nce Upon A Time you could safely fish in the Acushnet River (New Bedford Whaling Museum Photo)

The Acushnet River: A waterway that helped develop a nation


They would toss refuse, garbage, tires, mattresses, or anything else they felt like. This was done since the first settlers and colonists. In spite of the fact that in 1904 the Board of Health closed the river to swimming and shellfishing, the Acushnet Processing Plant now known as The Acushnet Company went on dumping it’s chemical cocktails into the river anyway. A mixture of waste and re-processed tires.

In 1912 a new interceptor sewage line was built as a way to divert the sewage. Guess where this sewage dumped out? Clark’s Point. Hey, they said “No more dumping in the river.”, not “No more dumping in the sea.” Since pumping districts were still being built to keep up with demand, only some of the dumping into the river was halted. Only 5 pumping stations out of the needed nine were built.

Tan-Already dredged. Blue-Dredged in 2012. Orange-To be Dredged. (EPA Photo)

Here in the 1920s is where PCBs or Polychlorinated Biphenyls enter into the picture. They were brought here – have a seat for this one – the Monsanto Corporation who is responsible for their invention. Why the heck were they ever important? They were used as a coolant for electric motors, transformers and capacitors. One of the reasons PCBs never raised many alarms was because they are tasteless, and odorless. Scary stuff.

Problem is in spite of what seems to be a gentle liquid, it devours skin and it decomposes very slowly. Hence the predicament we are in today. These afore-mentioned pumping stations weren’t resumed being built until 1947 and even when finished companies still dumped into the river. Oh boy. From 1939 until as recently as 1978 Aerovox Corporation was dumping PCB, polluting the land and water. Problem is that no one knew -or admitted they knew – that PCBs were bad for your health until a scientist in far away Sweden discovered they were. They were immediately banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 1973 they had banned it for some uses. This time it was total.

It wouldn’t be until 1983 that the polluted parts of the Acushnet River would be designated a Superfund site by the EPA. This meant that the government would get involved in helping clean out natural resources that have been polluted and destroyed. By 1994, tens of thousands of cubic yards of PCBs had been removed from the sediment. By 2011, 200,000 cubic yards of an estimated 900,000 cubic yards have been removed.

We have a long way to go yet, before we see the gorgeous natural resource return to even a shadow of its former glory. Something I doubt I will see in my lifetime, but perhaps my daughter can tell her children that once upon a time the Acushnet River used to be polluted. They can turn to her and say “Oh mom. You’re always pulling our leg.”

Photo Album Guide
01. Division of Pollution & Water Control taking samples in 1970. Spinner Publications Photo.
02. Warning signs in Portuguese and English in 1982. Spinner Publications Photo.
03. Typical pollution scene in 1971. Spinner Publications Photo.
04. Another pollution scene in 1971. Spinner Publications Photo.
05. Low tide in 1972. Spinner Publications Photo.
06. Testing by the Army Corp of Engineers in 1982. Spinner Publications Photo.
07. 1992 Hands Across the River Incineration Protest. Spinner Publications Photo.
08. 1192 Protest against incineration of the dredged PCBs. Spinner Publications Photo.
09. “Haying on the Acushnet River” by William Allen Wall. Painted as it was in 1850. This very spot is now the junction of Coggeshall and Rt. 195. Whaling Museum Photo.
10. Cushing’s Saw Mill at the head of the Acushnet River, Lund’s Corner. Whaling Museum Photo.
11. Sawmill on the Acushnet River. Whaling Museum Photo.
12. Sawmill on the Acushnet River. Whaling Museum Photo.
13. Couple sits by a small waterfall. Whaling Museum Photo.

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About Joe Silvia

When Joe isn't writing, he's coaching people to punch each other in the face. He enjoys ancient cultures, dead and living languages, cooking, benching 999#s, and saving the elderly, babies and puppies from burning buildings. While he enjoys long walks on the beach, he will not be your alarm clock, because he's no ding-a-ling.

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  1. Great read Joe! This is awesome to learn a bit more about the value of the waterway…Does our local school systems focus more on our local History like this instead of general History? We have to teach our kids what a valuable asset this water is and how to cherish it! Our kids in turn, will teach their parents not to litter, etc our waterways/land!

  2. Thanks and I couldn’t agree more Freddie! I am unsure what the schools are teaching today. I am under the assumption that is no heavy or in depth on the “local.”

    There is a valuable lesson to learn about the Acushnet River. There are some remarkably beautiful spots and it is on great big “suck” to have to explain to my daughter “It looks beautiful, but you can’t touch.” A shame.

  3. Karen Vilandry

    great article! This is why Hands Across the River Coalition works hard to ensure a safe cleanup of the river. We want all deadly PCB sediments removed from this waterway not buried in the river as the DEP is doing and the EPA plans on doing. We need eeveryone’s help with this to take a firm stand to keep our community safe.

  4. Hey Joe, it’s me again!! When I was a kid in Fairhaven (1935-6), I witnessed fishing in the Acushnet, at night, for “frostfish”. We ate eels from the river and I remember (myself and other kids) taking snails (“Periwinkles”) from the rocks at Fort Phoenix and boiling them in a tin can (from the dump), pulling them out with a safety pin and…better than escargot!! (No garlic butter, though).
    I have a couple of more recent photos of the “cleaned up” Acushnet, but I think I’ll send them to your email address…OK???

    Rottsa ruck, Gardner.

  5. You always have the best stories Gardner! Got the e-mails!

  6. Great story. My grandmother who was born in 1896 said she remembered when people were baptized in the river. I couldn’t imagine because we lived a few years on River Rd as kids and it was black, slimy, and oily by then. My Mom had lived there all throughout her childhood and was sure that was why she had so many health problems all her life.

  7. Hey Joe. Great piece. Thoroughly enjoyed the history of language. It inspired me to put together a collection of Acushnet River images, as landscapes and the wildlife I’ve found in and around the river.

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