The Neponset Watershed is made up of a striking array of landscapes, habitats and species – despite 10,000 years of human habitation and over 375 years of industrialization.
Notable features of the Watershed include the 30 mile long Neponset River, Fowl Meadow, Blue Hills, Baker Dam, Tileston and Hollingsworth Dam, the Neponset Estuary, Neponset RiverWalk and Greenway, and Squantum Point Park.
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The Fowl Meadow is a large tract of wetland which meanders 7.2 miles through Norwood, Canton, Westwood, Dedham, Milton, Sharon and Hyde Park.
It is a large wetland system comprised of diverse landscapes, wildlife and plants, that is home to rare and endangered species. The river is placid along most of its Fowl Meadow path, falling only slightly, and with a lazy current. Interestingly, the Fowl Meadow contains several remnant “oxbows” of a former riverbed, which support a diverse community of wetland plants, aquatic life and terrestrial wildlife.
The Fowl Meadow almost was paved over in 1967 when the state proposed to extend Interstate 95, an eight-lane highway, all the way into Boston instead of ending at Route 128 (as it does today). The original proposal would have paved over much of the Fowl Meadow and located a major interchange on top of Paul’s Bridge, a historic bridge located in Milton.
A citizen lawsuit stopped the proposal. The lawsuit hinged on the fact that the project would have transferred land from the MDC to the Mass Department of Public Works. The lawsuit clarified the fact that the transfer of designated conservation land for development requires authorization by the state legislature even if the transfer is only from one state agency to another. The Neponset Conservation Association, which went on to become the Neponset River Watershed Association, was one of several groups that worked to save Fowl Meadow and Paul’s Bridge.
The averted environmental tragedy is a positive example of the crucial role citizen activists play in protecting and restoring the Neponset River Watershed.
In addition to providing wildlife with critical habitat areas, the wetlands of the Fowl Meadow serve as an effective flood control barrier along the Neponset River. After heavy rains, the wetlands soak up excess water and then release it slowly over the course of several weeks. This sponge-effect helps to reduce the peak river levels during floods, helps recharge underground aquifers, and prevents water from rushing downstream – potentially causing property damage in Hyde Park and Dorchester.
If you wish to hike into the Fowl Meadow, you can walk down a wide 2 1/2 mile path called Burma Road. The hike is in the open, so wear a hat and sun block. It can also be buggy, so consider wearing long pants, long sleeves, and bug repellent.
Park near Paul’s Bridge at the intersection of Neponset Valley Parkway and Brush Hill Road in Milton.
Another way to see the Fowl Meadow is by riding the Providence or Attleboro branch of the MBTA commuter rail. The trip from Sharon Station to South Station passes by many of the Fowl Meadow sights.
Dams, current and past
Over the centuries, the Neponset River and its streams have been modified to suit various human activities and we experience the legacy of these modifications today.
For instance, the remains of old dams on the river – as well as artificial widening of the river channel – continue to make waterway travel challenging for both wildlife (e.g., fish) and humans (e.g., paddling a boat) more difficult, especially during times of low flow. The site of the collapsed “rubble dam,” about 200 yards downstream of the Truman Parkway canoe launch, is one such challenging site.
At the Watershed Association’s urging, there is an ongoing effort to get herring and shad (and recreating humans) past the Baker and Tileston and Hollingsworth Dams, especially by modifying or removing the dams.
If the dams are removed or modified sufficiently, and the channel partially restored to a more natural shape, paddling through this stretch of the river will become much safer, easier, and less susceptible to low flows.
At other points in the river, there are small, vegetated islands – another legacy of old dams. For example, downstream from Ryan Playground in Mattapan, the river enters a stretch of braided or “anabranch” channel where it splits into numerous small threads that weave their way through tiny islands covered primarily with Reed canarygrass. This area is sometimes referred to as the “wild rice islands,” although no wild rice has been observed here.
Before 1955, this area would have been underwater, part of the mill pond created by the Jenkins Dam, which sat just upstream of the modern day shopping plaza on River Street near Central Avenue. The Jenkins Dam collapsed in 1955’s Hurricane Diane and ultimately was removed by the state. The small islands and braided channel were formed as the river carved a new route for itself through the thick deposits of silt that had accumulated behind the Jenkins Dam.
In March, April, and May, the area just below the Baker Dam in Lower Mills is one of the most productive spawning areas for rainbow smelt in Massachusetts Bay. Smelt are small “anadromous” fish, which spend most of their lives in the ocean, but return to brackish water to spawn.
The smelt spawning area stretches from the railroad bridge near the Milton Landing, right up to the toe of the Baker Dam, in a natural gorge where night herons, cormorants and even eagles congregate on overhanging limbs to get their share of the spring fish feast.
View smelt cabins along the Neponset, circa 1934-1956.
An estuary is the area where a river meets the ocean. The river changes character radically below Lower Mills, as it enters the Neponset Estuary. The intimate freshwater river, closed in by its buffer of overhanging trees, gives way to a wide-open waterway with sprawling salt marshes and sweeping views. Seasonal water levels are replaced by a twice-daily 10-foot change in the water level as tides ebb and flow. Finally, the river is no longer the solitary domain of paddle-powered craft, as larger motor and sailboats are now also able to ply the waters of the Neponset.
Freshwater and saltwater mix here, creating a unique habitat that is one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on earth. The marshes filter stormwater runoff, capturing nutrients and sediments and purifying the water. The estuary is a protective bulwark against flooding, as resilient salt marsh soils and grasses dissipate storm surges, protecting upland organisms as well as real estate.
Despite its proximity to Boston, many of the estuary’s open spaces and habitats are still intact, thanks to the vision of Charles Eliot, founder of the Metropolitan District Commission, who recognized the need to protect the Neponset’s marshes more than 100 years ago.
“The Neponset River Estuary ACEC is approximately 1,300 acres in size and is located in Boston (435 acres), Milton (355 acres) and Quincy (470 acres). The ACEC boundary is based upon the Wetlands Protection Act Regulations (wetlands resource areas and a 100-foot buffer) plus adjacent public open space and historic districts.
The ACEC begins at the Lower Mills Dam in Milton and Dorchester, which separates the coastal estuary from the inland fresh water portion of the Neponset, and extends to the mouth of the river at Commercial Point in Boston and Squantum Point in Quincy.” Learn more.
The ACEC, besides containing the Neponset River, also includes Gulliver Creek in Milton and Sagamore Creek in Quincy.
Neponset River Reservation
Turning downstream from the Milton Landing, paddlers will be surrounded by the marshes of the Neponset River Reservation for 1.2 miles until reaching the Granite Avenue Drawbridge. Along the way, the first major tidal creek entering on the right is Gulliver’s Creek, which drains part of Milton and is another important smelt spawning area.
The Neponset River Reservation runs alongside the Neponset Estuary – from the river’s mouth between Squantum Point in Quincy and the colorful gas tank in Dorchester, and upstream along the freshwater section of the river, to the Fowl Meadow (view a map).
From tidal marshes and creeks, to freshwater river surrounded by buildings, roads, woods, trails and marshland, the Reservation is a diverse natural area inhabited and visited by a plethora of species, plant and animal, and with a lengthy historical and cultural past.
As described by the MA Department of Conservation and Recreation (source):
The Neponset River…remains a natural estuary with extensive marshlands at its mouth and significant freshwater wetlands along much of its upstream length. It provides an unusually rich and diverse habitat for both plants and animals including a number of threatened and endangered species. The estuarine portion of the Neponset River upstream of Granite Avenue is characterized by extensive tidal marshes. Granite bound for Boston from Quincy was transferred by early railroad to boats at a pier on the Milton Shore. This segment of the river offers interesting canoeing and nature study opportunities.
In the late 1880’s, inspired by the founders of the Metropolitan Park System, Charles Eliot and Sylvester Baxter, the Metropolitan Park Commission acquired the Neponset River salt marshes – the first salt marshes in the Commonwealth to be publicly owned. Over the past 100 years the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) has actively worked to acquire approximately 750 acres along the Neponset River. These acquisitions include formerly used lands, such as the Neponset Drive-In and Hallett Street land fill in 1973 and Shaffer Paper the former Sterns Lumber Yard, in 1986, all to be rehabilitated as parkland and an abandoned rail right of way in 1990.
The Lower Neponset River Reservation Master Plan was prepared in 1966 with community guidance. The plan builds up the principles set forth by Eliot and Baxter of wise land stewardship, restoring damaged natural areas and opening portions of the outdoors for public use and enjoyment. The Plan made recommendations for new open space and parkland development with three of its five recommendations being implemented.
Pope John Paul II Park, a new 66 acre park, has been constructed on the site of the former Neponset Drive-In and Hallett Street land fill and opened to the public in 2001. At Squantum Point in Quincy , phase one of Squantum Point Park, 25 acres of a 50 acre former U.S. Navy Airfield, was developed as waterfront parkland Point Park with assistance from The National Grid Co. and dedicated in the spring of 2001. The completion of 2.4 miles of the Lower Neponset River Trail in 2003 will create opportunities for people to rediscover the Neponset River and the Reservation and to traverse a rich variety of historical and ecological contexts.
The site of the former T-Construction Company and Schlager Auto Body were acquired by the Commission in 1998 to be rehabilitated as parkland. The Commission hopes to acquire a parcel (The JSax property) adjacent to these two parcels in 2003. These three parcels were not included in the Master Plan of 1996. Their rehabilitation as a new 7 acre waterfront park called Neponset II will provide an important missing link between the recently developed parkland at Pope John Paul II Park and the MDC Neponset Marshes just west of Granite Avenue.
The Reservation also offers other recreational and educational opportunities at Mohnihan Playground and the Martini Shell in Hyde Park, Ryan Playground in Mattapan and Ventura Street Playground in Dorchester. Kennedy Park in Mattapan is home to a community garden and the City Natives Nursery.
Pope John Paul II Park comes up on the left. This area used to be the Hallet Street Dump and Neponset Drive-in movie theater. The State converted the former landfills into parkland, which now serves as the active recreation centerpiece for the Neponset Greenway.
Before these areas were turned into the park, the old landfills were first sealed off with a waterproof cap to prevent rainwater from soaking into the old landfill and then leaching into the river. Davenport Creek emerges into the Neponset in the middle of Pope John Paul II Park.
From here out, the river continues to widen and deepen as it travels two more miles to its mouth at the beginning of Dorchester Bay. On the Quincy side of the river to the right, is the Neponset RiverWalk, which connects with the Neponset Greenway on the Boston side of the river.
The first creek on the Quincy side is Sagamore Creek, which emerges from the buildings and vast parking lots of the State Street South development. Further downstream on the Quincy side is Billings Creek, which is surrounded by salt marsh.
At the landmark, painted gas tank, the river is flanked by Tenean Beach in Dorchester on the left and Squantum Point Beach in Quincy on the right.