Route 3, our current highway, as viewed from the North River, a major highway of the past.

Imagine paddling a canoe down Route 3A, rowing a dory up Route 123, or shooting the rapids in a kayak on the expressway. Imagine sailing along Route 53, or steering a motor boat down Route 139 to the ocean. What if all of our highways were rivers? What would it be like to go to work, to visit friends, to do our shopping — using only a small boat for transportation?

Today this seems like an odd, impractical idea, but earlier inhabitants of the South Shore relied on small boats to take them where they wanted to go. There were very few roads, still fewer bridges, and travel by land was often difficult. It was far more practical to travel by water, to row a small craft along the coast or down a river or creek.

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, rivers were the primary routes of transportation on the South Shore. The North, South, and Indian Head Rivers, the four Herring Brooks, plus many other creeks and streams provided a network of highways with easy access to marshes, ponds, forests, meadows, and the ocean. The waterways enabled people to make the most of the food and building materials which these natural resources supplied.

Long before Europeans settlers arrived, the South Shore was inhabited by members of the Wampanoag and Massachusett Indian tribes, who set up seasonal hunting and fishing camps along the rivers. The waterways were their highways, generally serving as the nuclei of their settlements. They would move inland in the winter, closer to the ocean in the summer, moving up and down the river in order to take full advantage of what the region could provide.

After 1620, when Europeans began claiming the South Shore as their own, land parcels along the waterways were in high demand. The fluvial soils of the riverbanks were ideal for agriculture, and the nearby marshes provided salt hay and other grasses that could be used for building materials or livestock feed. The Europeans too employed the rivers as highways, linking their farms to the town center, as well as to other farms.

The centers of many South Shore towns were established along rivers and streams. For example, Marshfield Center sits on the banks of the South River, and Norwell Center abuts the North. This was no accident, as placing a town center along a waterway ensured that it would be accessible to many people. The rivers became highways by which families could travel to town to attend church or town meeting, to trade goods at the store, or to grind grain at the mill.

We see rivers differently today. Now that we have paved roads and automobiles to get us where we need to go, we no longer employ our waterways as highways. Shopping centers, restaurants, and meeting places are situated on major roads, or better yet: where two major roads meet. Riverside property is still in demand, but today it is mostly for its aesthetic rather than practical value.

by Kezia Bacon, Assistant Director, North and South Rivers Watershed Association
December 1996