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$3.8 Million Project Will Remove Pittsfield Dam By Spring 2020

A backhoe sits on a snowy concrete ledge over a riverbed under a train overpass
Josh Landes
The Tel-Electric Dam in Pittsfield, Massachusetts

An almost $4 million plan to remove a centuries-old dam in Pittsfield, Massachusetts was announced this week.

A cadre of city, county, state, and federal representatives gathered next to the Tel-Electric Dam on Mill Street on the banks of the Housatonic River.

“’The factory of the Tel-Electric piano player company is one of the most modern to be found anywhere,’" read Jim McGrath. "This was a quote taken from an old image which described the pianos and organ players that were manufactured right behind us in this mill building powered by hydropower from that river made possible by the dam around the corner.”

McGrath is the city’s park, open space, and natural resource program manager. The Tel-Electric Piano Player Company operated between 1907 and 1918, before brass shortages related to World War I closed its doors.

“Before that, this mill was the site of textile and other manufacturing, dating back to 1814 and which occurred right through the modern industrial era,” said McGrath.

Now, the west branch of the Housatonic will be restored to its natural state after centuries of human intervention. After 20 years of planning, a coalition of partners will finally see a $3.8 million removal and restoration project through.

“These partners include the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Massachusetts Sub Council of the Housatonic River Trustees Committee, the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Dam and Sea Wall Repair and Removal Program, the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Pittsfield Mills Corporation and Seth and Mitch Nash, and the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Restoration and Damage Assessment,” listed McGrath.

The dam is located next to graffiti covered train overpasses just southwest of the city’s core. McGrath described it as a hidden site in Pittsfield.

“This has been a location where we’ve seen drug use and other dumping of trash and debris and garbage, so, cleaning up this site certainly removes those activities,” he told WAMC.

Beth Lambert, the Director of the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration, identified two key benefits to the project.

“On the one hand, you get a free flowing river, which is healthier without the dam than with the dam, then at the same time, you’re also eliminating a risk to public safety and making the community stronger and more resilient,” she said.

The DER is currently working on around 30 dam removal projects across the state. McGrath says the city is already developing another one.

“And that’s a dam at the Wild Acres conservation property over by the airport off South Mountain road,” he said.

Part of the project involves removing sediment from the dam contaminated with PCBs released by General Electric’s Pittsfield site over the latter half of the 20th century. Molly Sperduto was representing both the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resource Sub Council for the Housatonic River Natural Resource Damage Settlement – both of which gave resources to the removal and restoration.

“In 2000, the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut received $15 million to do natural resource restoration, essentially to try to restore resources that were impacted by the PCB contamination from the GE site,” explained Sperduto.

Jane Winn of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team remembers when the West Branch of the Housatonic was in dire condition – choked with trash and cut off by the dam.

“With this dam removal, you’ll be able to canoe from Wahconah Park all the way down to Woods Pond in Lenox," Winn told WAMC. "But behind Wahconah Park is one of the most beautiful parts of the river, and we need to be getting people out onto there.”

Pittsfield awarded a contract to SumCo Eco Contracting of Peabody to execute the project in August. The removal is expected to be complete by Spring 2020.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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