From Kenyon to Carolina: 3.5 miles of water and human history on the Pawcatuck River
Curling and curving for 38 miles through rural, suburban and urban landscapes on its way to Little Narragansett Bay, the Pawcatuck River is itself on a long and roundabout transition into a post-industrial waterway.
For the first people drawn to the river, it served as a transportation corridor and food source during the annual herring runs.
"The river was for thousands of years a highway for the Native Americans along the coast. It formed this part of the state in a very pronounced way," said Pam Lyons, president of the Charlestown Historical Society.
For the colonists who displaced the Native Americans, the river provided the energy and water resources needed for the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Just 2½ miles downstream from its source at Worden Pond in South Kingstown, R.I., begins a 3½-mile stretch through the villages of Kenyon, Shannock and Carolina, all of which straddle the towns of Richmond and Charlestown. Here, the story of its past, present and future is told.
The river flows past remnants of dams and one still standing; a new fish ladder awaiting the return of herring, eel and shad; and crumbling stone walls of old mills. Streets lined with restored mill houses flank the shores. A surviving textile-finishing factory and turf farms, still dependent on the river, produce the goods of 21st-century commerce.
Modern communities in the settlements once populated by manufacturers and laborers now appreciate the river as an aesthetic, environmental and commercial asset that gives these villages their unique sense of place.
"I don't think the villages would have been here if it weren't for the river, and it still makes up the character of these villages today, even if it's not contributing to their livelihoods," Lyons said.
Over the last six years, the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, a nonprofit founded in 1983, has led dam removals and other projects along this stretch in its mission to improve the Pawcatuck by restoring what conservationists call "connectivity."
As with many rivers across the country, industrialization essentially had cut the Pawcatuck off from itself. Up to eight dams interrupted its flows in the last two centuries, degrading the habitat for wildlife and recreation. While the dams served a commercial purpose in the 1800s and early 1900s, they long ago became eyesores, as well as financial and safety liabilities for their owners.
Now, just the White Rock Dam between Pawcatuck and Westerly blocks full connectivity. A removal project there is underway. In the larger context, the work on the Pawcatuck advances the nationwide trend that has seen 970 dams destroyed in the last 20 years, according to American Rivers, a restoration advocacy organization.
"The river restoration movement in our country is stronger than ever," said Bob Irvin, president of the nonprofit group, in an entry on its website about the 72 dams razed in 2014 alone. "Communities are removing dams because they recognize that a healthy, free-flowing river is a tremendous asset."
Kenyon Industries is the only surviving mill in what was once a cluster of textile factories. The oldest part of the factory, still in use to house its boilers, dates from the Civil War. John Donlon, the plant's director of environmental health and safety, explained how a diverse mix of customers and continual research and development has kept the fabric finisher alive in its original location while other New England textile mills closed decades ago or moved South, then overseas.
“Part of the reason is that we do military work, printing patterns for camouflage, and fire-proof and antimicrobial fabrics for tents and sleeping bags for military suppliers,” he said. “About half of our products go to the military.”
Its 325 employees also dye red, white and blue fabric sewn together for American flags and produce sail cloth and waterproof, sunproof and other specialty fabrics for outdoor clothing sold by L.L. Bean, Patagonia, Carhart and other name brands. About 30 million yards of fabric is processed annually at the 300,000-square-foot factory. A lot of complex chemistry goes into the baths the company uses to impregnate synthetic fabrics with high-tech shields. The process is generations removed from the simple woolens woven in the original buildings that stood here in the early 1800s.
Though the mill converted from water power to electricity in the early 1900s, rendering its dam obsolete, Kenyon Industries has continued to rely on the riverside location that brought it here in the first place, Donlon said.
“This type of business is very water intensive, and we couldn’t do business if we couldn’t discharge into this river,” he said. The plant empties about a half-million gallons of wastewater daily into the river, after treating it in on-site septic lagoons. A $2.5 million project is underway to upgrade the lagoons to treat the water to higher standards being required by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Along with using the river for its discharges, the plant also draws water from the river for its boilers and fire protection system, Donlon said. Water used in the finishing processes no longer comes directly from the river, but from large production wells on the same aquifer that feeds it, he said.
“Generally, they’ve been in compliance" with pollution discharge standards, said Joe Haberek, principal engineer in the DEM’s Pollution Discharge Elimination System program. “But every five years they’re faced with more stringent limits. In 2011, we entered into a consent agreement for them to upgrade their facility.”
The new system will remove more copper, silver and ammonia from the company’s wastewater, as well as reduce levels of fecal coliform bacteria and further cleanse the water so it’s less toxic to aquatic creatures, Haberek said. Donlon said the company readily complied with the DEM’s order, because it wouldn’t be able to add some advanced chemical processes for new products without more sophisticated wastewater treatment capabilities.
When the watershed association approached Kenyon Industries about four years ago about razing the decaying rock-and-timber dam on its property, the company “saw no reason not to support it,” Donlon said. The dam removal was one of a series of projects the association and its partners began in 2009 to improve the health of the river by restoring natural flows and migratory fish passage through this section. The company’s only condition, Donlon said, was that it be able to retain the riverside pump house that can pull in 1,800 gallons of water per minute to fight a fire at the plant, a necessity for safety and insurance purposes.
In 2013-14, the old dam came down, and the section of river beside the plant was outfitted with a stepped series of rock weirs and resting pools to enable anadromous fish to swim upstream to spawn. The association paid for the project with $1.26 million in state and federal grants. Now, Donlon said, factory workers enjoy sitting on the stone wall beside the river at lunchtime, sometimes seeing kayakers paddling over the weirs.
“We’ve always depended on the river, and we’re constantly trying to be a good neighbor to the river,” he said.
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A little more than a mile downstream, a pocket of restored homes in the village of Shannock has been reawakening gradually since the 1980s. According to Shannock resident Sanford Neuschatz, when the Columbia Narrow Fabrics Co. uprooted for the South in 1969 it sapped the village’s spirit.
Neuschatz moved there in 1981 with plans to lead a large-scale restoration that never materialized and stayed on to witness a more organic transformation unfold. Instead of one big plan coming to fruition, individual homeowners reinvigorated the village house by house, and now a Newport investor is readying a stately old riverside building that once housed a general store for a restaurant slated to open in the fall.
“The whole village has been undergoing a renaissance for the last 30 years,” said Neuschatz, a retired teacher who lives next door to the Horseshoe Falls Dam, a striking central feature of Shannock. “It’s got a real personality, a great mix of people — everyone from fishermen to college professors.”
In 2012, the watershed association built a handsome, cut stone fish ladder that zigzags alongside the dam. As with the Kenyon dam project, the project was paid for with federal and state grants, totaling $1.7 million. Just uphill from the dam, a tangle of trees and vines obscures the view of the remains of the burned-out mill, a workplace for 250 people at its peak. But at a favorite village fishing spot just across from the dam, sections are visible.
“The fishermen stand there all day,” Neuschatz said. “We have wild otter and snapping turtles here this big,” making a wide circle with his arms. “It’s just a beautiful village.”
Beyond the village center are railroad tracks laid in 1837 to carry cotton yarn and, later, silk elastic webbing made in the village factories is the lower Shannock Falls. There, ruins of the village’s first mills stand beside the churning, rocky stretch of the river freed in 2010 when the watershed association tore down the old dam there, using $1 million in state, federal and nonprofit conservation group grants. Now, the Knowles Mill park beside the rapids draws rafters, kayakers and picnickers. Long past lamenting the loss of the mills, the village is embracing the river for its recreational and scenic qualities rather than as an economic resource.
“We get families with kids down here now, shooting the rapids over and over,” Neuschatz said. “I think this has been one of the best effects.”
After the lower falls dam, the river swings north and then hooks south before starting its sinuous eastward course. Nestled midway through the turn is the village of Carolina, named for the wife of an early mill owner. With its own cluster of handsomely restored homes along its main street, Carolina, like Shannock, has earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places.
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“This was the mill owner’s house,” said Richard Volke, president of the Richmond Historical Society, stepping out the back door of the home he and his wife, Johanna, moved into 40 years ago. Carolina grew into the largest of the three villages after 1840, when Rowland Hazard converted the existing mill from cotton to woolen fabrics and expanded production. In 1869, Ellison Tinkham and Franklin Metcalf bought the mill, which remained the center of village life until falling victim to the Depression in 1935.
Today, the remains of the Carolina Co. flank the northern bank of the river, its gray stone walls ravaged by weather and vandals, yet still imposing. In the arched bridges over channels that once carried river water through the mill, enormous granite doorway lintels and jigsaw puzzle stonework, the expert skills of the masons who built the mill are evident, even in its decayed state. Scattered in and around the roofless ruin sits a curious collection of bulky rusting machinery — portions of turbines with wheels for leather belts used to convert moving water into power to turn spindles and looms, huge rollers for cloth and complex geared contraptions that baffle a layman’s eyes.
The dam that harnessed the river for the mill was breached deliberately decades ago by a businessman who bought the property to salvage what he could from the site, emptying the Carolina Mill Pond that had been a favorite recreation spot for mill families, Volke said.
“Now it’s wide open, so the fish can go through,” he said, standing over one of the old stone channels for the dam, the river rushing by. “The kayakers like to come through the very narrow spot where the dam was knocked out, screaming at the tops of their voices.”
About 30 years ago, the derelict buildings and the 84 acres that comprise the mill property were purchased by Loie and John Quinn, a fifth-generation Carolina native, retired editor of USA Today and former chief news executive of Gannett Co. The Quinns and their family began restoring the site, starting with the mill office and three of the tenant homes for mill workers. But the mill itself is still mostly untouched, getting chewed by the elements bit by bit and in some large sweeps, most recently when the floods of 2010 put it under water.
Volke recalled that in the first years after buying the site, Quinn would host neighborhood parties at the old mill. Now, Quinn, in his late 80s, lives in Florida much of the year, and the future of the property is unclear, said Volke, who is a friend of the family.
While the old mill languishes, the river rolls past as ever, reclaiming its muscle as dams disappear. As the flows are unleashed, the river is returning to a healthier state — not the totally wild river it was before colonists arrived, but appreciated mainly as natural resource that should be protected, rather than corralled for industry.
“Conservation,” Volke said, when asked what the river means to the town today. “We have a pretty active Conservation Commission in town. And it brings some tourism, from people kayaking and fishing.”
North just two-and-a-half miles from Kenyon Industries and the banks of the Pawcatuck River, a landscape more reminiscent of the Great Plains than rocky, hilly New England meets the eye — acres of flat, stone-free fields lush with the signature crop of modern human landscapes.
There, Peter Butson drives his pickup truck along one of the dirt roads through Kingston Turf's 300 acres of grass destined for Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, Yankee Stadium, golf courses and country clubs.
Employing 25 people, it is one of eight wholesale and retail turf farms in this part of the watershed, occupying a combined total of about 3,000 acres that once grew potatoes in these well-drained soils.
Butson, sales representative for the company, said the proximity to the Beaver and Queen rivers, two main tributaries of the Pawcatuck, are essential to the business, providing up to 2,500 gallons of water per minute to irrigate the crop. Other turf farms in the region either draw directly from the river, its tributaries or production wells on the same aquifer.
“There are no limits on how much water we can draw,” Butson said as he pulled up beside the Beaver River. “But it's never run dry.”
He drove past Brock Bouchard, who started the company in 1967, operating a large machine called an Autostack that was rolling up slices of turf for a customer in Westchester County. Butson said the company uses chemical fertilizers sparingly “because it costs money.” Regulators have not cited it for polluted runoff getting into the river.
Nevertheless, this section — from the former Kenyon dam to the Carolina mill pond — is on the DEM's 2015 List of Impaired Waters. Pollutants in this stretch render the river toxic to some wildlife, the report states, and levels of e-coli bacteria are too high for safe swimming.
Denise Poyer, program director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, said the group's pursuit of Wild and Scenic River status, a National Park Service program that enhances river protection, will provide the tools to address the pollution problems, including identifying the causes. Mostly, she believes, the pollution is coming from multiple small sources such as lawn fertilizers and road runoff.
“As we do the Wild and Scenic plan, we'll develop a management plan for how to deal with the pollution, and we'll invite industry representatives to the table,” she said. The turf farms, she said, are vital parts of the region's economy that can coexist with the goal of improving the river's water quality.
“The turf farms are a valuable agriculture commodity,” she said. “We want to see our farms protected.”