Shawsheen River History
The Shawsheen River is a 27-mile-long tributary of the Merrimack River. Its headwaters are in Bedford (within the boundaries of Hanscom Field/Air Force Base) and runs generally northward through Billerica, Wilmington, Tewksbury, and Andover before joining the Merrimack in Lawrence -- six towns total. The name has had various spellings over the years. "Shawshin" appears to have been most common in the oldest records and is most commonly translated from the Algonquin language as "Great Spring."
Many of Andover's 17th century English settlers moved from the town's original center (in modern North Andover) to the banks of the Shawsheen River to harness its power for grist, saw and fulling mills. As homes, flourishing farms and dams were built, South Parish gradually became the more populated half of the colonial town. By the middle of the 19th century and the time of the political division of North Andover and Andover, prosperous textile mills operated along the river in Ballardvale, Abbot Village (Smith and Dove in what is now Dundee Park), Marland Village (now Atria Marland Place on Stevens Street) and Frye Village (now Shawsheen). The Shawsheen River was Andover's economic "spine" and the source of most of the town's wealth, prosperity and philanthropy.
Late in the 19th century, the Shawsheen became an important recreational resource as well. Families, usually from towns closer to Boston, built "camps" or small vacation houses in Ballardvale and around Foster's Pond. The Boston and Maine Railroad brought large groups of excursionists to its Shawsheen Grove picnic grounds and dance hall at Pole Hill in Ballardvale.
Paddling the Shawsheen a century ago
By Gail Ralston, Andover Historical Society
Courtesy of the Andover Townsman
In 1910 in the area of the Abbot bridge at the end of Central Street, stood the home of the Andover Canoe Club, whose members were passionate about one thing: paddling on the Shawsheen River.
Starting with one canoe and two rowboats, by 1916 the fleet had grown to 50 canoes and six power boats, complete with silencers. There were even 12 “honeymoon canoes of interest to young people” and resulting in “many happy weddings.”
Safety was a critical feature of the entire fleet. One ad stated that the canoes “are painted with a color which is invisible to the mosquitoes in the evening, which avoids annoyance from that source.” (One wonders now what that color was!)
Regular paddlers included Andover residents, Academy boys and folks from surrounding towns. Horace Hale Smith was the commodore and Harry Sellars, the treasurer.
John Broderick was the local “River Man” and had spent nearly his entire life boating on the Shawsheen River. In a 1998 interview he described the original club house as “a one-story, barn-like shanty not well constructed or maintained. It sat on piers and had a ramp that extended into the water.”
In 1913 an addition was built, with more room for storage and lockers and including a hall for social gatherings or just “hanging out.” To expand the range and variety of the canoeing, a canal was dug that same year that connected the river to Pomps Pond.
Easy access was found across a 1,100-foot distance with a depression four feet wide and two feet deep, adding a dam to prevent pond drainage. Broderick remembered that the canal was cut by hand by two guys.
The expense of construction was borne by both the Canoe Club and by subscription.
And the fun didn’t stop there. By summer of 1916 one could pack a lunch for a leisurely cruise down the river on a new motor yacht, The William Ballard of the Ballard Line. The name came from William Ballard of Andover, progenitor of the local family which gave Ballardvale its name.
Excursions began at the Canoe Club, eventually docking at the Ballardvale Wharf, close to the mill complex. A map of the route shows that along the way, it passed sites with fanciful names such as Lily Cove, Willow Bend, Eggemoggin Reach, Knowles Bayou, Dynamite Tree and Chowder Pond.
Advertised as the “most picturesque, scenic excursion in Eastern Massachusetts,” the five-mile round-trip ride cost .25 cents.
The boat, built in the shop of Captain Allen F. Abbott, was designed in a special manner, resting almost wholly on the surface of the river and requiring only 10 inches of water when all of the 30 passengers allowed were on board. The propeller was in a tunnel entirely above the bottom enabling the yacht “to sail amongst the shallow brooks and lily ponds, where the wildlife and natural flora and fauna are seen in their best.”
In 1919, new owners purchased the lands, clubhouse and equipment of the club. The wharf and float were repaired and the clubhouse updated. Canoes could be hired every evening, on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, all day on Sundays and on holidays.
By World War II, membership waned and after the war, the building was torn down.
Broderick believed that the construction of dams and the loss of the spring-fed water to Pomps Pond contributed to the loss of the river’s environment. Two springs that entered the pond dried up, perhaps due to building that caused water to drain quickly rather than at a leisurely pace. Water levels dropped. Cars replaced canoes as recreational vehicles.
Recently renewed interest in river recreation might just bring back the fun of 100 years ago!