The Green River

The Green River in 1897.

The Murky Secrets of Williamstown’s Green River

We sing the school song about the majesty of the surrounding mountains as “monarchs”—Mount Greylock, Pine Cobble, and so forth. But what of the lowly Green River meandering around Williamstown? The lyric of the song does recognize that “the peaceful river floweth gently by.” While mountains and streams usually go together, there is no contest as to the throne between these two natural features of the area. During our undergrad days, most of us were blissfully ignorant about the Green River, beyond the name recognition because of the signs. We knew it existed, and caught glimpses of it as we drove on Route 7, and along Route 43 on the back side of the College and past Water Street. But where did it flow from, and ultimately go to?

In fact, the Green River is the north branch of the Hoosic River, a tributary of the mighty Hudson. The source of the Hoosic is Cheshire, Massachusetts, and it flows through Adams, while the north branch originates in Heartwellville, Vermont, to join in North Adams, and then run through Williamstown and Pownal, Vermont, and onward into New York State. Unfortunately the Green River has had its share of pollution problems from various sources, and it is a relief to know Williamstown draws its drinking water from wells instead. It is recovering now, but that probably explains why fishing and tubing have not been student pastimes along the stretch that passes through Williamstown.  Sprague Electric Company in North Adams, which operated there until 1985, and, among other things produced the capacitor which triggered the atomic bomb at Nagasaki, and made products later used in the launch systems for Gemini space missions, contributed PCB loadings to the Green River over the decades. Williams College students continue to monitor the decline in PCBs over time. In the late 1970s the legendary folksinger Pete Seeger sang at a fundraiser held at Cole Field in support of an early citizen environmental group trying to save the watershed. Unfortunately, in 1990 the College’s own ice hockey rink cooling system leaked ammonia into the river, which caused a total fish kill. Another problem was an old leaking oil tank off Cole Avenue in Williamstown that contaminated the Hoosic for many years.

On the positive side, students in our Center for Environmental Studies have devised a plan whereby the College can reclaim the 1.5 miles of riverfront adjacent to the campus as an amenity. According to David Dethier, currently professor of geosciences at Williams, “Overall, the Hoosic is much better than it has been in the past, but in detail you still don’t want to eat the fish…or fall entirely in yet”. If you wish to read more, you can find “The Hoosic Matters: A Brief History of the Hoosac Valley,” by Lauren Stevens, on the internet.