By George T. Comeau
The following is an excerpt from “Water Problems,” the latest installment of True Tales from Canton’s Past by local historian George T. Comeau.
It has been a very wet year. Since early July in Massachusetts, we’ve had four tropical systems, five tornadoes (and more), and over 21 inches of rain in Boston, making it the second highest amount of precipitation for July-August-September. checked in. Our local rivers and streams were teeming with water and in some cases overflowed to flood stage.
Historically speaking, the term “recorded” is important to note, as systematic record keeping of flooding did not begin until 1904. This is not to say that there were no “historic floods” that can be researched, but the process of determining the magnitude becomes much more difficult without a process for measuring flood water heights. An attempt to study the last 300 years of flooding in New England was carried out in 1964 by the US Department of the Interior. The report noted that “historical flood information would have little merit if it was simply based on the fortuitous statement of a local historian, the unsubstantiated belief of a hydraulic engineer, or isolated and scattered evidence. However, when hydrologists did a thorough search of the historical literature pertaining to much of New England, interviewed hundreds of eyewitnesses in hundreds of localities, and compiled and studied this body of evidence, a high degree of confidence in the conclusions becomes guaranteed.
The 1964 report studied literature and historical documents prior to the use of gauging stations. Historical flood literature abounds in adjectives – “horrible”, “great”, “unusual”, “catastrophic”, “devastating”, “worst ever” – which have only vague dimensional status. The first witnesses varied in their reactions to the floods. Some columnists and journalists have frequently mentioned the floods; others apparently mentioned them but rarely. Some witnesses became excited about the floods; others reported them calmly. The variety of flood accounts in early city stories reflects the interests of original historians and reporters as well as the significance of the flood events themselves. The logs kept in Canton and its antecedents, Stoughton and Dorchester, are no different in their flood entries. And given Canton’s topology and hydrology, we’ve had more than our fair share of flooding over the years.
To understand flooding, you first need to know the water sources in our city. Shaped like a kite, Canton has about 12,000 acres of land mass. Most of the water flows from York Street, Sharon and Ponkapoag to our western limit at Fowl Meadows. Mentioned as early as 1646, the prairies stretch for seven miles along our urban boundary. Made up of a thick layer of peat, the prairies and swamps flow into the Neponset River, which winds through Milton, Dorchester and into Boston Harbor.
The Neponset River forms the dividing line between Canton, Dedham and Norwood. The west branch has its source in Foxboro and the east branch is formed by Massapoag, Beaver, Steep, York, Hartwell’s and Pequit creeks. Some of our ponds are quite large – Bolivar, Reservoir, Ponkapoag to name a few. Houghton’s Pond, named Wissahissick by the natives, is a 24-acre spring-fed pond. Technically a lake because it is over 20 acres, it is one of the only natural lakes in Canton.
All of our ponds were created and held back by dams and canals, and hardly any of the natural water bodies function as in ancient times. The man-made canal that was dug into Massapoag Creek in 1834, forming Frog Island, is a good example of a historic human-caused change in water flow. A bridle path had been established in 1768 until this small piece of land and would have ended on the rue des Pins. Man designed nature to meet the needs of modern industry and development. Impervious surfaces are so plentiful that we have lost control over the water. In many cases, we have created our own problems. Housing estates, paved roads, parking lots, extended roofs and the like all contribute to water problems …
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