Dig This With Deb

A column to tell people about the building process written by Deb Blanchard


Breathe in, breathe out. Deep breaths. These were my thoughts as one of the D.A.Sullivan workers delivered the message that a culvert grade beam had been uncovered over the underground canal and that the 1918 historic Carnegie was resting on it – right where the new foundation needed to be.

To back up a little, you may remember that our architect insisted a year ago December that we excavate and find the exact location of the canal that runs from the Millers River under the town hall, library, YMCA and finally to Lord Pond Plaza. Lyman Excavating found the concrete canal about two feet over from where the 1916 architectural plans showed it so we surveyed and photographed it. Because we found the top and both sides and also to avoid potentially hitting an underground oil line to town hall in the same vicinity, we had no reason to dig further.

Apparently we did though because when the digging was done for the foundation, low and behold, there was a culvert grade beam (see photograph) supporting the rear of the building. After much discussion and back and forth, the engineers, architects and contractors were able to resolve the issue so we could move forward!

In relating this story though, many people remember the old canal and that where the library and the town hall stand was once water with a bridge over to an ‘island’. Hence the name Island Street because at one time it actually was an island. So I did a little sleuthing and discovered that the south branch of the Miller’s River ran through downtown. In the U.S. Census Report for 1880 it states, ‘In the upper part of the village [of Athol] the river divides so as to enclose an island. A low cheap dam across the left hand channel turns water into a small race. Power is then obtained by damming this brook at two or three points so as to give successive falls. There are three falls on the privilege. At the first C.F. Richardson has a small machine shop and is said to use an undershot wheel with 2 or 3 feet fall. The second fall is mainly owned by Ethan Lord, who runs in connection with it a small saw-mill and cloth-mill. W. Lord also has power for a 3 run grist mill and an elevator. The heads in use range from 8 to 10 feet. The third fall on the brook is used by the Athol Machine Company.”

In 1909, for sanitation and other reasons, a petition was put forth to do away with the stream and fill in the riverbed. Mr. Leroy S. Starrett installed new head gates in 1910 and built a closed concrete aqueduct along the lines of the South Branch of the river ending at the other side of the current YMCA building. The DPW covered over the conduit and filled the area with soil. This allowed new ‘land’ for the library, town hall and other buildings along Main Street to eventually be built. The current Cornerstone Insurance building was one of the new structures put on the filled in stream and the office of the Athol Daily News was once housed there.

The rest of the canal that continued past the Y was a walled concrete structure and open on the top with a plank bridge located in back of the old Katz’ store to cross over it. This 750 foot underground path continued under Exchange Street into what is today known as Lord “Pond” Plaza. The river itself continues past the former Cass Toy Shop and rejoins the Miller’s River at the former Athol Machine Company.

This canal was called ‘the Mill Brook Canal’. In 1959 the Town voted $1,000 to replace the 50 year old wooden gate, originally installed by Mr. Starrett, at the mouth of canal behind town hall with a new concrete one. An easy to control turn metal wheel was also installed to regulate the flow of water.

In June 1959, two intrepid Athol men at the behest of the Selectmen rode in a boat down the entire 750 foot canal to observe its condition. M. Anthony Casella and Leo McCarthy, Jr., assisted by Arthur Tarolli as ‘lookout’, traversed the entire length and submitted a report to the Board. One of their findings led to the 1965 addition of the Athol Public Library since the canal was leaking and the rear end of the library building was settling slowly causing cracks in the building.

The open canal behind where the York Theatre was located (later on Lucky Lanes) was replaced in 1960 with a metal culvert and covered over by the DPW. In 1963 it was paved over and is now a municipal parking lot.

Hopefully in our library construction we will successfully and accurately record this canal so that future generations will not also find this hidden surprise in their excavations!

Pictured: Paul Smith of Athol, an E.W. Sykes employee.