Local hydropower

Using Local Water Power To Generate Electricity


(Based on a talk given by the author at the 2006 Energy Expo in Athol.)

The organizers of a recent alternative energy fair held at the Athol Town Hall asked me to present information about the use of water power in the local area, especially the Millers River, to generate electricity.

I researched the topic enough to speak for about half an hour, and then most of those who attended the program joined me and L.S. Starrett Co. personnel director Joel Shaughnessy for a walk across the Millers River to visit the Starrett Museum. This gave us an opportunity to view the Starrett dam on the Millers and some of the equipment which allows the generation of power for Athol’s leading industry.

The most important basic fact I discovered is this:

A relatively small amount of electric power is currently generated at five separate facilities on the Millers River– two in Winchendon, three in Athol and two in Orange.

My most important analytical comments are these:

Small hydro has a role, although limited, to play in the large energy picture, as our society moves, as it must, toward renewable sources. There are interesting pros and cons in the use of our local rivers for hydropower, explored toward the end of this article. Conservation should be given a very high priority starting now.

The following is a report on what I did find out — others might want to look into this topic more thoroughly. Some personal observations are at the end of this article.

Author and Royalston resident Allen Young speaking at the November 2006 North Quabbin Energy Expo

Conversation with Phil Purple, General Manager and hydro-electric site operator of the L.P. Athol Corporation, and the son of proprietor Vincent “Bill” Purple:

L. P. Athol Corporation, owner of the brick factory complex that formerly housed what was once Athol’s second-largest industry, Union Twist Drill Company(UTD), has two hydro-electric generators. These generators were installed in the 1930s along the with the construction of two dams. There are two individual generators, one servicing the former Athol Manufacturing facility, the other the UTD Company. Various upgrades have been made with a major rebuild in 1986 by the L. P. Athol Corporation. Both sites are visible from the Chestnut Hill Avenue river bridge looking upstream or downstream.

Hydro-generation is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which cautions access by the general public on private property.

Water quantity is the key to productivity. There is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers computerized system that can be reached by telephone to obtain water flow volume. This computer utilizes meters on the Millers River, with one across from Pete and Henry’s in South Royalston (the one that Purple consults). One can see a similiar U.S. Army Corps of Engineers meter on the South Main Street bridge in Athol.

Electricity produced by these generators is utilized by the L. P. Athol Corporation and unused residual is transferred into the National Grid System.

Rain is a friend of hydo-electric generators. It makes the Purples smile.

Conversation with James West, United States Army Corps of Engineers at Tully Dam:

There was talk in the late 1970s or early 1980s about an electric generating facility at the Tully Dam, which was constructed for flood control. However, opposition emerged from fishermen, and there have been no further developments regarding use of either Tully Dam (Tully River, East Branch) or Birch Hill Dam (Millers River), both in Royalston. The volume of water is relatively low in both locations. However, there are electric generating plants at other Corps dams, including one in Vermont.

Conversation with Sean Hamilton, Templeton Municipal Light Co.:

This municipal utility is definitely interested in renewable energy. It purchases electricity from large hydro operations in NY and Quebec, and from the small hydro (Mini-Watt Co.) in Orange owned by O’Connell Development of Holyoke. (Another source told me that a man named Steve Berry is in charge of Mini-Watt’s two units in Orange — launched by the Dexter brothers of Orange years ago — but I was unable to locate him. More about Mini-Watt follows.)

Hamilton stated that we Americans “need to cut the umbilical cord” to oil. He said there may be more use of Millers River in the future as technology improves. The water quantity in this river is not all that great, so turbines have to be improved for this to be efficient.

Templeton Municipal Light Co. has made an investment in wind-generated power in the Berkshires.

Conversation with Peter Gerry, local businessman and owner of Lake Rohunta:

The water of Lake Rohunta flows over a dam into Partridgeville Brook, visible at the intersection of Partridgeville Road and Daniel Shays Highway in Athol, but this waterfalls is currently not generating power. The potential is there for a small number of kilowatts, but not enough water for a 24-hour operation. Water volume is big issue. A few years ago, Gerry (one of the region’s most active and successful enterpreneurs) determined he would have to spend $85,000 for new equipment, and it is still on his agenda.

The Lake Rohunta system is labor intensive because of keeping the area clear for water passage. This facility was rebuilt in 1938 and used by the Rodney Hunt Co. from then until 1963.

Gerry feels that the high cost of electricity means society must work on alternatives to fossil fuels, especially wind. He has purchased land locally in high places, including the former Ledge Greenhouses property in Athol, where he hopes to install some windmills.

He also plans to install extensive solar voltaic panels on the roof of his new warehouse building off Route 2A near the Athol-Orange line. The building was intentionally sited so that efficient use of the sun could be achieved.


A key player statewide in the field of hydropower is William K. Fay, an engineer who is the head of a company called Swift River Hydro Operations Co., based in Palmer. (I failed to connect with Fay, but I did check out the web site at www.swiftriverhydro.com and could see that this company is growing and on a mission.)


Participants at the November 2006 North Quabbin Energy Expo tour the L.S. Starrett Company museum in Athol, MA

Several newspaper articles generously made available to me by the Dick Chaisson Archive provided important additional information for my presentation:

Mini-Watt in Orange (two units, one on each side of the river below the South Main Street bridge) was formed in the 1980s by the former Chase Machinery and Supply Co. owned by David Dexter (in his family for three generations). Chase Machinery had been using the Millers River for powering machinery since the firm’s beginnings in 1855 (in the pre-electric era). Dexter saw that the electric power he could generate exceeded what he needed for Chase Machinery and thus developed Mini-Watt to sell power to the utility.

According to a 1983 report in the Worcester Telegram, winter and spring high waters provide a bounty of power, with the company’s turbine producing double the power needs for manufacturing, so half of that could be sold. In the low-water months of summer and fall, it produced half of what was needed. Quoted in a November 1983 Telegram article, Dexter’s comments could have been made today:

“I firmly believe in hydro-power, and not just as a business venture. The way I look at it, as a human race we are not going to shut off our lights at home. Electricity has to come from somewhere, from some sources. And of all the options, water power is the least detrimental to the environment compared to burning oil or coal or going nuclear. And if offers the least problems. If we have it produced locally, that’s a certain amount of oil we don’t have to depend upon from Iran. Plus I think it’s less polluting than what comes out of chimneys.”

Going back further in history, there was a state bill filed in 1913 asking for the right to incorporate Millers River Improvement Co. to build a “chain of dams and reservoirs” along the river to provide an even flow. I could not determine the fate of this bill.

In 1938, an electric power generation dam at Wendell Depot, which had gone into operation in 1910, was washed away. This had provided electric power for the Athol-Orange street railway, and for the two towns. Because it would have taken several months to rebuild the publicly owned dam and power plant, the private power company said it would supply the towns with electricity in exchange for the towns’ promise that they would never build another hydro-electric dam on the river. The power company bought the remains of the dam and dynamited them soon after.

In 1978, the National Energy Act was passed by the U.S. Congress, providing funds to study small hydro. It became clear there are many obstacles, including federal and state rules on how river water can be harnessed.

There was a Franklin County Energy Task Force active in the 1970s, and one of its main ideas was rebuilding a hydroelectric site adjacent to Erving Paper Mills. During that study period, the group listed 11 working sites and 125 small sites not currently in use which could be used for power generation. (Low-cost oil and natural gas in the 1940s caused many old dams to go into disuse.)

Historically, Franklin County was a high user of hydro power. The cost of re-creating the electric generating unit at the Erving mill was estimated at between $1.5 and $2.1 million. The long-term value of such a project was affirmed, but the infrastructure startup funds were not available. Erving Paper Mills made it clear it would not spend its own money on this project, having “better uses” for its limited resources.

In 1975, the study revealed, hydropower produced more megawatts in Franklin County than were purchased — 379,000 mg produced by water power versus 368,525 purchased. The biggest producer was the Cabot station on the Connecticut River in Turners Falls. By the way, did you know that Turners Falls is known as Powertown just the way Athol is known as Tooltown, Winchendon as Toytown and Gardner as Chair City?

A 1978 Boston Globe article was headlined “Unused N.E. dams seen as electric power source.” The article quoted an informed source saying that “if New England’s small dams were used to generate electric power, they would produce up to twice as much energy as a modern nuclear power plant at no greater cost per kilowatt hour than is anticipated at the proposed Seabrook NH nuclear power station.”

A 1978 article in the Valley Advocate quoted a federal official: “The deeper we investigate small dams, the more watts we find.”

In 1980, a serious proposal was put forward to build five dams on existing industrial dam sites on the Millers River. In 1985, a company called DuPont (unclear if this was related to the large chemical company) based in Paxton sought a preliminary permit to build the five hydroelectric dams between Millers Falls and Wendell Depot, with combined capacity of 5.7 megawatts.

However, much opposition emerged right away from the New England Atlantic Salmon Council, Millers River Watershed Council and others. Henry Waidlich of the Millers River Watershed Council said the construction “would change the whole character of the river from a free-flowing stream to five or six ponds. Damming would have an adverse affect on fish, on recreation and on the wild-water character of the river.” Waidlich, a resident of Montague, said there was no need for such a project as there is enough power capacity in the area. He explained how the change in the river would mean loss of habitat as fish could not spawn in their usual manner.

In Royalston, in 1982, a hydroelectric committee headed by the late Waino Kirkman led to the town voting, 31-19, for $3,500 for a feasibility study of reconstructing a dam on Millers River in South Royalston. Kirkman recalled the past when water power created electricity for the large woolen mills there plus the school, fire station and all the houses in the village. I could not determine what became of such a study or even if it took place.

Conclusions about small hydro:

First the “pro” side: Small hydro is clean and safe compared to the burning of fossil fuels and nuclear power. Where dams already exist on the Millers River or other waterways, some electricity can be generated and every “clean” kilowatt helps. We can all feel good about the existing power generating units on our hometown river, the Millers.

On the “con” side: New small hydro units require a large investment in turbines and building of dams on waterways. Perhaps a new type of turbine that can utilize the flowing water without major damming will be developed, but such technology does not seem available yet.

Environmentalists and fishing groups will likely unite to oppose dams that destroy the “wildness” of rivers. The economic issues are complex, because the value of small hydro is offset by the cost of new dams and potential loss of eco-tourism (canoeing, kayaking, fishing, birding) related to wild undammed rivers.

My personal thoughts about energy policy after doing this research:

Here in the northeast, the use of photo-voltaics is likely to help a little, but will be limited due to our not-so-sunny climate. Wind power is promising but many people will object to the degradation of our mountain or ocean scenery by the placement of wind farms on hilltops or the ocean horizon. Only reluctantly could I get used to wind farms, just as an earlier generation had to get used to the utility poles that line our roadways.

The “elephant in the room” is nuclear power, which I predict, sadly, that more and more people will begin to see as acceptable. Nuclear power proponents point out, correctly, that this is the major source of electricity in France, and there is a growing movement to build new “nukes” in the United States. With increased awareness of global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels, there is more and more propaganda coming our way about the safety of “improved” nukes. I use the word propaganda intentionally, as I believe nuke proponents delude themselves by exaggerating the safety of the “improved” nukes, and by ignoring the fact that there is no real solution to the storage and handling of nuclear waste.

What then? While small hydro, solar and wind power must be developed as much as possible, and as soon as possible, I believe that conservation remains crucial and a top priority if our planet is to survive. As an environmentalist, and someone who appreciates pristine natural scenery, I am not so willing to give up nature’s beauty until society as a whole gets much more serious about conservation.

A massive education campaign is called for. This could reduce consumption of unnecessary goods and services, educate masses of people about the “100-mile diet” (consuming as much or our food as possible from within 100 miles of our homes), and save electricity by frugal use of lights and appliances. These are just a few of the conservation techniques that need to be put into place.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the term “consciousness-raising” was widely used, and that’s precisely what is needed now. Those who hold public office should be leading our society in the right direction and should be held accountable for failure to do so.


Editor’s note: The writer, a resident of Royalston, is the author of North of Quabbin Revisited: A Guide to Nine Massachusetts Towns, published by Haley’s.)

Photos: Susan Paju

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