HIST 397VW: Mill River Greenway Initiative

In my studies, I find it extremely
important for my understanding of a particular topic to be able to connect with
something tangible.  This semester, my
Public History Workshop worked with a local organization, the Mill
River Greenway Initiative (MRGI),
to develop interpretive panels for an
exhibit. The balance of environmental history lectures and working directly in
the field allowed me to understand and interpret the local history of
Northampton.  

For our semester-long project, my class developed this six-panel exhibit to document various aspects of the river’s history. I chose
to work on two sections: the study the racial diversity, reform movements, and
early industry along the Mill River, and the history of floods and civil
engineering.

One of the most important lessons
in working on the first panel was integrating our classwork with other local
organizations. Historic Northampton
and the David Ruggles Center had
already tackled the racial diversity and abolitionist efforts I hoped to
investigate in the panel; Smith College addressed
sericulture and the silk manufacturing business. My partner and I reviewed
these established projects – both for their information and structure – in
order to understand the topics addressed and the language used for an exhibit.

For the civil engineering panel, my
partner and I looked into the historic Mill River flood of 1874, the hurricane
of 1938, and the subsequent diversion of the Mill River in 1940 by the Army
Corps of Engineers. We wanted to investigate how over time, engineers control nature to suit human living patterns by designing and constructing public works projects, like dams and bridges for rivers. 

Here are some of the facts I
learned during the course of this project:

  • Early industry along the Mill River was a direct
    result of the First Industrial Revolution, where dozens of textile mill owners
    built along the river to take advantage of its strong flow throughout the year.
  • Northampton was best known for its involvement
    in the silk industry. This Smith exhibit made by Dr. Marjorie Senechal goes
    into great detail on some of the processes to make silk.
  • Known as the “Paradise City,” Northampton became
    a haven for reformers pursuing utopian and humanitarian efforts, as they worked
    together for social and economic equality and the end of slavery in the United
    States. One of these utopian efforts was the Northampton Association for
    Education & Industry – you can read
    more about that here.
  • This historic Mill River flood of 1874 was the
    first major dam disaster in the United States, with 600 million gallons of
    water pouring over the land and destroying everything in its path.
  • The Mill River was prone to harsh flooding,
    especially in the 1930s due to the snowfall of 1936 and the hurricane of 1938.
    In order to prevent floodwaters from disrupting life in the Northampton
    downtown area, the Army Corps of Engineers came to a solution that diverted the
    river away from the center of town.  

As our final assignment for the semester,
my class had to present our proposal at a public forum. I found this
opportunity to be a great opportunity, and I appreciated the feedback from
members of the community. Their comments and critiques helped my classmates and
me frame our work and gave us valuable insights into the needs of the
community.

I enjoyed working with John and
Gaby of MRGI. They have lots of ideas for the future of the Initiative and
while they have loads of work moving forward, I hope to see the organization
succeed in bringing people back to the river and establishing the greenway. I
hope that our class’s collaboration with the MRGI has been as valuable for them
as it has been for me, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the
semester’s worth of hard work.

Overall, this class served two
purposes. In the first half of the semester, we received a crash course in the
history of the Pioneer Valley, environmental history, and the Connecticut River
watershed. In the second half of the semester, we learned how to apply our
newfound knowledge directly to the Mill River and work with John and Gaby in
creating a presentation of this history. While at times this course required
time and effort, the invaluable practical experience involved taught me the
importance of historic site interpretation and working with a community.

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