149 Barker St, Pembroke, MA 02359, USA
Owned By: Town of Pembroke
This large grassy town-owned park stands on both sides of Herring Brook. Herring begin their annual migration in the springtime, usually in April. Starting from Massachusetts Bay, they swim up the North River for 12 miles to this site and beyond. They are on their way to their spawning grounds at Gorham Mill, Oldham Pond, and Furnace Pond.
You can actually view migrating herring here at Herring Run Park! In some places, the brook is only about six inches deep, and a couple of feet wide. Look for silvery-blue (or purplish) fish, about a foot in length. They often gather in large numbers to rest, just before a riffle, before attempting to swim upstream. They are hard to spot at first, as they are well-camouflaged to blend in with the river bottom.
Fishing is not permitted in Herring Run Park while the herring are running.
In earlier times, Herring Brook was known as Barker’s River, and also the Namassakeeset River. Namassakeeset means “place of much fish.” Long before Pembroke was incorporated in 1711, there was a large Native American settlement on the north side of Herring Brook — the Mattakeeset band of the Massachuseuk (or Massachusett) Native American tribe, who lived for thousands of years in the North River watershed. Their village included most of today’s Pembroke and Hanson, as well as parts of Duxbury.
Herring Brook is also part of the historic Wampanoag Commemorative Canoe Passage, which extends for 70 miles from Scituate/Massachusetts Bay to Berkley/Narragansett Bay. It was originally a water trail used by the Native American tribes who inhabited our region, and was re-established by the Plymouth County Development Council and local officials for educational and recreational purposes.
Upstream of this site, at Furnace Pond, there was an early smelting furnace and iron works. It was erected in 1702 by Mark Despard and the Barker Family. They would scrape bog iron from the bottom of the pond, as well as from numerous bogs in the area. The furnace itself was on Herring Brook, just a few rods downstream of the pond.
A quarter mile farther downstream there was a dam with a sawmill and grist mill, established by Nathaniel Ford around 1820. Later the same spot was home to a box factory owned by John Gorham and Jarius Howland, but it was destroyed by fire. Simeon Chandler also operated a mill at the site.
Downstream of Herring Run Park, Pudding Brook flows into Herring Brook from the east. Shortly thereafter, Cedar Swamp Brook flows in from the southwest. In 1837, there were several mills on Pudding Brook, including a cotton mill, a cupola furnace, two tack factories, and two shingle mills. Goods produced included satinets, shoeboxes, bombards, water pails, covered buckets and mackerel kitts.
The final section of Herring Brook, before it joins the Indian Head to form the North River, is a large freshwater marsh and swamp.
The Bicentennial Nature Trail leads from the edge of the property, off Little’s Avenue, across the upland and into a dense freshwater marsh for about 0.4 miles. There is one bench shortly before the end of the trail. Along the trail are numerous stone walls, and curious arrangements of rocks (including some quartz). The trail ends at the edge of a brook, and does not connect with the park itself. There is also ample open land around the herring run for exploration, as well as a giant glacial erratic boulder.
Habitats and Wildlife
Herring Brook rises from Furnace Pond in Pembroke, and flows through the town for a few miles before it merges with the Indian Head River, to form the North River, at a place called The Crotch.
Within the watershed of the North and South Rivers, the Pembroke Herring Run is the best place to view migrating alewife herring, as populations are highest here. On their journey from the ocean to their spawning grounds upstream, herring encounter several obstacles in the form of dams and fish ladders. Fish ladders are intended to help fish scale dams and other obstacles, but if they aren’t maintained well, they can instead serve as a barrier.
Here at Herring Run Park, the fishway is managed very well. A group of dedicated volunteers – the Pembroke Herring Fisheries Commission — monitors the flow of water in the stream, ensuring that all obstructions are removed. Thanks to their efforts, the herring run appears to be rebounding!
In the 1600s and 1700s, herring were abundant here. They were a major food source for native tribes as well as for European colonists. Even when mills were established on Herring Brook, measures were taken to ensure that the migrating herring could swim upstream.
Pembroke began maintaining its herring run as early as 1717. By 1741, the town not only regulated the harvesting of herring, but also required mills to keep their gates open during spawning time, to ensure fish passage. As early as 1782, Pembroke began restocking herring populations in the ponds upstream.
The local population of herring fluctuates, and over the centuries, there were always periods of decline, followed by regrowth. However by the 1900s, the decline of herring populations appeared to be permanent. Four major factors contribute to the decline of herring populations: destruction of spawning grounds, pollution of streams, overfishing, and poor regulation.
Decades passed. It appeared that the herring population at this site was decimated. However in the years 1995-1997, efforts were made to restock herring in their spawning grounds. In the two decades since, the fish population has grown significantly. At last count (2019), over 300,000 herring were estimated to use this area to spawn! This is still low, compared to historical numbers, but it is a major improvement, and by far the best in the North and South Rivers system.
The Pembroke Herring Fisheries Commission was established in 1998. Its responsibilities include the study, repair, and maintenance of the waterways in town, so as to restore the river herring population to self-sustaining levels. They are a dedicated crew! One year, with the assistance of the Massachusetts Fisheries Commission, they hand-lifted herring over the Upper Mill Pond Dam! A fish ladder upstream on Mill Street was completed in 2011.
The forest through which the Bicentennial Nature Trail extends is primarily pine, with some oak, birch, holly, hemlock and hickory, plus wintergreen, princess pine and greenbrier.
Historic Site: Yes
Boat Launch: No
Size: 59 acres
Hours: Dawn to Dusk
Parking: On-site parking. Additional access on Little’s Avenue (but no formal parking area).
Trail Difficulty: Easy
Benches, picnic tables, historic marker.
Dogs: Only service dogs are permitted.
Boat Ramp: No
ADA Access: No
Scenic Views: Yes
Waterbody/Watershed: Herring Brook (North River watershed)