The River

By Joshua Epstein, a volunteer working with Friends of the South River, with help from David Barten, Janet Chayes, Robert Anderson, and MicheleTurre

Natural Characteristics

The South River, located in southwest Franklin County, begins in Ashfield at the spring-fed Ashfield Lake and flows 17 miles, dropping 1,000 feet, before joining the Deerfield River, which flows into the Connecticut. The South River Watershed consists of 26.3 square miles.

On its way the South River passes through varied terrain; mounds of glacial till, over small gravel beds, bedrock .and the remnants of old mill pounds created by dams on the river.

The South River flows at 47.3 cubic feet per second (cfs), as measured by the USGS 2013 mean water flow, which is modest in comparison with the Green River’s 41.4 square mile watershed and flow of 100 cfs, and the much larger Deerfield River watershed of 557 square miles, with a regulated flow of 1,504 cfs.

Generally, the further downstream one goes on the South River, the more it has been affected by human impacts and activities. Land use in the South River Watershed is mixed, with some agricultural and residential on the valley bottom and largely forested uplands. The proportions are forest, 77%, agriculture, 12.5%, and residential 6.1% (1). One also has to consider the roads and bridges. Route 116 approaches close to the River at several locations and there are 26 bridges that cross the River. In areas where the river is tight to the road, concrete retaining walls have been used to keep the river at bay. These retaining walls heat up in the summer, elevating the river’s temperature. Addressing this and other impacts to the River’s integrity requires remediation, which we will talk about soon

Original Inhabitants

The Native Americans in the area were the Pocumtucks, part of the Mohican Tribe. The Pocumtucks engaged in semi-sedentary agriculture, raising maize, beans, and squash, and hunted and fished in the area.   They were decimated by warfare with the powerful Mohawks, from what is now New York State, by small pox epidemics after European contact, and also from warfare with the European settlers and their allies.


The first farms were on hilltops and Conway and other hill-top communities had agrarian economies. These farmers grew flax, rye, tobacco, cucumbers, turnips, radishes and more, and raised sheep. In fact, during this agrarian time, the population grew and peaked in 1790 at 2,000 individuals.

This peak subsided as farmers began moving to points west primarily due to soil that had been impoverished since farmers were not replenishing it and it became both depleted and increasingly eroded. In addition, farms got more established, the older farms with large families could not be feasibly be divided among the numerous sons. So of these sons left for points west and the overall population declined until 1840, when non-agricultural economic development increased the population again, including by bringing in workers, etc.

During its’ heyday and since, the farming resulted in considerable impacts to the river. Many trees were removed, including for sheep raising, exposing the soil to increased erosion and putting this sediment into the river.

Farmers also straightened portions of the river for ease of tilling and for clear property boundaries. As we shall soon see, such straightening can adversely affect the river.

Mills and Other Operations

We will see how The South River Watershed, with its long history of human land and manufacturing uses, involved the significant manipulation of the river channel itself.

According to one source (2) the first dam across the river was in 1744, to power a corn grist mill, and the first dam within Conway was built in 1762, the year of Conway’s original settlement.

The first grist mill was built in Conway on the river by 1762, by Caleb Sharp, a former slave in Deerfield of mixed African and Native American descent who gained his freedom by building the mill for the owner. Establishing mills was important. An active mill was needed to establish a town’s charter, and if farms could not grind their grain into flour at a mill locally, a town could not succeed.

By 1794, Conway had at least 7 mills, and probably more. These were sawmills, grist mills, and mills for making linen from flax.

In the 18 and 19th Centuries, more than 30 mills operated in the South River Watershed. The number of mills would increase to over 50. Especially for the early water power technology of the time, the modest size (volume and flow) of the South River proved ideal.

In the 19th century, increased economic development in and around the River included a tannery for producing leather (which dumped its waste into the river), a broadcloth factory, large-scale cotton mills, a woolen mill, a rake factory, a slaughter house, and factories producing combs, cutlery, tools, a cider mill, etc. By the late 19thc, a shoe factory, a coat factory, the railroad, and a trolley line all operated in the area. A railroad to Conway Center was not feasible however, and in lieu of this, the trolley line connected Conway to the railroad lines along the Deerfield River, mainly for hauling freight hauling to and from the mills, though there were limitations to this.

Indeed mills were at the center of manufacturing from the mid 19th Century and continued into the 1920’s, when mills became less important in comparison to factories

The shoe factory, the last manufacturing venture from the 19th century, closed in 1916 and the trolley shut down in 1921.

More generally, the bubble of the manufacturing that had taken root burst, due to transportation and power limitations. Water power technology was now to the point where much more power was sought and could be generated. This occurred in places like Holyoke, where they could tap into the much larger Connecticut River.

New Developments and unanticipated impacts

Mills and other economic operations on and near the river seemed to require changes to the River itself.

As mentioned, there were many dams on the River. Though many of these dams were rather small, timber and cribbed affairs, there were between 3 and 5 major dams built on the Conway section of the River to meet the demand for more sustained power, including generating electric power for the trolley and for some town residents.

Developments included the construction of a reservoir in the second have of the 19th century, the biggest masonry structure in Franklin County at the time, to supply the major mills with water especially at times when the river was low. And during those times, farmers used the reservoir for additional reasons.

Based on concern about a possible breach of this reservoir and dam, there was popular support for a “4-40” campaign by which the river channel would be straightened and widened to a width of 40 feet for a length of four miles. In fact, 67% of the River’s length had been straightened prior to 1886-7. We now know that such river straightening and confinement actually increases the likelihood that the River and surrounding areas would be damaged and degraded by extremes in river velocity and flow, resulting in flooding, and erosion, especially during extreme weather events. But back then, river channel straightening, bank hardening, and the removal of all “obstructions” to river flow were thought to control flooding and erosion, and were common practice on New England rivers, and this continued well into the 20th Century.

In fact, in 1869 during an extreme weather event the reservoir dam did breach, destroying 14 river bridges and damaging all of the mills along the river, and also pig pens, small buildings, houses, and factories.

By this time, attitudes had changed about the River. Before the mid 19th Century, the River was seen as a source of water and power to fuel economic development as well as the farming. But after this, the River’s excesses were regarded as a problem and source of danger and many wanted the River altered and controlled to correct for this.

To put it another way, people were interested in economic development and felt such development depended on making changes to the River, changes that ironically, increased the River’s destructive power. Extreme weather events, especially in the late 19th and throughout much of the 20th century, resulted in major flooding, erosion, and damage caused by the altered River. This included serious flooding in 1936 and terrible flooding from the Hurricane of 1938. The human response to these weather events, coupled with the alterations to the River already made, further increased damage from river flooding and erosion.

During Hurricane Irene in 2011, the River ran higher than at any time since measurements began being taken in the 1960’s. The South River swelled at the confluence of Pumpkin Hollow Brook, and overflowed, gushing water over Main Street retaining walls in the center of Conway, walls that had just been rebuilt by the State. After the hurricane and the considerable damage, the National Guard broke up log jams in the River, and some stretches of the river bank were hardened through emergency regulations.

Human Alterations to the River

So, over the past three centuries, stretches of the river channel were straightened , cleared of boulders and other stream “obstructions” , and dikes, granite and other berms (raised earthen barriers), retaining walls, and the armoring (hardening) of (almost 10%) river banks were all done to the River.

Much of this, again, had been done to service the mills, or as mentioned, as a response to weather events. But such river alterations have affected the River in a number of negative ways.

As the River has cut through the beds of what used to be mill river impoundments, that silt was carried by the River downstream, adding to an already high silt load. Damaging high volume flood flows passing through straightened water channels with reinforced banks meant that water could not o spread out to adjacent flood plains, and the resulting concentration of high velocity water produced even more flooding and erosion. The quality of the River’s aquatic habit was also degraded, because a straightened river channel stripped of boulders, and wood has less pools, cover, and flow diversity.

Such degraded habitat provides less of a home, particularly for fussy species such as the native Brook Trout.

Also the straightening and removal of trees along the River, that otherwise would shade its waters, raise the water temperature in places in the river to levels that Brook Trout cannot tolerate.

There’s also the impact of human sewage on the river. During the 19th and well into the 20th century untreated human sewage found its’ way into the South River, as was the case for rivers throughout the region. The Clean Water Act of 1972 mandated that all residents who live along rivers build individual septic systems. Regarding the South River, these are of uneven quality.

Other challenges to the river include invasive exotic plant species, including Japanese Knotweed, which interferes with the ability of Wood Turtles to effectively lay their eggs along the River. For this and other reasons, there are fewer Wood Turtles now, and Wood Turtles are considered a species of concern.

Restoration of the River

River restoration efforts need to simultaneously address and roll back the increased sediment loads in the River, exacerbated flooding and erosion, degraded aquatic habitat, and water quality (increased temperature) that human alterations to the River have produced. And of course restoration needs to include the habitat that surrounds the River, so that species like Wood Turtles can once again thrive.

There are many river restoration projects now envisioned. Some have already been completed or are in progress. The former includes retaining walls to reinforce route 116 where it abuts the river and another underway. These walls use installed water diversion boulders pointed upstream to help direct the flow, taking pressure away from the walls and creating pocket water habitat for fish. A project underway involves joint effort of Friends of the South River and Trout Unlimited to improve conditions for native brook trout spawning in a portion of the river. Still another project, to reduce silt deposition along several hundred yards of straightened river below Conway’s Town Center, is planned for construction in the summer of 2015.

Such remediation projects are needed to once more make the South River a vibrant, healthy river rich in habitat and resources for all the plants, animals, and humans that depend on the river. Aware and concerned citizens of Ashfield and Conway need to get involved and there needs to be continued funding and other support from the state and local agencies (both emergency management and environmental restoration) and from the private sector.

An essential ingredient in this equation is the work of the Friends of the South River, which addresses river restoration, recreation, and environmental education needs so that all of us can help to restore our very special river.


1.  South River Fish Communities and Physical Habitat Assessment (page 13)

2.  Fluvial Geomorphic Assessment of the South River Watershed (page 10)


A History of the South River in Conway, May 2013 Conway Historical Society presentation and slides

“The Conway Electric Street Railway Company”, by Donald E. Shaw, 1949, available at the Conway Historical Society

Fluvial Geomorphic Assessment of the South River Watershed, prepared for the Regional Council of Governments, Greenfield, MA, February 2013

2012 South River Fish Communities and Physical Habitat Assessment, Franklin County, MA, a final report prepared for the Deerfield River Watershed Association and the Franklin Regional Council of Governments , by M Cole, June 2013.