- Mother Brook
Mother Brook Origin Charles River Mouth Neponset River Basin countries United States An article in the
History of Dedham
Mother Brook is the modern name for a stream that flows from the Charles River in Dedham, Massachusetts, to the Neponset River in the Hyde Park section of Boston, Massachusetts. Mother Brook was also known variously as East Brook and Mill Brook in earlier times. The man-made portion of Mother Brook is considered to have been the first canal in America dug by English settlers. Mother Brook was important to Dedham as its only source of water power for mills, from 1639 into the early 20th century.
Dedham was first settled in 1635. The settlers needed a mill where corn could be ground. Although the initial settlement was adjacent to the Charles River, the Charles in this vicinity is slow-moving, with little elevation change that could provide power for a water wheel. But a small stream, then called East Brook, had an elevation change of more than 40 ft (12 m) on its run from near the early Dedham settlement to the Neponset River. Someone in the Town recognized that water could be diverted from the Charles to East Brook to provide the needed water flow. Construction of the ditch was ordered by town officials in March 1639. Thus a ditch, approximately 4,000 ft (1,200 m) long, was dug from the Charles River to East Brook, creating what is called Mother Brook today.
Town officials also offered an incentive of a 60 acres (24 ha) of land to whoever would construct a corn mill. The first corn mill was erected in 1641 by John Elderkin, at a dam on East Brook in what is now considered East Dedham. The mill operated for about 250 years. Other mills erected on the Mother Brook by 1800 included a second corn mill, a fulling mill, a saw mill, and a leather mill.
Industrialization of Mother Brook
Eventually, dams and mills were constructed at five locations called "privileges" in Dedham and in what is now the Readville section of Boston (originally part of Dedham). Mother Brook provided water power at various times for industrial mills of several types, for the manufacture of cotton, wool, paper, wire, and carpets. There were mills operating on Mother Brook until some time in the 20th century. At least one mill located on Mother Brook was converted from water power to steam as an energy source, but continued to use the Brook for cooling the steam machinery. None of the mills remains in operation today.
At least two of the former mill buildings remain intact and in use, one as a warehouse and one as part of a condominium development.
Conflict with Charles River Mills
Just as Dedham became industrialized and increasingly dependent on its water power for its economic activity, so did other communities in the Charles River valley. This led to conflict between the mills on Mother Brook and those using the Charles River downstream from the diversion to Mother Brook. As early as 1767, mill owners in Newton and Watertown petitioned officials for relief from the Mother Brook diversion. Because water diverted from the Charles River through Mother Brook increased the flow in lower sections of the Neponset River, mill owners on the Neponset joined with the Mother Brook mill owners in their defense of the diversion. After several lawsuits and legislative actions, the dispute was finally settled by an agreement among the mill owners, in December 1831. This agreement established that one-third of the Charles River flow would be diverted to Mother Brook, and two-thirds would remain in the Charles for use by downstream owners.
Mother Brook today
Today, Mother Brook is part of a flood-control system that diverts water from the Charles River to the Neponset River. The brook's flow is under the control of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. There are three remaining dams on the stream, plus a movable flood gate that controls flow from the Charles into Mother Brook.
- "Historical Sketch of Mill Creek, or Mother Brook, Dedham, Mass.," by Erastus Worthington, Dedham, Mass., October 25, 1900
- Steinberg, Theodore, Nature Incorporated, University of Massachusetts Press, 1991
- "Men of Useful Trades, Craftsmen and Mills of the Dedham Grant, 1636-1840," by Electa Kane Tritsch, Dedham Grant Survey Project, 1981
- "Dedham, Massachusetts, 1635-1890," by Robert Brand Hanson, 1976, Dedham Historical Society
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