Wood's dam and the mill beyond the Mystic.
by Moses W. Mann.In the summer of 1870, the writer, then a new-comer to Medford, first heard mention of the destruction of Wood's dam, which was situated below the island, a few rods down-stream from Wear bridge. His informant was a reputable citizen, evidently in little sympathy with the doings, as he remarked that ‘some young fellows, who hadn't anything to do but row pleasure boats,’ were the destroyers, and added, ‘there was some poetry (?) in the papers about it.’ As the incident created considerable excitement at the time, and as public opinion was somewhat divided in relation to it, the present account is written. There had been at that locality a small mill, operated by the receding tide, from a time almost immemorial. Rev. Charles Brooks, in writing the history of Medford, published in 1855, said, ‘There was a mill a short distance below Wear Bridge, but who built it, or how long it stood, we have not been able to discover.’ Evidently the historian considered that the mill and its necessary dam were not then of any recent construction. From his writing, inference might be had, that the whole was of a time long past, like those he had before mentioned, but for the succeeding sentence, ‘The place is now occupied,’ though omitting to say how, or by whom. Mr. Brooks was then sixty years of age, a native of Medford (his birthplace within a mile of Wear bridge), and his history shows that he had a close acquaintance with all parts of the town. Again, he did not mistake this spot for the site of the Broughton mill, half a mile down-stream, as he mentioned that also. A well-known citizen informs us that at his coming to West Cambridge (now Arlington), in 1856, the Wood mill was in operation. Mr. George Y. Wellington, who in his boyhood attended Mr. John Angier's school in Medford, walking [p. 14] the entire distance from his home in West Cambridge (save an occasional ride with Mr. Peter C. Brooks, or on the Middlesex canal boat), says that there may have been a mill there previously, but that his first remembrance of the building was in 1840. Mr. Wellington is now over eighty years of age, and actively engaged daily in business. It appears that no serious objection had been made to the maintenance of this dam till in the late fifties; a reputable citizen of present Arlington and native in West Cambridge saying that ‘the Fish Committee or Commission ordered its removal.’ And now appears a highly respectable citizen of Medford, who remembers that his brother, who went to the war with the Lawrence Light Guard, (reenlisting after a home-coming of two weeks) and was killed in battle, was present at the first destruction of the dam, which must thus have been as early as 1860. From the foregoing it is evident that the proprietor certainly thought he had some right in the premises, and with what follows it will be seen that the upper Mystic was a scene of strife for a period of ten years. The mill was a small two-story building, situated on the western bank of the river, and therefore in West Cambridge. The river-bank was there quite steep, and entrance was had into the second story from the land adjoining by a connecting bridge. The building projected somewhat over the river, was supported by stones and timber, and the water-wheel was enclosed by the first story. It was of the undershot variety, its paddles dipping into the current, which, as the tide ebbed, ran very swiftly, and was accelerated by the fall of less than two feet caused by the dam. Two pictures of the mill are preserved, the earlier showing the wheel in a shed-like addition, the later without the shed. Possibly the addition may have been wrecked in the earliest attack, the later picture having been made at about 1868. On either side the mill were willows, which leaned far out over the stream, making a picturesque setting for the old mill, [p. 15] whose shingled walls and roof were time-worn and weatherbeaten. The proprietor was Mr. B. F. Wood, who lived in a large white house on the level plain near by, who did wood-turning, jig-sawing and like work, also making baby carriages and curtain fixtures in his mill. As a matter of course, the mill was nothing without the water power, which was obtained at the ebbing of the tide that had flowed up-stream into the lower lake, and was secured by the low dam built across the river to the Medford side. As a natural water-way, the river at its beginning just above Wear bridge did not present a favorable aspect, and in many places below was very shallow. The ‘Proprietors of Middlesex Canal’ very soon abandoned their original idea of utilizing the Mystic, and, authorized by additional legislation, built their artificial water-way six miles farther to the Charles, in 1802. There is credible evidence that prior to the canal's discontinuance early in 1852, boatmen shunned the last mile up the river by lifting their boats from the river near the canal ‘Landing No. 4’ (which was just north of the canal aqueduct over the Mystic), placing them in the canal, then rowing or towing them up the canal and removing them into the lake, or Medford pond, as it was then called. But there were those who thought that Mr. Wood had no right to maintain his dam, and claimed that the river was navigable for its entire length. Both sides held to their opinions, and the conflict arose. After the first destruction of the dam (which demolition does not appear to have been complete), it was soon repaired, and later the selectmen of Medford were appealed to in the matter, though one-half of the offending and obstructing dam was in the adjoining town. No mention of it is, however, to be found upon the records of that town. The records of the Medford selectmen show that on November 9, 1864, they ‘voted, that B. F. Wood of West Cambridge be notified to remove the dam maintained [p. 16] by him across Mystic River.’ He evidently did not do so, as on April 9, 1866, it was ‘voted, that Messrs. Foster & Gilmore be a committee to investigate the matter of Wood's dam and report on the same.’ A week later the record notes the receipt and filing of a letter from Charles R. Train, attorney, in relation to Wood's dam. As this letter is not in evidence, it is uncertain whose attorney he was, or what the contents were. Over a year later, on June 27, 1867, the selectmen ‘voted, that Mr. Foster be a committee to notify the Harbor Commissioners, that Mr. Wood had again put his dam across the river.’ By the above, it would appear that somebody had removed the dam, and that Mr. Wood, who appears to have had good staying qualities, had rebuilt it. A little later the selectmen ‘voted, that the clerk notify the Harbor Commissioners, that Mr. Wood had constructed a dam across Mystic River.’ Another month passed away and the record shows a curious state of affairs at the town house, as it was then ‘voted, that Mr. Hastings be a committee to write a letter to the Harbor Commissioners in relation to Wood's Dam and that the former committee on Wood's Dam present the same.’ Not having consulted the records of the commissioners, the writer is unable to say whether this trebly voted action ever reached them, though we may presume that the committee attended to its duty. There is no reference to the matter again for three years, when it appears that ‘Mr.’ . . . ‘appeared in relation to Wood's Dam.’ A brief record, and it would be interesting to know what was said at that meeting. The selectmen took no action of record. All may have been ‘quiet on the Potomac’ in war time, but all was not quiet on the Mystic a little later on. A ‘Battle Cry’ of forty lines (recently republished) was circulated, in which the ‘Boatmen’ were summoned to ‘Rouse from slumber,’ and to ‘Let the little navy [p. 17] ride, On the upward flowing tide,’ and ‘When the works of Wood are seen,’ there was a mighty shout to be made, that would ‘Make the echoes leap and roar.’ It was also directed that if the ‘vandal’ resisted, they should ‘Duck him in the limpid stream’ and ‘Rub him with a muddy paste.’ These latter operations, savoring strongly of the ‘tar and feather’ discipline of the recent war time, were not performed, though no doubt the limpid stream became muddy enough in the destructive work that followed. No lives were lost in the struggle, though bloodshed was imminent, as the ‘vandal’ did ‘defy’ them, the attacking party suffering from a bombardment of stones from the irate proprietor. They succeeded, however, in wrecking the dam, and it is said one of the number contracted a severe rheumatism by his efforts in the water. Ere long Mr. Wood had the dam rebuilt, though in a less substantial manner, by driving stakes into the river and placing planks against them, this developing some power by turning the river's current against the millwheel. On November 14 following, the Medford selectmen ‘voted, that Mr. Richardson make inquiry in regard to “Wood's dam” and report at meeting on Monday evening next.’ On November 21 they ‘voted, that counsel be engaged to take charge of the matter of Wood's Dam now pending before the Supreme Court, the same to be referred to Mr. Richardson.’ Winter was setting in, and the boating season over. No more appears of record till July 17, 1871, when ‘Messrs.’——and——‘appeared on account of Wood's dam,’ and it was ‘voted, that Mr. Richardson be a committee to take legal advice,’ and so the summer passed away. It is probable that Mr. Wood continued to use the water-power, but on February 5, 1872, the complainant who first appeared came again with the ‘old, old story,’ [p. 18] and still another season passed, and on October 21 he ‘appeared’ again. By this time a decision had been rendered by the court, adversely to Mr. Wood, and it was then ‘voted, that a committee appear before the Harbor Commissioners and request them to carry out the decision of the court.’ On November 11 that committee reported that written application had been made for the dam's removal. Just when it was finally removed is a matter of uncertainty. Doubtless, Mr. Wood felt himself aggrieved in the matter, and it would seem as if some amicable arrangement might have been made, whereby the boats of the pleasure-seekers might have passed by the obstruction which had at least had the precedent of years of use— years so many that Mr. Brooks, in 1855, was unable to ascertain. The decision of the court was that no structure could be built in tidal water outside of high-water mark. A few years ago the late Dr. Hedenberg furnished the writer a photographic copy (by Wilkinson) of the ‘dam’ poetry alluded to, which he had carefully preserved as a memento of the great naval exploit of which we have written, and it is here partially presented:— You've built a wooden dam, old W—d,
Across the tidal stream,
Why have you built the dam, old W—d,
Please tell us what you mean.
On each end of your dam, old W—d,
You say you own the shore,
The Almighty owns the water, W—d,
We won't allow your dam, old W—d,
To keep small craft from floating,
And we'll tear down your dan, old W—d,
While there is boats and boating.
Fiat justitia rust [?] coelum! [p. 19] In one of the later years the well-known author, Mr. John T. Trowbridge, was strolling that way and, noticing the quaint picture the shady nooks about the mill presented, entered and conversed a while with Mr. Wood, who told him something of the troubles he had experienced with the boating fraternity. As, years afterward, Mr. Trowbridge told the present writer, he ‘saw there was material in it for a story.’ ‘The Tinkham Brothers' Tide-mill’ was the result of his observation, first in Our Young Folks, and later in book form. A copy was in our Public Library, but has been worn out by the boys and girls of Medford, and is no longer in circulation. While the author said ‘the book was almost wholly fiction,’ yet the physical features he described were correct in every detail. Medford was disguised as ‘Dempford,’ and Arlington as ‘Tamoset,’ but he anticipated journalism in both towns. On November 10, 1879 (seven years later), Mr. Wood came before the Medford selectmen and asked their consent for his building a dam across the river, agreeing to follow their direction in the matter, but they ‘voted, that it is inexpedient to consider the matter asked for by Mr. Wood.’ On the 4th of July, 1891, at 1.20 A. M., the old mill was destroyed by an incendiary fire, and the chief engineer's report gives the loss as ‘about $1,100, no insurance.’ At the present writing, the gaunt remains of the willows reach pitifully out toward the river, while the island has been removed and the tides surge to and fro no more. The new Mystic Valley Parkway has been built through the approach to the mill, and the river's channel deepened. There are men in Medford today who will recall the excitement that occurred about Wood's dam; some, possibly (though unknown to the writer), who participated in the fray; others who can recall with pleasure their trips to the lake in their boyhood, the labor of rowing against the tide and the portage about the dam. On one of these [p. 20] excursions, in 1868, the photographer took his cumbrous camera along and took a picture looking eastward from that vicinity. It has a wide foreground of open fields, a few houses about the West Medford railway station, a half-dozen or so on Brooks and Allston streets—a notable contrast to the present view. During these forty years a marked change has taken place, and a city has arisen. All this is of the past, and worthy of record, but another summer will show the completion of the Cradock dam, then motor-boats and canoes will be plenty on the new Mystic, and pass peacefully over the site of the old Wood's dam.