The Ritual of Rivers

The Indian Head River is the major tributary of the North River. Its degradation is similar to that of many other rivers. In other words, it is a case study of how to kill beauty and life.

Rivers don’t die easily, and this one is trying to stay alive.

February 28, 2014

I went down to the Indian Head River awhile back with Roxie the Wonder Dog to check things out. Conditions were about what we’d expected. The February thaw with its rain and melting snow had the river swollen and bank full, and moving along at a brisk clip. Roxie and I hung around at the little canoe launch ramp as the setting sun turned the sky, behind a lacework of swamp oaks and red maples, salmon pink. Reassured that the river was still flowing, we felt better about things in general, and left somewhat shored up against the waves that western civilization would toss at us via traffic, work, TV, and the Internet.

Checking in on the Indian Head at all seasons is a ritual of mine that goes back to my beginnings as a fly fisher almost 40 years ago. The strange thing about this is that I’m far from alone in my ritual. I may drive to the stream intending to spend some time there by myself, only to find another angler, or two or three others, pacing the bank and staring down river.



Dam number one on the Indian Head - at Luddam's Ford, where an indentured servant of that name was forced to carry Governor John Winthrop across the Indian Head on his back in 1632. By 1693 there was a dam at this location.


As rivers go the Indian Head is small, in its naming suffering from the Pilgrim’s habit of calling anything bigger than a brook a river. The real lure of the Indian Head, in part, comes from its close proximity to the sea. One might argue that at 13 miles inland from the Atlantic, the Indian Head is hardly a coastal stream. And you’d be right, except for the fact that what makes the Indian Head unique is the moon’s habit of pulling the sea 13 miles – more if one adds the many bends – up the winding course of the North River to flood into the Indian Head’s lower reach. Here the Indian Head joins Namasakeeset Brook to give birth to the North in an extensive freshwater marsh where the water floods and then recedes several feet with each tide. The marsh itself is a broad vista of cattails and wild rice rimmed by forested uplands. It’s an untamed place, left wild because, other than for water fowling and fishing, the settlers couldn’t find a use for it.


The Indian Head in spring time where Project Vale once flooded the valley.

And that is what draws us to the canoe launch. From there we can look down stream toward the marsh and its wildness. And in spring, when the water temperature rises above fifty degrees, we watch for the arrival of the shad with the evening tide, their backs waking the slick, black surface of the river as they move up to reclaim their ancient spawning water.

That the shad return is a source of wonder and comfort, because the Indian Head, as beautiful as it is in places, is a much-abused stream. A scant quarter of a mile upstream of the canoe launch, we encounter the old Clapp Rubber Company Dam – with its dilapidated fish ladder – that is better known as Luddam’s Ford Dam. It is the first of several dams on the Indian Head and its tributaries. Not far beyond the tail of the Clapp Rubber impoundment there is the ruin of the Waterton Dam that once held back the water of an impoundment named Project Dale. Project Dale flooded out two older milldams that are now, like the Waterton Dam, breached structures that are crumbling into the river. Further upstream one encounters the remains of the Cross Street Dam. While the bulk of the Cross Street Dam washed out in the 1938 Hurricane that also caused the Waterton Dam to collapse, its base of granite boulders continues to block fish passage and impound the Indian Head far above Cross Street. If we continue upstream, we arrive at the point in the woods where Indian Head Stream and Drinkwater Stream join to form the Indian Head River. From there, it is not far up the Drinkwater until one encounters Factory Pond Dam, and above Factory Pond there is Forge Pond Dam. If we were to travel up Indian Head Stream we would soon arrive at the Wampatuck Pond Dam that stands between the Indian Head Stream and its natural headwater at Indian Head Pond.

It is easy to see that the Indian Head has been damned by the dams that were placed on it. The cumulative summer time thermal effect of all of these dams is a river that flows into its freshwater tide marsh at temperatures as high as 85 degrees Fahrenheit, high temperatures that are lethal to many native fish species.

Making matters worse, Factory Pond, on the Drinkwater, was the site of the National Fireworks Company. For decades National Fireworks and its predecessor used Factory Pond as a dumping ground for the toxic wastes of their manufacturing process. One of the byproducts dumped into the pond was mercury, with the result that the Indian Head’s wild fish are classified as toxic to humans. While Factory Pond qualifies as a Super Fund site, a federal government beset by budget issues has handed the responsibility over to local authorities.

Before the dams were built, and other atrocities were committed, the Indian Head nurtured a vast array of native and diadromous fishes that in turn provided sustenance for humans, wildlife and the complex web of marine life that makes up the ocean ecosystems out beyond the mouth of the North River. Salmon, smelt, river herring, eels, striped bass, white perch, brook trout and lamprey eel were, in addition to shad, the fecund mix that ebbed and flowed – with the pull of the moon – from the waters of a pristine Indian Head River.

At this point you may be asking: Why bother with a lost cause? The first part of the answer to that question is simple: Look around – the Indian Head is not the only river to have been trashed by dam builders who made their profits and then walked away. In fact, it’s fairly representative of the dysfunctional watersheds that we’ve inherited from previous generations. If the Indian Head is lost, then so are many other rivers, and if that remains the case, future generations are going to have a difficult time feeding themselves.

The second part of the answer is more personal, dealing, as it does, with how I feel. The Indian Head, like all living things, is at work healing itself. The site of the former Project Dale impoundment that can be accessed off of Water Street in Hanover, is an enchanting reach of riffles and pools that come alive in spring time with mayflies, caddis flies and stoneflies. Hemlocks shade the pools, and violets sprinkle the sunnier banks with their color. All of this beauty exists thanks to the 1938 Hurricane that tore out the Waterton dam, doing the river, and us, a favor. This too short of a reach of free river, like the view from the canoe launch, shows us what the entire river once was, and what it can be again.


These perched culverts keep cold water species, like brook trout, from escaping the high temperatures of the Indian Head that occur in summer because of the old dams and impoundments on the river. The culverts serve a road that ends there, so like the old dams in the river, they serve no purpose other than death. Any society that can't address wrongs as obvious as these is pathetic.

And, as the Indian Head is trying to heal itself, its fisheries are waiting. There are wild brook trout clinging to survival in Iron Mine Brook, the little stream that flows unnoticed through perched culverts to enter the Indian Head at the canoe launch. These are the likely descendants of brook trout that once freely roamed a river that ran cool through the summer; a river where salmon spawned and their parr lingered for two turns of the seasons before smolting and moving out to sea. The brook trout are waiting for the river to cool down, just as the herring that are blocked by the Clapp Rubber Dam, Cross Street Dam and the Wampatuck Dam are awaiting the storms that will free the river and allow for passage up to their ancestral spawning waters of Indian Head Pond. Rivers and fish participate in a grander time frame than we do.

So I don’t see the Indian Head as a lost cause: Never will. Soon, I hope to be staring down river toward the marsh in the growing dusk of an early spring evening. I’ll be waiting, along with a few other anglers, for the shad – now 13 miles from the sea – to begin to show themselves. Their wakes and swirls will announce their homecoming, and our ritual of waiting will have been rewarded. Our ritual, so intertwined with the shad, celebrates the idea of a river. And the river is our home.


  1. Great story and a pleasure to read. Is there any work on bringing down the dams and old culvert issues on the Indian Head system?
    Thanks Michael

  2. Michael,

    Great question!

    You can expect a more detailed update in our forthcoming newsletter.

    The short version is that yes, absolutely SRBTC is working on this – and any sort of help would be absolutely welcome and more than appreciated.

    Geof Day / SRBTC

  3. Hi Michael,
    I wish that I could tell you that the people of the South Shore are clamoring to have the relic dams removed from their watersheds, but that is not the case – not yet. There are 65 dams in the North and South Rivers watershed alone.Most people drive past these old, abandoned dams every day and never question why they are there. A big part of the problem is that many people living around Boston have never even seen a functioning river that is free of dams and mill ponds. You know the old Joanie Mitchell line from her song “Pave Paradise” – “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” In the case of our rivers, they’ve been gone for so long now that many people don’t know what has been lost, and they don’t understand why they should care. Reacquainting people with the “idea”(or ideal) of a river is one of the challenges that SRBTC is trying to address.
    To answer your question more directly, SRBTC along with the North and South River Watershed Association,TU, Mass Marine Fisheries, Mass DER and the Town of Hanover, has been looking at obstructions in the Indian Head system. Removing the culverts on Iron Mine has potential in the near future, but even that small project is expensive. SRBTC is also helping with the removal of Tack Factory Pond Dam on Third Herring Brook, another tributary of the North River.

  4. Great article- I fished the river for years but did not know the history. I have been roaming all the trails looking for life of the old river. I am joining the fight by first joining the coalition and volunteering- thank you all for your hard work

  5. Hi Mark. In the case of the Iron Mine Brook Culverts, Hanover DPW has graciously offered to take the culverts out once the permitting has been completed.The design plans and wetlands flagging have been done by local engineers for free. The permits would come from the Hanover Conservation Commission. One aspect of this project that keeps the cost down is that there is no culvert replacement involved. There are related expenses however. North South Rivers Watershed Association will have to develop the Notice of Intent, notify abutters, attend hearings, and assist with the purchase of erosion control materials. Native grasses and trees will have to be bought and planted in the riparian zone, and a foot bridge will have to be constructed to reconnect trails. NSRWA has applied for grant money to help with this. To answer your question more fully, replacing a culvert at a road crossing over a tributary of the Westport River recently was completed at a cost of $300,000.At Iron Mine Brook, thanks to the generosity of Hanover DPW and others, we’re hoping that a $10,000 grant, and help from volunteers will get the connection between Iron Mine and the Indian Head restored.

  6. Thanks Warren. If I wanted to learn more about the process, the required financing, and the impact on the river (and its native fish), who could I speak with?

  7. Hi Mark,
    In the specific case of Iron Mine Brook,Samantha Wood who is the Director of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association is a good person to talk to. Her group has completed a culvert study of the watersheds, and she has a good understanding of the impacts that perched culverts, undersized culverts and relic mill dams are having on her watershed. I believe that she also has a good grasp of the costs.At present she is also working on the removal of Tack Factory Dam on Third Herring Brook, a tributary of the North River that has wild brook trout in its watershed.SRBTC is assisting with this. In a broader context, the folks at Mass Division of Ecological Restoration have some good materials on stream restoration, and they are the people that we rely on for technical assistance and project management of restorations and dam removals. Samantha can be reached at the NSRWA office 781 659 8168.

    1. Hi Warren,
      I’ve been fishing the Indian Head for 25 years. Tonight I fished the river way upabo e the herring ladder and larger pond and caught a few 8″ Brook trout. I know it is stocked, but is there a chance these are native trout?
      Just curious.

      1. Dwight – the chances are pretty good as there are wild trout living in the small brooks that are tributaries to the mainstem, and their trip into the bigger waters when the temperatures are right are likely to be quite adventurous – and productive as the bigger waters provide a greater opportunity for food. They could also be stocked as ocasionally a brookie gets mixed into the browns and rainbows that are stocked there but that seems unlikely. I’m also pretty sure the biologist team that stocks the area actively avoids putting any brook trout into waters that hold wild brook trout.

        A biologist would be looking for young-of-the-year, redds and spawning behavior, all of which is easily observed if you are in the right time and place. Keep your eye open for tiny or smaller brookies. Again they are hard to see, but if you are actively looking for them, I expect you’d find them.

        Also, it is well known that there are brook trout in Iron Mine Brook – so if they can live there, I expect they’ll be in any brooks even smaller than that.

        Love to get a report (and pictures) if you find young-of-the year!

        Let us know?

  8. Glad to see the removal of the Iron Mine Brook culvert. I typically see you down there every spring as I’m looking for signs of shad. I remember you telling me about the possibility of it being removed a couple of years back.

      1. Kathleen:
        It has been said that the river’s name is a result of King Philip’s (Metacomet, leader of the Pokanokets) head having been transported down the river to Plymouth by Benjamin Church and his troops. I doubt that this is true. It would have been an inconvenient way to get to Plymouth because the Indian Head would carry them a considerable distance north of Plymouth. Church probably did march north along the Taunton River after ambushing Philip, but, due to the number of captives and troops involved, using the old Wampanoag canoe route would have been impractical.
        It is more likely that the name is derived from the Matakeesett’s use of the river for fishing, hunting and traveling up to Indian Head Pond where some of them probably spent the winter.

    1. This is an update for Steve and anyone else reading this post… it has been a while.
      During the interval between the writing of “The Ritual of Rivers” and the present time a lot has happened. If you are familiar with the Indian Head, you will have noticed that the perched culverts at Iron Mine Brook are gone. You may also know that Tack Factory Dam and two other dams have been removed from Third Herring Brook.
      Now the time has come to restore the Indian Head. Thanks to mitigation money, $72 million, assigned to cleaning up the pollution of Factory Pond, there is now money (about $7 million) available for restoring fish passage to the Indian Head. This task has been taken on as a priority project by the Mass. DIv. of Ecological Restoration. However, in what form the restoration will take place is up to you. There will be public hearings held by the towns of Hanover and Pembroke. And there will be people at those hearings who will want to preserve the Clapp Rubber Dam at Luddam’s Ford. Or, they may want to preserve the dam’s impoundment for its scenic value, or as a place for kids to fish – for mercury laden sunfish and bass. One way to create passage, that will almost certainly be suggested, would be the creation of a “natural fish way.” The purpose of “natural fish ways” is the preservation of impoundments, a purpose that defeats the avowed restoration of the river.
      As I tried to make clear in The Ritual of Rivers, the water held behind dams heats quickly beneath the spring and summer sun, and so lacks oxygen and kills native river species down stream of the dam. They also block natural sediment transport – sediment needed to bolster marshes and expand beach fronts faced with sea level rise. We can add to these ills the increased, nutrient rich surface covered by the stagnant water of the impoundment; a situation that greatly expands the opportunity for mercury pollution to be transferred to organic matter, and ultimately, the food chain.
      The impoundments on the Indian Head have to go – along with the dams. And the only way that will happen is if we attend the hearings, make our case, and demand that they go.

  9. Great read! I’ve lived on the South Shore for 20+ years, the last 14 in Scituate. Just getting back into fishing and trying to learn more about our local rivers, ponds etc. Indian Head was just stocked with trout. Can you recommend where I should go? Casting and/or fly info would be great. Thanks!

  10. Peter,
    The Indian Head is stocked from Cross Street all of the way to the canoe launch at the end of Indian Head Drive. There are trails along the river. Some off of Water Street. I fish a lot with an Elk Hair caddis. I also use Light Edson Tigers, Hornbergs, and Muddlers.
    Nothing too fancy. A 7.5 foot leader tapered to 5x should be sufficient. There are early brown stoneflies, caddis hatches, and some mayflies like the Blue Winged Olives and Quill Gordons. I used to see Light Cahills and Sulfers, but the mayflies have become scarce over the past couple of decades. Sometimes I can smell what I think is chlorine from the waste water treatment plant on French’s Stream.

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