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Summary of the WaterShed's Amazing History

When the glaciers retreated north approximately ten to fifteen thousand years ago, the North and South Rivers served as channels for the melt water.  Because sea level was lower than it is today, the rivers flowed out into Cape Cod Bay where it joined the glacial river from the Boston basin and then continued east across the present continental shelf to meet the sea.  After the complete departure of the ice lobes, a smaller river occupied the former glacial channel and the sea began to rise, reaching its present levels within the last millennium. Glacial features, such as the drumlins that form the cliffs of Scituate, were eroded and beaches were formed by the sediment.  Trees soon covered the hills, and as silts were deposited by the rivers, the salt marshes began to extend themselves, keeping up with each rise of sea level.  Thus the topography of the watershed and the rivers are a direct result of the relatively recent glacial epoch and it is a very dynamic geographical feature, changing continuously.

Algonquin Indians roamed New England after the glacier’s departure and around 1600 there were ten thousand Indians, known today as the Wampanoags, in the area of the North and South Rivers.  Their settlements were permanent and they used the rivers as a transportation route and as a source of food, as evidenced by the fish weirs and clam shell mounds that have remained.  The Indians burned the underbrush from the forest but had few other impacts upon the natural environment.

In 1614 John Smith stopped at the mouth of the rivers to rest and to trade with the Indians.  During the 1630’s the towns of Scituate and Marshfield were being settled primarily along the coasts, and the first ferry across the North River was established in 1637.  Samuel Deane stated, “the river received its name before 1633, and probably from the circumstance that its general course was from south to north, or that it was further north from Plymouth than the South River.”  Despite the slightly meaningless name, the river and its marshes were quickly recognized as important resources, the former as a highway and the latter as readily available forage.

The early settlers used the salt marsh meadows for thatch, insulation, hay and forage for animals.  The towns apportioned the meadows by town committees, and the owners dug ditches to locate their boundary lines.  In 1706 all the cedar swamps were divided into eight-acre lots and distributed throughout the towns.  Often the owners lived inland from the river and the rights of way were in many cases bones of contention and litigation.  Fifty dollars an acres was not an uncommon evaluation in 1700, but by 1900 five dollars an acre was the maximum.  When the towns of Norwell and Hanover split away from Scituate, they were given parcels of the salt marshes in the estuary, the produce from which was annually rented for considerable sums.  The salt hay was cut by hand beginning at high ground and scything toward the river or “down Medder.”  Behind the scyther would follow rakers with long-handled bull rakes. On the drier, upriver bluegrass meadows, the hay was dried on racks raised above the marsh and then moved inland by horses with meadow shoes bolted over their hoofs.  On the downstream black grass meadows, below the railroad bridge, the hay was moved onshore in gundalows, large flat- bottomed scows thirty to forty feet in length with a capability of carrying three to eight tons of hay.

By 1644 there were at least three ferries on the North River, and the first bridge was built in 1656 at Curtis Crossing on the stage road from Boston to Plymouth.  During the 19thcentury bridges replaced ferries, and the sites of the present bridges were established.  The North and South Rivers were not fast enough running streams to generate any water power, but their tributaries were quickly recognized as suitable locations for saw mills, grist mills, shingle mills, and box mills.  The first mill appeared around 1650 on the First Herring Brook, and others soon opened on the Second and Third Herring Brooks and along the South River at what is now known as Veterans’ Park and upstream at Chandlers’ Pond.  These dams effectively cut off the upstream habitat for coastal spawning fish.  Along with the wood from the forests, bog iron was another important natural resource in the region, and as early as 1704 Bardin’s Iron Works was erected in Hanover.  The Curtis family became owners of the Iron Works in 1790, when anchors became the principle product—up to 250 tons of anchors per year.  The anchors of “Old Ironsides” were forged in Hanover along with the first cast iron ploughs.  Later, tack factories were built in order to supply the shoe manufacturers of the Brockton area.

The most famous industry on the North River was shipbuilding, which produced over 1,025 ships between 1650 and 1870.  On almost every bend where the North River touched firm ground, there was either a shipyard or a landing.  The vessels were built in the yards, floated downstream over a period of several flood tides, and outfitted for sea in Marshfield near the mouth of the South River.  The industry reached its peak between 1799 and 1804 when 115 vessels were launched.  After that the supply of local white oak and white pine began to diminish, and a sandbar at the mouth of the river limited the size of the craft that could be built.  As ship tonnage increased, the deeper ports of Boston, New York, and Bath became the centers of shipbuilding, and most of the North River’s shipwrights moved to these locations.  The last ship to be launched on the North River, the “Helen M. Foster”, slid down the ways at Chittenden’s yard in Norwell in June of 1871.  The former shipyards are marked today only by placards erected in 1919 by the North River Historical Association.

After the decline of the shipbuilding industry the rivers became the site of pleasure boating activities.  The North River Boat Club was formed in 1893, and their clubhouse was built just to the east of the Union Street bridge.  In 1894 the first power launch arrived on the rivers.  The area had become increasingly popular as a summer resort since the 1880s, and the summer folk were to have a strong influence on the river.  In 1885 a bridge was built to Humarock to accommodate the resort hotel, and later upstream, power boaters persuaded the railroad to raise its bridge and the State to remove the rocks from the stretch of River just west of the Union Street bridge known as “Rocky Reach.”

On November 26, 1898, a storm that would be known as the Portland Gale struck the Massachusetts coast, and when its fury diminished, the North and South Rivers had broken open a new mouth between Third and Fourth Cliffs of Scituate and nearly closed off the old mouth at Rexhamebeach.  Several schemes for creating a new mouth had previously been considered, including the location opened by the storm.  In 1829 a petition had been sent to Congress for the construction of a canal connecting the river with Scituate’s Old Harbor for a cost of $15,000. On April 16, 1851, a storm known as Minot’s Gale broke through the area between Third and Fourth Cliffs but not enough to create a new mouth.  The warning was never heeded, for during the storm of 1898, four lives were lost and several hunting camps were destroyed.

The SS Portland

The real effect upon the North River was much farther reaching. The tide level in the salt marshes regularly, began to top its banks and flood the meadows, and the salinity of the North River increased, killing the cedars along the marsh fringes. The gale was a turning point for the rivers.  Salt haying ceased; industries along the river greatly declined; use of the river as a highway became less important; and due to technological innovations mills were changing from water power to steam power.  Although there had been several schemes to open the river to the sea before the gale, few people realized the effect the new mouth would have upon the rivers.

Pollution and wildlife depopulation is not new to the North River.  A 1794 Act of the General Court to regulate sluices at mills was too late to save the herring on some brooks, and in 1831 Deane wrote, “Formerly, it is said, salmon were taken in this river.  Bass had been abundant until within a few year; they are taken chiefly during the winter.  Shad and alewives are still taken, but they are gradually diminishing.”  Deane was hardly more encouraging concerning birds.  “The marshes are visited in autumn with countless varieties of birds of passage, and the river and coast with fowls of all kinds that have been here known; but they are gradually diminishing, and hardly now repay the toil of the fowler.  The black bird that was so abundant a century ago as to sweep off whole cornfields occasionally, is now rarely seen.”  By 1890 many swimming holes had been abandoned due to industrial pollution, and a local historian was moved to remark that if some action was not taken, “all the fish would become strangers to the river as bass and salmon already had.”  Fortunately most fish, including the herring though in much decreased numbers, have survived, and eels are presently caught for shipment to Europe.

After the industrial decline of the late nineteenth century within the area, and before the housing boom of the post-Second World War period, the rivers experienced a regeneration, a cleansing.  The view from the rivers today is very different from what it was a hundred years ago.  The salt hay is no longer mowed, and the tide has a greater influence.  The cedar forests have mostly disappeared as a result of the new tide levels, to be replaced by more marsh grass.  The forests, although heavily harvested for the shipbuilding industry, were never extensively logged close to the river itself, so that the backdrop to the river has remained relatively constant.  The clearings of agricultural fields have started to fill in, but new residential clearings are appearing as development along the rivers has shifted from extensive agricultural use to moderate residential use. Most of the former factories, mills, and shipyards have gone.  The road network was established prior to the Civil War, and with the exception of Route 3, there have been few major changes.  The locations of all the bridges on the River were determined before 1660.  In the last thirty years a few roads along the river have been abandoned, but the major change has been the addition of many short spur roads perpendicular to the River. Very few roads have been built parallel to the River.