Paddling in Hemlock Gorge

Unlike the rather pristine Stop River Confluence area of the Charles River, the Hemlock Gorge section is more urban, passing houses, factories and highways.

I launched from Nahanton Park in Newton. There was plenty of parking here. There was a dock at the park which made the launch very easy. This park is where the Charles River Wheelmen start and finish their Saturday fitness rides. The Needham radio and television towers are visible in the distance once you enter this section of the river. At one point I had represented clients who had bought, sold or leased space on most of the towers. So they served as a visual reminder in front of me for the job I had just left behind.

There are significant industrial buildings along the river. If you remember your history of the industrial revolution in the northeast, this means there are dams along the river. I knew I had a few portages ahead on the river.

There is a modern railroad bridge abutting older stone abutments which mark the location of an older bridge.  This bridge was for the Charles River branch of the Boston and Worcester Railroad. Built in 1850, this rail line was built to bring stone and gravel from Needham to fill Boston’s Back Bay. During its peak, forty car trains of fill ran every 45 minutes.

The Elliot Street Bridge is made of three stone arches and appears just before the Silk Mill Dam. I am glad I remembered this landmark because the dam was not marked. I noticed an old industrial building on the right bank and noted that it looked like an old mill building. Then I noticed that the river seemed to disappear and there was an increasing roar. I had found the first dam. I quickly turned around and paddled upstream to good spot to take the kayak out of the river and start the portage. It was fairly long walk of about 200 yards through Hemlock Gorge Reservation , leading down into Hemlock Gorge between Newton’s Upper Falls and the Echo Bridge.

Just downstream of the Silk Mill Dam is Echo Bridge. It is famous for the wonderful echoes that can resonate back and forth between the arches. Yes, I did holler out as I went under. The echo was very impressive.

Echo Bridge
Echo Bridge

Echo Bridge carries the Sudbury Aqueduct. In 1878, the mainstream of the Sudbury River was diverted via the Sudbury Aqueduct to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir to supply water for the City of Boston. The bridge was built in 1876, spanning 130 feet across the Charles River.

The fall of water at Hemlock Gorge was an attractive power supply for industry. In 1688 John Clark built a sawmill. His sons expanded by adding a fulling mill and a grist mill. In 1788 Simon Elliot bought part of the site and put in a snuff mill.  In 1824 a cotton mill was added, which was later converted to a silk mill. The dam is often called the Silk Mill Dam because of this long running use of the dam.

Horseshoe Dam
Horseshoe Dam

Next on the river was the Circular Dam or Horseshoe Dam. Again, the dam was not marked and was harder to hear because it was right next to the overpass for Route 9. This is also the site of a portage under Route 9 on the Ellis Street underpass, down to Turtle Island. A millrace was put in place here in 1782 for a sawmill. 1792 Newton Iron Works took over and rolled iron bars for 50 years. The millrace is to the right of the dam and is the landing spot for the portage. I certainly looked strange carrying a bright yellow kayak across a busy intersection. (You in the Volvo.  Thanks for yakking on your cell phone and not noticing the guy with a yellow kayak his shoulder.) As expected, this portage was the most dangerous part of the day.

Road Signs on 128
Road Signs on 128

The Charles then follows Route 128/ Interstate 95 for a few miles. Even the road signs on Route 128 are visible from the river. The right bank of the river in this section follows Quinobequin Road in Newton. I was surprised that Route 128 was not more intrusive. Of course you could hear the traffic. But visually you only see an occasional car and those road signs. There are plans to put sound barrier in this area. They will reduce the road noise, but I think they will be much more visually intrusive,

After passing under Route 128, I passed under the Cochituate Aqueduct crossing the river and under 128 on a three-arched bridge. The Cochituate Aqueduct was built in 1848 to carry water from Lake Cochituate in Framingham to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. It serves a similar purpose to the Sudbury Aqueduct that runs through Echo Bridge.

Cordingly Dam
Cordingly Dam

Just below Water Street in Wellesly is the Cordingly Dam. An experienced paddler would tell you that given the level of the Charles, the water under the dam is very shallow and rock-strewn, making it likely that you could get your kayak stuck on a rock and get swamped. I am not an experienced kayaker.  I got stuck on a rock, the river poured over the side of the kayak into the cockpit and swamped it. This left me flapping in the river like one of the herring in the dam’s fish ladder. Since the river was shallow here I was able to walk with the kayak over to the river bank and empty most of the water out. All of this was a source of great amusement to the people sitting along the river enjoying their lunches. I was nearly at the end of this stretch of the river and it was a warm sunny day so I quickly warmed up.

Newton Lower Falls
Newton Lower Falls

I ended this stretch of the river at Washington Street / Route 16 in Wellesley at the top of Newton Lower Falls. I dried myself off, changed into my biking gear to pedal back to the truck and bring it back for my water-logged gear.

You can the rest of my paddling trips laid out on a map: Paddling Trips.

5 thoughts on “Paddling in Hemlock Gorge”

  1. Nice to hear about your adventure Doug. I like the pictures a lot.

    I’m a little surprised you didn’t mention Charles River Canoe and Kayak as I think you passed their shop (by Rt. 30). Victorian-looking place with lots of kayaks.

  2. David -

    Thanks for reading.

    Actually, CRCK is downstream from Newton Lower Falls in the Lakes Region of the Charles, running from the dam at Newton Lower Falls to the Moody Street Dam in Waltham.

    I have rented boats from them several times in the past and they are walking distance from my house.