Needham History Center & Museum

Water (Not) Over the Dam

For nearly 350 years, the modest man-made falls at Charles River Village powered the local economy. Grist was milled, paper was made, and everyone was happy.  But what happens when the Falls fail to fall?

I have had a long-time fascination with the daily reports of the stream-flow gauge at Dover that is maintained by the US Geological Survey.  The gauge is located just over the Dover/Needham line, right beside the former Cochran’s Dam (now the DCR’s Village Falls Park) at the very end of South Street. Normally, the gauge height reads somewhere between 2 and 3.5 feet; 4.5 feet is high, 5 feet and above is the flood-stage. I am not sure when I started my frequent check-ins, and most months there is nothing much to see. But it sure gets exciting when the levels reach 8 feet, as they did in 2010!  Check it out –

This past month, I’ve been driving around town and looking at the river, which is very low.  In some places, the rocky riverbed is exposed and new plants are colonizing the mud flats. According to my friend USGS Gauge #01103500 the height at Cochran’s Dam had dropped below one foot.  Its lowest point, on August 22, was 0.4 feet, which may be the lowest reading since they started recording in 1937.  Even so, I was really not prepared when I drove over the South Street bridge to find that the small falls at Cochran’s Dam was completely dry. For the first time, I had a good view of that ancient structure below the water. 

When was the last time that happened?  How long until it happened again?

The low flow of water in the Charles River because of the drought exposed the structure of the ancient dam for the first time in many years.e
The dry falls at Cochran’s Dam on September 4, 2022. The stone wall is the structure that was built in 1828. The concrete capping on the rim was part of the repair work done in 1997. (Michael Greis photo)

That southernmost end of Needham was historically known as Charles River Village.  It was mostly farmland, but it was also a small outpost of industry.  Cochran’s Dam, the old name for Village Falls Park, is a relic of the site’s former use.  The park is now a broad sloping lawn that leads down to the Charles River; in the river is the small artificial falls that tells of centuries of manufacturing on that site.

The Charles has always been a challenge to use as a source of mill power because it is so sluggish.  If you look over the other side of Newell’s (South Street) Bridge, you see a widening in the river known as Red Wing Bay, so stagnant that it often looks more like a lake than a river. The solution for generating water speed – at Cochran’s Dam, as well as at the Upper and Lower Falls – was to enhance a natural falls or slope by adding a mill dam to increase its height. Without these dams, the mills could not function.

The original mill dam on this site was built in 1675 by Joshua and Daniel Fisher, whose land lay along that section of the river.  It is not known how they used this early dam, but by 1755 the Fisher family had built a grist mill on the site. The grist mill was where grain was ground into flour, and was an essential part of any farming village.  The grindstones were powered by a water wheel that was turned by the river currents.  The miller received a portion of the milled flour as the fee for his service.  This site shows up as “Fisher’s Mill” on the 1771 Barachaiah Mason map of Needham, which is the earliest extant map of the town. There was also a grist mill in Lower Falls.

The grist mill lasted into the 1770s or later, but in 1795 the mill became a paper mill belonging to George Bird. George Bird was born in Maine, and apprenticed at a paper mill in Milton, MA. When ready to go into business for himself, he moved to Needham and converted the grist mill to make both fine paper and newsprint. The mill continued on as a paper mill under various owners until 1862. It was expanded and new machinery installed by proprietors Goss & Russell in 1853.  It appears on the 1856 Henry Walling map of Needham as the Goss & Russell Paper Mill.  From 1803 to 1862, the mill mostly manufactured coarse brown paper used for wrapping. During this period, in 1828, the old dam was in poor condition and had to be rebuilt. The “new dam” is the stone structure we see there today.

In 1862, William Ward bought the mill and turned it into a shoddy mill.  “Shoddy” was a type of low-grade textile made by shredding and reusing the fibers from other discarded textiles.  During the Civil War, shoddy was often (and improperly) used to make Union uniforms.  Vendors were supposed to supply the government with higher-quality textiles, but often got away with selling shoddy for the higher price.  The uniforms wore out and tore easily, and the use of the term “shoddy” to mean “cheaply and badly made” dates to the Civil War.

The shoddy mill burned down in the 1870s, and was rebuilt as a paper mill, with more modern equipment for making better-quality papers. It continued as a paper mill under several owners until 1893, when it again burned to the ground.

Over the next 50 years, the rebuilt mill would serve a number of industries.  In the 1920s, it was the site of the Charles River Bleaching & Print Works, owned by J. Eugene Cochran & Sons – and this is the name that stuck. Its last owner was the Charles River Textile Company, which made woolen “nubs and slugs” – the tiny balls of wool that give tweed its texture (who knew?). By 1950, the mill was no longer in use, and was deteriorating through a combination of abandonment and vandalism.  At this point the neighborhood stepped in.  The Village had become more populous and residential over its many years, and the Charles River Village Neighborhood Association was formed to protect the neighborhood from further industrialization.

The site languished for nearly twenty years, until a new owner purchased it with the aim of rezoning for a condominium development.  The town rejected the rezoning request, and also a subsequent request to use the site as an office park.  The Metropolitan District Commission (now the MA Dept. of Conservation and Recreation) stepped in (possibly with the encouragement of the Needham Conservation Commission) to purchase the property and establish a public park.  The buildings were demolished in 1972 and 1973, and the site cleared and graded to make the Village Falls Park.

Most days, the dam site is quiet, with only the sounds of the river and the birds that congregate along its banks. The debris was carted away, and the site leveled; the mown grass is interspersed with native plants allowed to grow wild, and a few benches on which to sit and enjoy its peace.  The old dam was repaired again in 1997 to form part of the river’s flood-management system. 

After almost 300 years of industry, the dam is the only visible evidence of all those years of production and innovation.  That it should actually be visible right now is an exceptional situation.  It is of passing interest to us, and a disappointment to those who like to canoe or kayak on the Charles, but in the 19th century a summer as dry as this one would have been an economic disaster – crops would die in the fields and industry would literally grind to a halt. We use the river for recreation, but for them it was a lifeline.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum