Rockport’s Mill Pond Dam restoration begins this month

Water spills past the Mill Pond dam in Rockport, where work to rebuild the circa 1840 structure is to start soon.
Lisa Poole for the Boston Globe
Water spills past the Mill Pond dam in Rockport, where work to rebuild the circa 1840 structure is to start soon.

Tucked amid homes, a restaurant, and an inn and across the street from Front Beach in Rockport, Millbrook Meadow is one of those breath­taking little places that enhance a community’s quality of life.

The rolling grass is framed by homes and willow trees on 1½ acres, providing a spot for a variety of activities, including not just daily dog walking, jogging, and children’s play, but also musical performances and the occasional wedding. A tiny footbridge provides passage over the brook that runs along one side, the water flowing into the park through the outlet of the Mill Pond Dam on the far end, opposite the street entrance.

Kelsay Anderson, 8, of Rockport, and Maria Chaney, 12, of Gloucester, on the old dam.

“It’s a jewel for the town,” said Sam Coulbourn, chairman of the Millbrook Meadow Committee, on a recent trip to the site. “It’s a beautiful prize for Rockport.”


Later this month, work is scheduled to begin on reconstructing the stone dam, which failed in the Mother’s Day storm of 2006 when the entire meadow flooded. The town has been working on the project for six years, and reconstruction of the circa 1840 dam may be the start of a larger effort to restore and improve the entire area, which also includes Mill Pond on the other side of the dam.

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Coulbourn’s committee oversees activity in the park, including an annual cleanup and scheduling of events. The newly formed Mill Brook Restoration Committee will take on a more activist role, including fund-raising.

“We need to determine the best way to go forward to restore the park,” said John Sparks, chairman of the new town committee and also a member of the Rockport Garden Club, which has had a peripheral interest in the park since donating it to the town in 1938. “We need to stabilize the landscape and create land that can be managed realistically, to ensure public safety and enjoyment.”

While the area has retained its charm, observers have noticed the changes that have come with time. Mill Pond itself has grown heavy with vegetation both on its banks and in the water, including the invasive cattail plant.

In the park, granite stones from the man-made brook that leads from the dam out to the ocean have become displaced, and water floods more frequently than in the past. Many of the trees have reached the end of their lives, or are near it, and need to be removed or replaced. There are also storm-water runoff and drainage issues elsewhere in the park.


One issue, the flooding from the spillway, will be addressed with the dam reconstruction.

The town’s Department of Public Works director, Joe Parisi, said the contractor handling the project, T. Ford Co. of Georgetown, expects to begin work this month, and should finish in the fall. The company will dismantle the dam, then draw the pond down to install footings and a concrete core wall for its replacement. Sections of the current dam will be pieced together to create a structure that will be consistent with the original’s historical design, but meet modern code requirements.

“They’ll replicate what we have here as best they can,” said Parisi, citing the example of the stone walls atop the current dam that will have posts and railings added for safety.

Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe
A view of Millbrook Meadow near the Mill Pond dam in Rockport, where restoration work may ease flooding.

The spillway, which catches the water coming from the outlets and directs it toward the ocean, will also be rebuilt to stop future flooding. A fish ladder will be built into the dam, allowing eels and fish to migrate into the pond and the watershed, which extends inland to the headwaters of Briar Swamp, to spawn.

The total cost for rebuilding the dam is estimated at $1.3 million, with roughly $1 million coming from federal funds administered by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, according to the state. Most of the money will be spent on the actual cost of construction.


“It’s been a long process,” Parisi said. “We’re finally at the point where we’ve got the permits, the funding is in place, and we’re ready to go.”

Sparks made it clear that his restoration-focused committee is still forming, and has had no formal discussions with the Board of Selectmen.

“They will ultimately oversee any activities that we do,” he said.

Nonetheless, Sparks said he has some ideas about how the project should proceed, starting with a focus on the park itself, and then moving on to the Mill Pond and the rest of the watershed.

“We need to have a geotechnical survey done so that we can understand what can be done to improve the drainage and stability of the landscape,” Sparks said.

In a best-case scenario, he’s hoping to address the park itself over three years.

“That’s on a fast, fast track,” Sparks said.

“There’s a lot of interest in this, and the energy is going to build, but we’re really at the beginning stages,” said Sparks, who said the group’s aim is to create a plan that is ambitious enough to make a difference, and gain community support.

“We’re delighted that Joe and his Department of Public Works has pushed on the reconstruction of this dam,” Coulbourn said of Parisi. “We want to use this as step one to improve the meadow, save the infrastructure, and eventually to clear up and restore this pond.”

David Rattigan can be reached by e-mailing DRattigan.globe@gmail.com.