?

Fancy that, I thought, as my introspective wheels started spinning later that day.

Do you suppose the Pocumtuck warriors known to have accompanied French and Abenaki companions back to their old homeland for the 1704 attack knew the trail-crossing spring that never froze and thus targeted it for their first-night encampment? Though the answer will never be known, how could anyone doubt it?

 

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