Sunday, May 1, 2011

Pawtucket Falls

This weekend, I went over to the presentation at the new Spalding House Park on Pawtucket Street. The Sun wrote an article about it here. Of course, while the topic was supposed to be about the new park behind the Spalding House and the planned overlook/connection to the Esplanade on the opposite bank, much attention was paid to the announcement that came down shortly before that FERC had sided with Enel, the owner of the Boott Hydroelectric plant, in arguing that the proposed bladder dam would not alter the historic integrity of the current flashboard dam. Their argument essentially boiled down to things like:

  • After the fish ladder and elevator were installed on the north end of the dam in the 1980s, its character was already compromised.
  • The dam, although in a Historic District, was not individually listed
  • The dam's historical significance is as a piece of engineering, not as an architectural landmark.
I've found myself conflicted on this issue since it first surfaced. There are certainly downsides and benefits to keeping the existing dam or replacing it. While I feel it's often critical, especially in a city like Lowell, to maintain historical integrity, we cannot completely reverse course after the mistakes we've made in the past and ban all progress just for the sake of banning it. In an age of escalating energy prices, if Enel is right and their changes will not further endanger houses in Pawtucketville (an argument many residents feel is completely ludicrous, and their points are worthy of very serious consideration), increasing the amount of renewable energy we produce is a noble goal and worthy of consideration. Also, Enel has every right to turn as much of a profit as they can - of course, without stepping on the toes of the little people of Lowell, thousands of miles away from Corporate Headquarters.

However, while listening to impassioned park representatives and regular Lowellians talk about the history of the dam and the way it has worked for over 150 years, the whole time fighting to be heard over the spring flow rate of the Merrimack (currently about 20,000 cubic feet per second [cfs]), my mind was made up - Lowell is right, the foreign-owned energy company is wrong. The trivial amount of extra energy this will generate does not translate into giving up a major part of our heritage. After all, as was pointed out, these falls are why Lowell was built in the first place, and the archaic pin-and-flashboard setup is our heritage.

So, after the presentation, I went over to the Pawtucket Gatehouse, then I got started home. I had walked, and running late as usual, I only had a chance to take pictures on the way back. One of my favorite things about travelling on foot: the more you want to be on time, the faster you can go. There's no traffic to make you later and later. I made what Google considers a 22 minute walk in 15 minutes!

I went down Pawtucket Street to Merrimack Street, having taken Market/Salem on my way there to save a minute or two.

Photos after the jump
The view from the new Spalding Park. The Pawtucket Gatehouse, the top of the dam, the O'Donnell Bridge, and Pawtucket Congregational Church. I had been in this area before to take pictures back in July of 2007.
Inside the Pawtucket Gatehouse. These screws raise and lower the sluicegates down below, controlling the flow of water into the Northern Canal from the Merrimack River. Note the square peg holes in the shafts between the screws. Could this have been to control the gates by cranking in the event of a failure of the primary power source?
These old controls used to raise and lower the gates, in fact, originally the power to do this was driven by a turbine running off the river itself! It is now controlled entirely remotely and the power is electric, and many of the control arms are missing. Still, being able to control this remotely seems like a good thing. This reminds us, like the dam itself, this 160+ year old building is a piece of working history.
This must be the old Francis Turbine that would've powered the gate equipment. The vertical shaft long-gone, it would've connected to pulleys up above, which provided power back down to the gate equipment via belts.
And what have we here? The pulleys and the belts that are in the space above the control room!
The Pawtucket Dam is currently hidden under a ton of water. I mentioned the flow is currently about 20,000 CFS, which translates into about 9 million gallons per minute.
My camera has a zoom lens and an adjustable shutter setting. Yay.
The Spaulding house c1760. Next to a few triple deckers that are probably 180 years newer or so. And a much newer still vehicle. Imagine all the concrete and other buildings gone from this fairly busy part of Lowell, and picture this house, standing nearly alone, with the great falls of the Merrimack in its backyard. It served as a tavern for people disembarking their cargo from the river just above the falls, after which they had to port it over land until they got below the falls, down by the Concord River. In the 1790s, the falls were bypassed by the Pawtucket Canal.
The Old Stone House. At one point, this home belonged to Dr. James C. Ayer, who I have written about a few times before. It apparently later became the home for the Nuns who worked across Pawtucket Street at Saint Joseph's Hospital.

The original building of Saint Joseph's Hospital is at the end of this courtyard. Founded in 1840 as the Corporation Hospital for injured mill employees, it was sold in 1930 to become Saint Joseph's Hospital. Merging with its older, cross-town, also-Catholic rival Saint John's in 1992, it became part of Saints Memorial Medical Center. After being largely shut down over the years and having smaller rehabilitation centers in it, etc, it was recently sold to UMass Lowell to become "University Crossing." Which, among other things, will consolidate all of the bookstores. Hopefully this new project breathes some new life into the neighborhood, because Salem Street and upper Merrimack Street have been known as a rough part of Lowell for decades. Read more about the hospital's history here.

Construction across the river at UMass Lowell North Campus. This is the $70 Million "Emerging Technologies and Innovations Center." Read about it here.
 St Jean Baptiste, a beautiful closed church on Merrimack Street I have written about before. Within the year, the National Park has put up new informational signs. There is one over by Wannalancit Mill on the Northern Canal that, in describing Little Canada, calls this church "A Cathedral in the Slums." How proud the working-class French Canadian community must've been of this church!
A block of fairly old buildings along Merrimack Street, opposite of and a little further up from City Hall / the Library. This continuous block would be fascinating to learn about, I'm sure. Many of the ground floors house ethnic establishments, but unfortunately, a few were video stores, and Netflix has apparently now overtaken the immigrant market as well, because they're out of business.
Rest of the photos I took here:
Pawtucket Falls

And as a first for this blog, a (shaky, camera-phone) video!


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Once again your blog is AWESOME. Generally speaking, when your blogging about Lowell, I can not get enough. If I may, 2 quick notes about this post. 1) I don't think "The Spaulding House c1760" is sitting on its original site. For some reason its stuck in my head that the building was on the other side of the Pawtucket Canal, not sure, I will look into it further this week. 2) The Old Stone House, that belonged to Dr. James C. Ayer, is one of about 35 Lowell structures built from "Canal Rock"
    Again, Thank you

  2. Hi David,

    I believe the Spalding House is on its original site - are you thinking of the white house over by the Francis Gate? That one certainly was moved.

    I bet you're right about the canal stone. I was under the impression that that house pre-dated Lowell and therefore, would be less likely to be canal stone. However, I just confirmed that it was built in the 1820s by Captain Phineas Fletcher, making the timing perfect for canal excavation.

    Thanks for visiting!


  3. Enel's purpose may also include the timeliness of a recovery of the pool after a flooding event. Whereas it probably takes weeks, or even months, to re-build the flashboards, the bladder dam could be raised in hours or days. A couple of months with another 4 or 5 feet of water would translate into a fair amount of energy.

    But that same factor is a concern of the upriver residents, as the delayed raising of the pool provides the time necessary for the wetlands to drain, and thereby spare them of flooding with each ensuing significant rainfall.

  4. The Old Stone House used to be a hotel where the wealthy came from Boston to enjoy the breezes of the Merrimac in the summer. Supposedly it was quite the party place in the 1840s.

  5. We need the fish dam to get the stripers upriver.

  6. It doesn't look like Francis turbine, as there are no water inlets on the circumference. Maybe I'm missing something.

  7. Anonymous - my understanding is that it is a Francis Turbine. The gatehouse is sitting many feet above the dam, so the inlets are far below grade. I'm not sure the turbine itself is visible at all in my photo.

    1. The photo shows the main drive pulley ....the Francis turbine is below it under water. When the turbine was operated, it's shaft was connected to the drive pulley which by belts powered the line of belts and pulleys to each gate to raise and lower them as needed.