A Page from North Quabbin History: Birch Hill Dam one of oldest in New England

  • Aerial view of Birch Hill Dam in Royalston. The old river channel can be seen running through the middle of the field in this 1991 photo. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Published: 9/14/2021 1:21:57 PM
Modified: 9/14/2021 1:21:59 PM

The years 1936 and 1938 are well known to the area for the flooding and resultant devastation these waters brought to the area. Even today, the dam near the Starrett’s building has two white marks, which can be viewed from the street, showing the height of the Millers River during the 1936 and 1938 flood events, said Bill Mehr, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Natural Resource Specialist, Tully Lake and Birch Hill. The flood events caused millions of dollars in damage and hundreds of lives were lost in the New England area, he continued.

In 1940, the construction of the Birch Hill Dam, now the third oldest of the 32 flood control dams in New England, began in Royalston to prevent such devastating floods from happening again.

Prior to construction of the dam, Congress decided flood risk management was a matter of national security. “Because of all of the damages and lives lost, they decided, we must take control of flood management,” Mehr said. “As it was deemed a matter of national security, that is why we fall under the national defense department. We often get confused with the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife and Forestry Department. They are all under the Department of the Interior; we are under the Department of Defense,” he explained.

“The Birch Hill Dam was constructed by the Army between 1940 and 1942. The Army was in charge of the building of the dam while the Workers Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided workers for the projects,” Mehr said. The dam’s work crews fluctuated depending on availability, as construction was occurring during the war, he continued. When completed in February 1942, the dam cost $ 4.8 million dollars, according the U.S,. Army Corp of Engineers Birch Hill Dam Flood Risk Management Project website.

Today, there are 13 flood control dams in Massachusetts. Birch Hill is one of five dams which are part of the Lower Connecticut River Basin. The other dams in the basin include the Barre Falls Dam, Knightville Dam in Huntington, Littleville Dam in Huntington, and Tully. “What we’re doing at Birch Hill Dam also prevents flood damage in Springfield and Hartford and all communities in between on the Connecticut River,” Mehr stated.

The dam, along with the Tully Lake Dam, for the last 56 years have also been working with River Rat Race coordinators to release the water needed for the annual River Rat Race. “Birch Hill Dam is the flood control dam directly on the Millers River. Tully Lake is the main controller of the East Branch of the Tully River which is the main tributary of the Millers River,” he explained.

“The coordinators of the River Rat Race put in a request every year for the release of a certain amount of Cubic Feet per Second (CFS) of water for the duration of River Rat Weekend. The releases must be coordinated with Reservoir Control Central in Concord to minimize the impacts on our flood control capabilities,” Mehr said.

The Army Corp of Engineers have three separate focuses, Mehr stated. “First and foremost, our line of concern is Flood Risk Management (FRM). Our next highest priority is responsible stewardship for the property we own, environmental stewardship. The third priority is recreation. The federal government owns 4,393 acres, according to Mehr, which includes the Birch Hill Dam and Lake Dennison. Because we own all of this property that we could potentially flood, when there is not in a flood event it can be used for public recreation.”

Among historical spots hikers can visit at the Birch Hill Dam site itself is King Phillip Rock where, local legend holds, he said, Philip’s local tribal council meetings were held.

Lake Dennison is within the flood control area at the dam. “We lease Lake Dennison and the campground to the Department of Conservation and recreation. (DCR).” Prior to the dam and watershed area being created, Lake Dennison used to have steamboat rides, a dance pavilion, the Dolan Fish Market and a summer camp. Although not marked, he added, some of the foundations and cellar holes of these buildings still exist.

More information about Birch Hill Dam at their website https://www.nae.usace.army.mil/Missions/Recreation/Birch-Hill-Dam/

Carla Charter is a freelance writer from Phillipston. Her writing focuses on history with a particular interest in the history of the North Quabbin area. Contact her at cjfreelancewriter@earthlink.net.

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