The Assabet, Sudbury, and Concord River Watersheds
Rowing our boat against the current, between
wide meadows, we turn aside into the Assabeth.
A more lovely stream than this, for a mile above its
junction with the Concord, has never flowed on earth.
"Thoreau read Wordsworth, Muir read Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt read Muir, and you got national parks. It took a century for this to happen, for artistic values to percolate down to where honoring the relation of people's imagination to the land, or beauty, or to wild things, was issued in legislation."
-- Robert Hass, poet laureate of the United States
Famous poets and authors have doted on the Assabet River's beauty and charm. But the river coexists quietly with suburban life in Eastern Massachusetts in its slow and steady 31-mile fall. Between towns you can find surprisingly remote and unspoiled sections, and its quiet grace absorbs the hustle and bustle of modern day life.
Like much of the landscape in New England, the current path of the Assabet River traces back to the receding glaciers 15,000 years ago. Large glacial lakes now form watersheds in which, today, tens of thousands of people share space with the rivers, forests, and hills.
The river has had many names over the centuries. The name "Assabet" comes through the filter of time from the (spoken) Algonquin word for "the place where materials for making fish nets comes from." You will also see it referred to as the Assabeth, Asabet, Elizbeth, Elizabet, and a dozen other variations as different cultures put their imprint on the landscape.
"A stream stapled to the landscape by bridges"
Starting in Westborough, the river falls 320 feet through the towns of Northborough, Marlborough, Berlin, Hudson, Stow, Maynard, Acton, and finally Concord where it merges with the Sudbury River at Egg Rock to form the Concord River. The energy in that 300 feet has been tapped by dams along the Assabet's length: mill dams to power the original sawmills and woolen mills, and, more recently, flood control dams. These dams not only changed the character of the river, but the nature of human habitation along its banks. Farms gave way to manufacturing plants, towns sprouted up, and the Assabet River becomes an engine of commerce in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Before she moved out to Colorado, naturalist Ann Zwinger paddled the length of the Assabet with fellow naturalist Edwin Teale. In their book "A Conscious Stillness" Ann writes about the Assabet River's history, both natural and manmade. The two are intertwined, for good and bad. The Assabet is a "working river" and Ann observed that from the air the river appeared to be "stapled to the landscape by bridges." Over its 31 mile course, over 40 bridges cross or crossed the river.
Wild and Urban
To paddle the Assabet is to immerse oneself in the contrast of a wilderness that flows through the surrounding urban centers. This made the Assabet Valley one of the country's first vacation spots and a favorite stomping ground of the literary giants of the transcendentalist movement of the 19th century. Just below a bridge by a bustling Route 2 in Concord is the location of Henry David Thoreau's favorite swimming hole. The river was a source of recreation and revitalization for all who swam or rowed its waters or fished along its shores.
Much of this natural beauty remains today, just hidden around a corner or sheltered behind the trees which line much of the Assabet's course. In 1999, the last four miles of the river were designated as Wild and Scenic by the federal government recognizing the recreation, ecology, scenery, and historic/cultural resources of the river.
The Future of the Assabet
While the river is a natural treasure, a history marked with industrial and municipal pollution has left the Assabet with an abundance of nutrients that cause excessive plant growth in the river during the summer months. This damages the river's habitat and recreational value, causing it to fall short of its potential as a haven for fish and other wildlife.
It's that potential that makes the Assabet worth the efforts of OAR members and staffers. After 250-plus years of human use and abuse, it's time to make sure the Assabet's beauty and vitality will be protected and enjoyed by generations to come. But change takes time...
Like ripples in a pool, the actions that we take to protect the Assabet and its watershed today will spread beyond the river's banks and into our future.
The Assabet, Sudbury, and Concord (SuAsCo) Watershed: The Assabet and Sudbury rivers flow into the Concord River at Egg Rock in Concord, MA, which flows into the Merrimack River in Lowell, MA and into the ocean at Plum Island.
For detailed information about each watershed:
More information on the Wild and Scenic Rivers