My friend Gordon and I are standing on the banks of the Pawcatuck River across from the village of Potter Hill. The dam which once powered the Potter Hill Mill is filling the air with the sound of crashing waters. The mill is silent; it’s once powerful machines and large buildings lie in ruin. A lone fisherman casts his line into the mill pond.
Potter Hill is one of the many small villages scattered throughout South County and one of ten villages that make up Westerly. Some of these villages were named after the owners of the mills built along the river’s banks in the 1800’s. According to Wikipedia, the villages that make up Westerly are Avondale, Dunn’s Corners, Mastuxet, Misquamicut, Potter Hill, Shelter Harbor, Watch Hill, Weekapaug, White Rock, and Winnapaug.
Gordon looked up and down the river with a puzzled look and pointed, “Something isn’t right here. That’s north and that’s south. The river is definitely running north here.”
“How can that be?” I asked, “Because Westerly is south of us and that’s where the river runs.”
I dug out the map we’d purchased last week at URE Outfitters in Hope Valley. “Look here, the Pawcatuck River begins at Worden Pond and starts out running west. It’s blocked from running south by the recessional moraine that was formed along the shore by the glaciers as they receded 10,000 years ago. The river then turns north because it has to go around the hill called Mount Moriah, Westerly’s highest point at 249 feet. It finally turns south toward Westerly along the border with Connecticut.”
Gordon pointed at the impressive ruins of the Potter Hill Mill across the river. “The first mill at Potter Hill started as grist mill around 1762. Like many of the grist mills along the river at the start of the Industrial Revolution it was later converted to textile manufacturing.”
The mill was continually owned by the Potter family until 1843. During this period, ship building took place with the construction of 10 to 15 boats a year. These were primarily sloops and schooners for the cod fishing industry. Two sloop rigged gunboats, No. 90 and 92, were also built for the war of 1812. The large mill complex included two stores and boarding houses for an estimated 300 mill workers. The Pawcatuck Woolen Mill Company continued to manufacture wool yarn and cloth there up until 1958 when it closed.
Gordon continued, “The interesting thing to me is they actually built ships here because it’s more than seven miles from the ocean. I can’t imagine how they got them down the river to the sea.”
I adjusted the camera for a better angle on the waterfall with the mill in the background: “I read a story in the Westerly Sun that the town of Westerly wants to tear down the mill. It was in the courts and I think it was supposed to be demolished but it’s still here. Another mystery we’ll have to look into.”
I noticed on the map a road called Post Office Lane going from Potter Hill Road across the Pawcatuck River into Connecticut. “I don’t remember a road with a bridge there,” I said. “Let’s head over there and check it out.”
We drove back over the Potter Hill Bridge across the river. On the left side was the 14-acre Flora Whitely Preserve where I’d hiked with the beagles last summer. Post Office Lane was across the road and marked with a DEM sign that read “Potter Hill Landing” with an arrow. I turned down it and we arrived at a small cluster of houses and an old barn. “We must have missed a turn somewhere.” I said.
Gordon looked around, “Try that dirt road over there behind the houses.”
The dirt road led us back to a parking area about fifty yards from a grassy bank along the river. Later I learned that this four-acre parcel with 500-feet of river frontage had been purchased by the DEM in 2012. It was the only access to the river between Bradford and Westerly. “This would be a great spot to sit and watch the river go by or launch my kayak.” I thought.
Gordon and I sat quietly gazing at the river.
“This river has so much history.” Gordon mused, “It’s amazing to realize that more than 160 years ago there were over 300 people working in the mill here. Many of them were immigrants from Europe who came seeking a better life. Potter Hill was a thriving village then but today it’s just another of South County’s quiet backwaters.”
I thought about what Gordon said and realized that the villages of South County are really archeological remnants strung along the rivers that gave them birth. The mills, along with the many dams that powered them, had changed the ecology of the rivers. The native fish species like shad, alewife, and river herring had almost disappeared. It wasn’t until the collapse of the textile industry in the 1950’s and the Clean Air Act of 1972 that water quality began to improve.
I turned to Gordon, “I think next week we should go and speak with the folks up at the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association and get up to date on what’s happening to the rivers now.”
Gordon smiled, “We can swing by West’s Bakery on the way for a sugar bun.”
Find out what Gordon and I learn about the river in part two of the story.