Keith Gonsalves and a crew from the Ten Mile River Watershed Council pulled on some waders one day in 2016 and splashed about in the river near Larson Woods off Riverbank Road.
They stuck an electrical shocking device in the water just below the dam that creates Mechanics Pond and pulled the trigger.
Up floated some fish.
The shocking device, which stuns the fish but does no permanent harm, is used to find out what’s swimming unseen down under. It’s a way to find out what life lives there.
Among the stunned was an American eel.
Gonsalves was stunned too, but in a good way. He was thrilled. Anyone who knows anything about the slithery creatures would be.
They’re not from around here, but they live here. They’re born in the Sargasso Sea, a 2-million-square-mile oval ocean in the middle of the North Atlantic, hundreds of miles off the North American coast.
It’s an ocean within an ocean. Its water is deep blue in color and clear as a diamond. It’s a special place.
Sargasso gets its name from free floating seaweed called sargassum, which flourishes there. The plant creates a unique ecosystem all its own.
That’s where the shocked Ten Mile eel was born. Eels spawn there and the young migrate to the coasts of North America and Europe and then into the rivers.
For Gonsalves, it was more evidence that the river he and his group loves and nurtures is recovering after being declared dead 50 years ago.
Headwaters for the Ten Mile are in Cargill Pond in Plainville. It drains 54 square miles and is the smallest of 27 watersheds in the state as it winds its way over a 22-mile course to the Seekonk River in Rhode Island then into Narragansett Bay.
Gonsalves, a 60-year-year-old retired firefighter, self-proclaimed “tree-hugger” and president of Ten Mile River Watershed Council, said the river could be as long as 27 miles — at least that’s what he’s heard.
And Gonsalves, who lives in the Riverside section of East Providence, has heard it all.
The only thing known with certainty is that the Ten Mile is not 10 miles long. How the name came to be, is the subject of much speculation, but Gonsalves said one story that makes sense has nothing to do with the length of the river.
It has to do with its distance from Providence on the old Post Road heading north to Boston. The road crossed the river at the 10-mile mark and thus came the name.
Gonsalves took up the river’s cause after his kids grew up and he didn’t have to ferry them from one soccer match to another.
“I was a recovering soccer dad,” he said. “I found out there was no one speaking up for the river.”
But it’s more than a time-filler. It’s a passion, just as it was for a writer in the Balfour Craftsman, a newsletter apparently published by jewelry maker Balfour Co.
The writer said the river had “some friends” during its long descent into a dark, environmental hell, but they weren’t “important or influential” and were powerless to help it.
Early supporters were “just the kids who swam in the pools” or “the fishermen who sought its bright pickerel,” the unidentified writer said in the May 1967 edition.
But since then, the river has acquired more powerful friends.
The improvement in the Ten Mile noticed by Gonsalves, 100 dues-paying members of the council and 400 Facebook members, has resulted from a long, slow process that got a kick-start with the Clean Water Act of 1972. The federal law took a critically ill river along with thousands of others around the nation and helped nurse it back to life with stiff laws requiring wastewater treatment plants and other measures to prevent pollution.
The state’s Executive Office of Environmental Affairs reported in its Watershed Action Plan in 2001, nearly 30 years after the law went into effect, that “the Ten Mile is much cleaner today thanks in part to the construction of two wastewater treatment plants (in Attleboro and North Attleboro) and the introduction of pre-treatment of wastes by industries along the river.”
Growing public concern about pollution, like that voiced by the anonymous writer in the Balfour Craftsman, spawned creation of the law, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website.
It couldn’t have come soon enough.
An article published on rivers.org said the Ten Mile was “grossly polluted by the mid 1900s.” At one point in the late 1950s, the stench emanating from some parts of the river had whole neighborhoods up in arms. Residents of “Deantown,” located off Deanville Road, were overwhelmed by its stink on hot summer days in 1959.
The uproar prompted action from the city.
Mayor Cyril K. Brennan met with residents to talk about a plan to deepen and widen the river from the North Attleboro line to Farmers Pond. It was a stretch about 3,300 feet long, more than half a mile.
The work was “aimed at easing or eliminating the malodorous conditions,” according to an article in The Attleboro Sun. It was a temporary solution, however. The issues ran deeper.
Books like Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, raised awareness about the far-reaching, deadly effects of pesticides, especially DDT, and helped fan the fear.
Voices were raised in Attleboro.
“Will this river live again?” was the headline for the article published in The Balfour Craftsman. The subtitle was “The Death of a River.”
After a century of industrial and municipal pollution flowing unabated into what was once a pristine waterway, there was a fear that it would flow filthy to the sea forever, the writer in the Balfour Craftsman said.
“And so the river began to die. Children — even the poor children who couldn’t get out of town in summer — abandoned one stinking pool after another. Water temperatures rose; green and orange scum began to accumulate. Ponds where trout and bass once lurked yielded only perch and bullheads — then only bullheads, then nothing. Silt covered the rocks and filled the pools. Weeds choked the once sandy up-river runs; down-river, vegetation vanished. A near life-less corpse, the River invited only further abuse. It became no more than an open dumping ground — a sewer. It was hopeless.”
By 1967 it was considered dead by many. And certainly it was buried. Some residents could only know it existed by its smell.
Anyone who visited downtown Attleboro in those times would never see a trace of the river, unless they happened to be standing on bridge. It was walled in by huge factories.
Balfour Co., which unrolled for hundreds of feet on its east bank off County Street, is the most obvious example. Others like the James E. Blake Co., C.H. Eden Co. and Automatic Machine backed up to the river on South Main Street.
The Bigney Building, a former jewelry factory that in modern times has been converted to a retail appliance store, towered above the Ten Mile on its west bank just below the Wall Street bridge.
The city’s public works yard on the east bank off Wall covered the river’s course between Wall and Olive streets. The former Wolfenden dye works, which became Mantrose Haeuser and then Rust-Oleum, runs up against the west bank.
A railroad trestle was embedded in the river nearby.
Also on the east bank, just before the river crosses under Olive Street, was a company most recently known as Johnson Fabrication and another called Reynolds & Markman.
Further downstream, also on the east bank, is Larson Tool. And further still off South Main Street, Attleboro Crossing, a strip mall, shrouds the river for hundreds of feet.
A tangle of vines, Japanese knotweed and litter further obscures the river behind the mall.
Mattresses, an old recliner, construction and demolition debris and the usual everyday litter, including paper, bottles, cans and plastic bags mar the land.
Rolling further south, the river curls up to an 11-acre site on the west bank where Apco Mossberg Co. once made car parts. The factory was destroyed by fire in 1987 and left scarred and dirty land behind.
From there the river winds through a residential neighborhood and empties into Dodgeville Pond.
Nineteen years ago, former Sun Chronicle editor and reporter Rick Thurmond canoed that stretch of river. He chronicled the return of wildlife as well as the difficulties of navigating a river webbed with low-lying bridges and fallen trees.
It was a river strewn with trash and riddled with invasive plants such as Japanese knotweed which smothers native species and weaves an impenetrable green wall.
While some of that is still true, there have been big changes. Those changes had begun at the time Thurmond went on his river voyage.
Giant jewelry maker Balfour Co. had left County Street. Its factory had been razed and Balfour Riverwalk, a three-acre park had been built exposing the Ten Mile to more sunlight than it had seen in decades.
Since then the city has embarked on a downtown revitalization plan, part of which makes the river a focal point, a place to be used rather than abused.
Many riverbank buildings are gone.
Much of the land left behind was polluted, but thanks to grants acquired by the Attleboro Redevelopment Authority over the last two decades, the lots have been cleaned.
Another grant paid for removal of the defunct railroad trestle, the building of a canoe put-in and the removal of the omnipresent knotweed from the east bank.
A canoe is no longer needed to inspect long stretches of the Ten Mile.
Once the construction of an 800-foot boardwalk running between Wall and County streets is done this spring, people will be able to walk along the river from Olive Street to Larson Woods at the far end Riverbank Road.
The first part of the walk from Olive to Wall goes through the newly built Judith H. Robbins Riverfront Park, one of a number of public green spaces that have sprung to life here and elsewhere along the Ten Mile.
Another is a three-mile bike and walking path that runs between Pawtucket and East Providence, where the river ends.
A Ten Mile River Watershed Action Plan published by the state’s Executive Office of Environmental Affairs in 2001 called for “preserving open space and providing for regional recreational opportunities” — and that’s being done.
Gonsalves said the Ten Mile River Watershed Council is planning to publish a booklet detailing walks on the Ten Mile in the coming months.
The state’s action plan also called for more involvement of citizen groups and local communities.
That’s happening too. There are river cleanups. Attleboro has sponsored one every spring since 2006. The 12th annual is coming up next month.
Over the years all sorts of junk, even the proverbial kitchen sink, has been pulled out of the waterway.
One of the original participants, Linda Alger, former city council administrator, said constant attention to the river has made it cleaner and helps keep it clean.
When others see that others care, the river is less likely to be abused, she said.
“When it’s cleaned up people are less likely to dump stuff in it,” Alger said.
It’s all good for Gonsalves and his organization.
“I’m so happy that Attleboro, like Providence, is exposing the river and getting more people involved,” he said. “All the little pieces are coming together. This is a nice thing.”
The state’s action plan had other goals, like identifying and minimizing sources of pollution. Those are being realized by the ever-stiffening regulations on effluent from wastewater treatment plants and runoff from roads.
While the river is far from pristine, it’s clean enough to support various forms of wildlife, birds, mammals and fish. And efforts are underway to make it even better.
Long before factories and towns were built and poured their poison into the river, herring and other fish used it to spawn. Pollution and mill dams prevented that for decades. But now the pollution is diluted and attention has been turned to the dams.
In the spring of 2015, herring swam upstream for the first time in a century thanks to the construction of a fish ladder on the dam at Omega Pond in East Providence, according to an article written by Cindy Sabato, communications director at Save the Bay.
Other dams up river continue to block the spawning spring runs, but the hope is someday they too will have fish ladders and reset the natural order.
While all of that is good, the water quality in the Ten Mile still has a way to go. In an EPA report published in 2014, the latest available, it is described as “impaired.” That’s a long way from “grossly polluted,” but work still needs to be done.
Throughout Massachusetts, 2,817 miles of rivers have been assessed for water quality. That equals about 28 percent of the 9,962 river miles in the state. Out the 2,817 miles of river that have been assessed, 1,799, or 64 percent are characterized as “impaired.”
The 22 miles of the Ten Mile are not unique.
The reasons for impairment include noxious aquatic plants, oxygen depletion, sewage, excess algal growth, pesticides and other chemicals — all the usual suspects.
The water is not drinkable, but it does support life and its slowly getting better.
“Just like it slowly degraded, it’s slowly coming back,” Gonsalves said. “You don’t see all of a sudden a big change.”
Under the water, changes are fewer. A report prepared for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in 2000 was not good news.
While the report is 20 years old, the pollutants reported to be buried in the riverbed are still there and they are not going anywhere unless someone moves them.
Sediment samples from eight sites were taken and they were loaded with contamination.
“These sediments are highly contaminated with complex mixtures of inorganic chemicals (metals), volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, chlorinated pesticides and PCBs,” the report said.
While serious, it was not a surprise.
“Given the history of the river during and subsequent to the Industrial Revolution in New England including jewelry, tannery, and electroplating works, such remnant contamination is not unexpected,” the report said.
Gary Demers, business owner, historian and lover of the river, owns Dodgeville Mill, its dam and most of the pond formed by Ten Mile River before it passes over a spillway and rolls on south.
He said the consequences of a dam breach would be severe.
“If it fails it would pull all the water and silt out and cause loss of life and loss of property downstream. And it would be catastrophic for the environment,” he said, referring to the dispersal of tons of polluted soil.
There’s a plan in place to prevent that. The state and city are teaming up to repair the 200-foot long and 20-foot high dam so a breach never happens.
The project, which is funded mostly by the state, has been designed. The first stage, construction of a coffer dam that will allow work on the spillway, is expected to start this year.
Plans include a design for a fish ladder that will be installed sometime in the future.
Demers said getting the fish up river to spawn is important not only for the fish, but for the river. After spawning, the fish die and provide nourishment for other animals and plant life, he said.
“That supports whatever lives in the ecosystem and enriches the riverbank all the way back to the ocean,” he said.
While hard-core environmentalists like to see the removal of dams that no longer serve a purpose, some dams have a new purpose, Demers said.
His, for example.
Without it, the Ten Mile would sometimes run dry. The possibility of a pretty river running through downtown would evaporate along with the fishing and boating ponds.
The dam holds the water, creates the ponds and recreation possibilities for the entire community, he said.
“There are a lot of possibilities for the future, but we have to start with this,” he said of the dam repair.
“I’d hate to lose this,” he said, looking at the sparkling blue water.
Demers hopes one day the river and its mill ponds will be dredged to permanently get rid of the pollution that lies beneath.
The technology exists, and the expense is great, but the results would be too.
“Once it’s clean it will never go back to the way it is today,” Demers said.