The Hoosic River in Adams, Massachusetts.

My mother and I recently took a day trip to Adams, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, the town where both my parents grew up. Although I spent a lot of time there as a child, these days I’m lucky if I get back to Adams once every few years.

What was once a familiar landscape, etched into memory from repeated visits, is fading into obscurity. Some features I’ll never forget: the beacon from the tower atop Mount Greylock, visible from any point in town; the brick row houses along Route 8, where many of my relatives lived at one time or another, the statue of William McKinley in the town square, index finger extended, on which my Uncle Mike once attached a yo-yo.

But so much now seems vague to me. Where was that playground I rode my bike to, every day, so many years ago? Was there really a duck pond in front of the paper mill . . . or did I imagine it? In which field did I see all those fireflies one dark summer night?

And sometimes I wonder whether, in my youth, I saw much of the town at all. I have no recollection of the beautiful Victorian houses on the eastern side, no memory at all of certain roads that my mother insists she drove me down years ago. We took the scenic route into town and I was awestruck by the beauty that surrounded us. Was Adams always this pretty? I had no idea.

Of course “pretty” means something different to me now than it did when I was ten. Back then I was more tuned in to the familiar — fast food joints, gas stations, recognizable names and trademark logos. Sprawling mountain farms, winding back roads, and lush open fields meant very little to me. No one spoke of them anyway. What I heard most from anyone who cared to comment on the state of the town was what a shame it was — the dilapidated mills, the vacant storefronts, the hulking presence of the limestone quarry with all its white dust. To me they were just familiar landmarks, offering a sense of place. I LIKED those buildings; I LIKED that lime dust. Funny how what one person regards as an eyesore can radiate a certain charm for someone else.

A very distinct memory was triggered when my mother and I stopped in to visit my grandmother at her new apartment. In the past ten years, my brief and infrequent visits had confined me to one very small section of Adams — the main road and the side streets that led to relatives’ homes. Arriving at the new apartment, in a different part of town, we parked in front of a locked chain link gate, behind which was a concrete ramp leading down to the Hoosic River. “There’s a river here?” I asked, stupefied. How could I have forgotten?

When I was younger, the Hoosic made no sense to me. Like most children, I recognized a river when I saw one — flowing water, vegetated banks. But to me, this thing my great-aunts and uncles called a river was nothing of the sort. Tucked behind factories and abandoned buildings, it was fenced off and contained in a concrete chute, wide enough that, on that August day when I discovered it, barely more than a trickle of brown water flowed along its course. I could see no signs of life. I was horrified.

Grown up now, I understand why the Hoosic River is the way it is. Adams was once a booming industrial town, and the river helped fuel its paper and textile mills. This was long before the Clean Water Act, so wastes from both the mills and the lime quarry were released into it almost continuously. Three floods in the early twentieth century caused significant damage, resulting in the containment of the Hoosic in concrete, with dams and spillways to control its flow. This was a river that served the town’s industrial needs; it was not meant to have scenic or recreational value. It certainly wasn’t a place to go swimming.

Things have changed. Adams has shifted away from its industrial beginnings. The Hoosic, beautiful and free-flowing in its upper reaches, lies mostly forgotten as it runs its concrete course through the center of town. To me, that’s far more shameful than any vacant storefront or abandoned mill. I hope to see it restored someday.

by Kezia Bacon Bernstein, Correspondent
June 2001

Kezia Bacon Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.