The Neponset River, One of the First in New England to be Harnessed for Power

As a relatively small river located near Boston, it is not surprising that the Neponset was one of the first rivers in New England to be harnessed for water power.

These early dams tended to be significantly less permanent structures than their modern counterparts, apparently regularly washing out during spring floods, only to be promptly rebuilt.

Over time, a whole series of dams were built on the Lower Neponset from “Lower Falls ” (now Lower Mills) to “ Upper Falls” (now the area near the Tileston & Hollingsworth Dam). Lower Falls and Upper Falls each had at least two dams at one time, as compared to the modern single dams. Each of the dams would have supported several mills on either side of the River.

These early dams helped the Neponset River earn a string of industrial “firsts,” including:

  • the country’s first paper mill,
  • first gunpowder mill,
  • and (most important of all!) the first mechanized chocolate production.

The first dam on the Neponset River, which was probably the second or third dam in the new world, was erected in 1634 by Israel Stoughton.

During its heyday, around the time of the American Revolution, the Neponset River was arguably the center of American industrial production, and the Neponset River was more or less continuously impounded from Readville to Lower Falls by a series of at least seven dams. Over time, other larger rivers such as the Merrimack eclipsed the Neponset as the major engines of the American Industrial Revolution, but industrial development along the Neponset and its tributaries continued steadily through the 19th century.

1800s & 1900s
Industrial activities along the Neponset River went through a period of consolidation, as the many smaller independent mills were taken over by a few larger industrial concerns. In the 1900s, industry began moving into the fossil fuel era and the River became less important as a source of power, though it was still critical to industry as a source of water and as a means to dispose of waste products.

Today, virtually all heavy industry has left the Neponset. It has been nearly a century since the weight of falling water was the driving energy source in industrial production for this area.

There are still more than 100 dams on the Neponset and its tributaries, almost all of them vestiges of the water power era, and a testament to the diligence and entrepreneurial spirit of our forebears.

Harling’s Mill Dam History

The mystery of the origin of this small earthen dam, located on the edge of Blue Hills Reservation, piqued the curiosity of Milton historian and long-time NepRWA member, Robert Mussey, who took it upon himself to research the site and piece together its history in 2017.

It turns out, the dam was owned and likely built by Thomas Harling, a well-known millwright, who constructed several mills including a powder mill in Stoughton that provided gunpowder to the American Revolutionary Army. Starting in 1782, this dam powered a sawmill and later a grist mill. Read more.

Robert Mussey (right) helping to restore fish passage through Harling’s Mill Dam

The Baker Dam and Tileston & Hollingsworth Dam

The Baker Dam is located within the Dorchester/Milton Lower Mills Industrial Complex, which is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places.

This Lower Mills Complex was added to the National Register in recognition of the distinctive architecture of many of the mill buildings, and in recognition of the role Lower Mills played in influencing the course of events in American History.

Baker Dam

Unlike the Baker Dam vicinity, the area around the Tileston and Hollingsworth (“T&H”) Dam does not carry any particular historic designation. Like the Baker Dam, the T&H Dam was built in the mid-1960s.

Because of its modern construction, the Baker Dam is not listed as a “contributing element” to the Lower Mills Industrial Complex.

That said, the dam and mill pond do contribute to the ambiance of the area, and thus any dam removal project would incorporate measures to protect and document adjoining historic resources and to more actively interpret the key role of water power as the driving force behind the River’s industrial period.

Tileston and Hollingsworth Dam

Walter Baker Chocolate Company

The Walter Baker Chocolate Company eventually came to completely dominate the industrial scene in the Lower Mills area, constructing the network of attractive brick mill buildings that still dominate the architecture of both Dorchester and Milton Lower Mills today.

The Walter Baker Company closed the doors of its Neponset manufacturing facilities for good in 1965 and moved to Delaware. Nonetheless, many local residents still fondly remember the perfume of chocolate that permeated Lower Mills for more than a century.

The buildings created by the Walter Baker Chocolate Company are now being used for a variety of residential and commercial purposes.

Tileston and Hollingsworth Paper Company

At Upper Falls, the Tileston and Hollingsworth Paper Company ultimately came to dominate the industrial scene with facilities located on both sides of the River.

Tileston and Hollingsworth was succeeded by a number of other corporate names over the years, with the most recent incarnation being the Bay State Paper Company.

Bay State Paper continued making recycled corrugated cardboard at their plant on River Street in Hyde Park until roughly the year 2000, making the Neponset the site of the oldest continuously operated paper production in the United States. However, Bay State Paper succumbed to the larger changes in the global economy that have nearly eliminated the heavy industry that once existed along the shores of the Neponset River from Foxborough to Dorchester.

The mill since has been replaced with a shopping plaza.

The Aftermath of 1955’s Hurricane Diane

In 1955, Hurricane Diane inflicted heavy flood damage throughout Massachusetts, including along the Neponset River. It appears that poor design and/or improper operation of privately owned industrial mill dams on the Neponset River were likely contributing factors in the severity of the flood damage on the Neponset.

In the wake of Hurricane Diane, the state, acting through the Metropolitan District Commission, took virtually the entire river corridor of the Lower Neponset by eminent domain, including what appear (from MDC historic photographs) to have been five dams that were located on the Lower Neponset at the time.

These dams included the dam at upper falls (predecessor to the T&H Dam), two small dams just above and below Blue Hill Avenue, the Jenkins Dam, which was located just upstream of Central Avenue, behind what used to be the Star Market Plaza in the area of the River now known as the Braided Channel, and finally the Water Baker Chocolate Factory dam.

Jenkins Dam

Flood Control

The MDC flood control project begun in 1962 removed the two small dams near Mattapan Square and the Jenkins Dam near the former Star Market. The T&H and Baker Dams were then demolished and rebuilt.

It appears that the T&H Dam was of a completely different design than its predecessor. The Baker Dam appears to have been rebuilt in the same general style as the original, though the crest of the dam was apparently lowered by at least three feet to improve its discharge capacity during storm events. It also appears from MDC historic photos that the “normal” water level at Baker was reduced by roughly three feet, again providing better flood protection.

At the same time, the Neponset River was straightened, deepened, widened, and partially relocated. Along the edge of the River, wetlands and floodplain areas were filled in and the banks of the River were raised and armored to create a deep flood control channel. A number of other miscellaneous structures such as small bridges also appear to have been removed at about this time, including a sizeable building suspended on a bridge between the Baker Dam and Adams Street. This structure would have completely blocked the view of the dam and the mill pond from the perspective of someone standing on Adams Street.

As discussed above, the Dorchester/Milton Lower Mills Industrial Complex was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1980s. While the dams themselves are not considered significant by historians, certainly the buildings and the River’s industrial past are important.

River Restoration

The restoration of free-flowing river conditions and anadromous fish runs would approximate the appearance and ecological functions that the Neponset River provided to Native Americans and early colonists during the pre-industrial period. This would make Lower Mills unique in Massachusetts as an area with a rich visual representation of both the industrial and pre-industrial periods.

Before removing the dams, the River Restore Project would obtain appropriate permits from the Mass. Historic Commission. The project would be designed to ensure that no damage would occur to the adjacent historic buildings during the construction process. The footprint of the construction area would be minimized to reduce the potential for disturbing any historic artifacts which may remain below the riverbed. Finally, the project would include the installation of interpretive features that would recognize and highlight the area’s industrial heritage. There is currently no interpretive information installed onsite. As further discussed elsewhere, dam removal would also eliminate the substantial risk posed to the adjoining historic buildings if the Baker Dam were to fail.

For more information, contact NepRWA Executive Director, Ian Cooke at