Water Rights and Waypoints

By Phaea Crede

Say you find yourself one day soon on a pleasant stroll through the Middlesex Fells by the Spot Pond dam. Among the swaying trees and skittering chipmunks, you notice a dilapidated rock wall, some remnant of the recent past. You might guess that it was once part of a grain storage shed or perhaps marked the property line for some long-gone Stoneham farmer. What you might not suspect is that you are looking at the ruins of a secret spy house set up by Timothy Sprague, an 18th Century mill owner, to catch rival mill owners in the act of trying to mess with his water supply – something he’d even dodged a bullet defending!

Controversy and litigation over water rights feature heavily in “The Lost Mill Village of Middlesex Fells” by Douglas L. Heath and Alison C. Simcox. The book meticulously explores the early history of Melrose, Malden, Stoneham and Medford through the rise and fall of a once thriving mill-run factory community.

From corn flour and textiles to brass and rubber products, the mills of the Middlesex Fells grew to meet the needs of the expanding Massachusetts and American population, and at one time even housed its own school for factory worker’s children (who were often factory workers themselves). When Spot Pond was finally tapped for drinking water in the early 1900s, the factories were slowly abandoned, leaving behind the odd ruin for hikers to discover in the protected Middlesex Fells.

While much of the history is fascinating, from learning that the original mill was built in what is now downtown Malden to the day-to-day hardships of early Massachusetts settlers, the well-researched content on various mill owners and the constant lawsuits about who had the right to let water flow down Spot Pond Brook makes for an academic read. Sometimes the roster of Ebenezers and Barretts can be a bit hard to follow, but “The Lost Mill Village of Middlesex Fells” shines brightest when sharing glimpses of actual people and their lives, as well as the history of the land that we current residents share with them. As the authors poignantly remark in the closing pages: “It is still possible to stand on the bridge crossing Spot Pond Brook, look down on the waterfall plunging into the ravine and imagine the sound of waterwheels and machinery grinding and pounding their way into a future…that we have inherited.”

As Bay Staters, we are already blessed with a superabundance of American history all around, and “The Lost Mill Village of Middlesex Fells” introduces those just north of Boston to another interesting chapter of our ancestors’ experience.

Alison C. Simcox and Douglas L. Heath are local environmental scientists with an interest in local history.  They also wrote the Images of America books on Middlesex Fells, Breakheart Reservation, and Lake Quannapowitt.

The authors are leading a historical tour out of the Virginia Wood gate at 1 Woodland Road Stoneham at 1pm on September 10th.  They also expect to add a couple more event listings, so stay tuned!  See our event calendar for more details.

Pick up a copy of “The Lost Mill Village of Middlesex Fells” at your favorite local bookstore or by contacting our office at friends@fells.org or 781-662-2340