Hockomock Wonder Wetland

 

 

The Hockomock by Henry Moore

 

Why do we value a swamp that cannot be drained, filled, flooded or even "used" or "improved" in the modern sense of those overworked words? Stop reading here if you know the answer. Keep going if you donít.

Hockomock Swamp is a 10-square-mile living example of why the best "use" or "improvement" of most wetlands in this or any other state is often to simply leave it alone. Twenty-five thousand years ago the Hockomock was buried under glacial ice. Twelve thousand years ago it was a lake.

Today it is a self-perpetuating 7 1/2 billion-gallon water storage and flood control project that didnít cost a dime to build or operate Ė and never will if it is preserved. It is also a treasure house of bird, animal, fish, reptile, insect, plant and forest life that didnít cost a penny to assemble and house Ė and never will if it is preserved.

Possibly most important, it is a 6000-acre oasis of peace and quiet in a world gone mad with speed, noise and strife. It can always remain that way if it isnít destroyed in the name of "progress".

In the following pages experts in their field explain in more detail. But even these experts are the first to admit they have only scratched the surface of itís value and content. They are eager to obtain every scrap of information they can on every phase of the use, history and complex ecology of the area. Read what they have to say and add any help you can.

 

Hockomock: Today By Kathleen Anderson

 

The Hockomock Swamp is a vast wet and wooded area of about 6000 acres in southeastern Massachusetts. Few roads cross it and, as yet, few man-made developments have encroached upon it. On a road map it can be identified as roughly that area lying between Routes 123 and 28, crossed north to south by Routes 138 and 24, and east to west in the northern quarter by the new power line, 300 feet wide, erected by Montaup electric Company. It lies within the boundaries of Easton, Raynham, Taunton, West Bridgewater, Bridgewater and Norton. It is the largest swamp in Massachusetts and quite probably the largest in the northeastern states.

The land of the Hockomock Swamp area is largely wooded. In places there are areas of cat-tail marsh, meandering streams, small ponds of open water, and occasional wooded knolls or ridges. But in great part it is a soggy, trackless woodland of dense growth of white cedar and red maple. It is largely in private ownership and in many cases neither owners nor towns have any precise notion of exactly where property lines lie. Hunters, trappers and blueberry pickers occasionally intrude upon the solitude of the swamp. In places there has been a little wood cutting, but in large part it is as close to primeval wilderness as still remains in this long-settled part of the United States.

Occasional plans to drain it, flood it and "develop it" have been proposed. Thus far it has been more "talk" than action and the "filling" and building is only just beginning to nibble away at our wilderness. We still have the opportunity to preserve it as it has been for thousands of years. But pressures upon it are growing. The opportunity will not remain indefinitely.

What good is the Hockomock? This booklet will attempt to show you some of the diversity and wildness that exists in the center of southeastern Massachusetts.

 

History of the Hockomock by Ted Williams

When the white man extricated himself from the ecology of early Europe to take up a semi-independent agricultural existence, certain fears and superstitions arose regarding the animal world that he walked away from. The once familiar became the mysterious and the dread of the unknown haunted him.

The shadow of his phobia followed him to North America and places like the Hockomock Swamp were promptly placed on his black list. Wolves and later wild dogs sought shelter in the "Hockís" haunted depths. On still nights the evil glitter of fox fire or the demonic cackle of a barred owl sent chills up the spines of the early settlers. Hordes of crows rose each morning from the guts of the swamp to ravage farmers corn. And, from time to time, young girls merrily picking blueberries along the fringes, found themselves drawn farther and farther along unfamiliar paths seduced by the increasing size of the berries until at last they were lost and claimed by the swamp forever.

But the above terrors seemed bland when it became known that the Hock harbored wild Indians. In 1675, Massasoitís son, Metacomet, known as "King Phillip," used the swamp as a fortress from which he launched attacks on the nearby settlements. The ensuing conflict - King Philipís War lasted a year and a half and resulted in the deaths of 600 settlers and the destruction of 13 towns.

Perhaps our ancestral fear of the Hockomock underlies our compulsion to break its wild spirit and exchange its mystery for the surrounding dullness of suburbia. As early as 1724, Benjamin Drake of Easton was paid five shillings for killing bobcat on the edge of the swamp. Wolves were quickly persecuted out of existence and every effort was made to change the "worthless swamp" into "valuable" farmland. William L. Chaffin summed up local attitudes in his History of the Town of Easton, (Cambridge, 1886). "These swampy lands", he wrote, "have very little value... They need only a thorough draining."

But for the Indians, a people who still existed as a function of the land fitting neatly into a balanced ecosystem, the Hockomock held a very different significance. During the Ceramic (Woodland) Period (from about A.D. 300 to Colonial times) the Indians, who depended on the swamp as an abundant source of game, came to worship it. Hockomock translated means "Place Where Spirits Dwell"; not only the evil spirits that struck terror into paleface hearts, but the good spirits that led the Indian to moose and deer. If they camped once a year on what is now the junction of Pleasant and Maple Streets in West Bridgewater, then called "Mollie Grounds" after a legendary Indian Princess, the good spirits of the swamp would stay with them for the rest of the year.

For centuries the Indians fished in amazingly productive Lake Nippenicket - originally "Nuncketest" or "Lake of the Red waters "- red from rich bog iron deposits from which the first colonial anchors were forged.

Seven Thousands years ago when the ice cap still loomed over Hudsonís Bay, aborigines camped by the Lake of the Red Waters and fished for trout.

According to William Fowler, Curator of the Bronson Museum in North Attleboro, North America was probably not covered with forests at this time. Small stone hearths no more than 15 inches in diameter have been unearthed by Fowler and his associates on a sand spit about a quarter mile from Lake Nippenicket. The fact that they were large enough to burn only sticks and grass has led archaeologists to believe that a tundra condition prevailed at that time. Other artifacts associated with this early archaic period have also been discovered in the swamp, among them a "plummet" or a stone sinker for fishing, an "ulu" or stone knife, and an "expanded base drill." Fowler himself found a "bifurcated point"- a barbed arrowhead that was probably used as a harpoon for seals or walrus, species that would be present at sea only if the general climate of the area were cold enough for tundra conditions on land.

During this time caribou roamed what is now the Hockomock and provided a staple for these nomadic tribesman. When the glacier retreated and forests pushed up from the south, the aborigines followed tundra species north to Hudsonís Bay where their direct descendants, the "Caribou Indians," still exist.

On December 13, 1970, Harvey C Ellis of Bridgewater, an amateur archaeologist who has poked around the Hock for a half a century, received a call from a trapper friend.

"I think Iíve got a dugout canoe," said the voice on the other end of the line. Ellis rushed to meet his friend. They slogged out to the middle of the swamp and there, partially exposed, was the blunt end of a dugout canoe.

On the morning of December 14, Ellis hacked his way through ten feet of peat and hauled out two other canoes. One was in such good shape that a young boy who had accompanied him succeeded in paddling it out of the swamp. The ends of all three canoes were surprisingly blunt.

Fowler has not yet studied the Ellis find but says the canoes could be over 500 years old. He points out that in 1586, John White on an expedition to Sir Walter Raleighís first Virginia Colony, drew pictures of Indians fishing from blunt-end dugout canoes.

In addition to his interest in archaeology, Ellis has spent a lifetime outdoors - mostly in the Hockomock - trapping, hunting and fishing. He knows the swamp perhaps better than anyone alive.

Ellis, who spent his childhood on a large farm bordering the Hockomock, reminisces about the old days with a tinge of remorse.

"The expressway went right through our gunning stand and they drained our pickerel pond and tore down our camp." But Ellis admits heís not to unhappy. "Most of the swampís still the way itís always been," he says. "Last time I trapped was in Ď68 and I took 100 muskrats. I still hunt and fish the Nip pretty heavy and nothingís really changed. Funny thing is, though, most people donít know the Hockís there. They ask me how come I donít go North and I donít say to much. Shucks, why go North when Iíve got it all right here?"

     

Geology & Ecology by Kathleen Anderson

 

The geologic history of the earth is hard to grasp since we think in terms of decades and centuries. But to fully appreciate what the Hockomock swamp represents, we must visualize this area as it was 25,000 years ago..."only yesterday" in the history of the earth. At that time southeastern Massachusetts was blanketed by glacial ice sheets.

During the next 12,000 years the glaciers began to melt leaving a great shallow lake between the ice to the north and higher land to the south. This vast basin, which covered all of the area we now call the Hockomock, and more, has been named the Leverett sea by geologists. As the ice continued its retreat, land which had been depressed by the tremendous weight of the glaciers rebounded or uplifted. The Hubbard uplift eliminated much of the Leverett Sea and created new drainage patterns. Streams and rivers began to cut across the glacial depositions of sands and clays of the south Bridgewater Plain (which had been a portion of the floor of the Leverett Sea) to what we now know as the north branch of the Taunton River, or Town River. The Town River flows west and then, as a part of the Taunton River, south toward Narragansett Bay.

During the late glacial period our landscape was an area of wide tundra, open fields of dwarfed plants that could survive the bitterly cold winds which swept down from the ice fields to the near north, with few intrusions of tiaga creeping up from the south (spruce and birch forests). As the plants crept north following the retreating ice shield, so did the mammals. Prehistoric Indians hunted caribou across the South Bridgewater Plain and walrus along the coasts.

The glaciers continued their retreat and the climate slowly warmed. The truly arctic plants and animals unsuited to the new conditions retreated northward to where we now find them, on the highest peaks of New England mountains and in subartic regions of Canada.

As the glaciers retreated and the land uplifted, the remains of the Leverett Sea began to fill with alluvium deposits washed into low spots by streams cutting through glacial deposits of gravel, clay and sand. All lakes are dying lakes from their very beginning. Through the centuries vegetation from dying plants drifted to the bottom of the lake to form peat. Borings taken by engineers to determine the best routes for proposed roadways have disclosed that in places the loose, non-compacted peat reaches depths of 20 to 40 feet, totally unsuitable as the base for any road or solid structure. The old bed of the Leverett Sea gradually became the soggy, swampy woodland we know as the Hockomock Swamp. One shallow pond, reduced to 368 acres, and now called Lake Nippenicket, is the largest area of open water still remaining of Leverett Sea.

The value of the Hockomock as a water storage area is incalculable. In Massachusetts generally, one-half the rainfall percolates into the ground and one-half runs off. In the relatively flat wetland that is the Hockomock the run-off is far less than one-half the rainfall, for the swamp acts as a huge sponge, or blotter, holding moisture through the dry periods when surrounding uplands become parched.

The water held in the Hockomock comes in large part from rain water and is poor in minerals. Local bedrock is largely granite and contributes no minerals to ground water flowing through it. Bog plants are starved for lime, phosphorus and nitrogen. Only plants that need few nutrients (such as the shrubs and perennials of the arctic,) can survive in a true bog. Consequently, true bogs (and to a lesser extent all our wooded swamps) are enclaves of subartic plants.

Wet places are cool places. Heavily-shaded white cedar swamps retain ice deep down in sphagnum moss late into spring and early summer after a cold winter. Slow evaporation of moisture through the summer helps to maintain temperatures lower than the surrounding uplands. This coolness and the relatively sterile water and soil make the Hockomock a refuge where some subartic plants and animals linger on thousands of years after most of southern New England became to warm for them. Among these species are Canoe Birch, Black spruce, Labrador Tea, Northern Water-Thrush, Red Breasted Nuthatch and the Boreal Red-back Vole.

However, a few tropical influences can also be detected in the Hockomock Swamp. Amid the plants of the muskeg are others reminiscent of the South. Sogginess and nitrogen deficiency are common to rain forests as well as to northern bogs. Some of the hardier orchids are found in the Hockomock (Ladyís-slippers and Colopogon) and insectivorous plants such as the Sun Dews and Pitcher Plants which solve nitrogen deficiencies by trapping insects. Holly, Smilax (green briar) and Swamp Oak are other southern plants. The Blue-winged and Hooded Warblers which have occasionally been seen in the Hockomock are examples of southern species as are the gray fox and the opossum.

 

Hockomock Water Storage Paul T. Anderson

 

The Hockomock Swamp contains approximately 6,000 acres including the water surface of Lake Nippenicket. Six thousand acres is just 400 acres short of ten square miles. Since one inch of rainfall on a square mile equals 17.3 million gallons of water, the Hock receives approximately 170 million gallons for every inch of rain. Rainfall in this part of Massachusetts averages approximately 44 inches (usually between 38 inches and 50 inches per year). In an average year 7,480,000,000, or about 71/2 Billion gallons of water fall on this area. What happens to it?

The Hockomock acts as a huge reservoir which allows the water to build up in the swamp around the vegetation and then flow slowly out the Town River, which eventually flows into the Matfield and then becomes the Taunton River. If this tremendous area were not available for storage of accumulated runoff, the amount of water discharged would cause scouring and flooding conditions in all of the towns adjacent to the flood plains of the Town, Matfield and Taunton Rivers. Not only would West Bridgewater, Bridgewater, Middleboro, Raynham and Taunton be subject to sudden flooding, but towns as far away as Dighton, Berkely, Freetown, Somerset and Fall River would be endangered. Recent flooding along the Neponset River has proven the potential losses to private and commercial property when heavy rains find no natural storage areas and must race toward the sea along river channels inadequate to carry the load.

In addition, the storage of water in this area allows the groung water table to be maintained at a relatively high level. Raynhamís present water system, which consists of shallow wells in both water districts, is maintained by the present high water table.

Obviously no attempt should be made to change this area. If it were permanently flooded as a water storage area, there would be a significant runoff problem. If it were filled, the runoff problem would precipitate an emergency with every heavy rain. The underlying material is considerably organic, not suitable for housing or industrial development, nor for most forms of agriculture. It is vital to the environmental quality and ecology of this area that the Hockomock Swamp remain in its present natural condition.

 

Preservation of Hockomock

On March 23, 1649, Captain Myles Standish, Samuel Nash and Constant Southworth bought the Hockomock from Massasoit, King Philip's father. Negotiations took place at Sachem Rock, East Bridgewater, and the agreed price was seven coats, nine hatchets, eight hoes, 20 knives, four moose skins, and ten yards of cotton.

In our 322 years of tenure, the Hock has withstood efforts to destroy it. Corners have been nibbled away and its face has been scarred with roads and power lines, but miraculously most of the swamp still exists in its natural state, resisting mindless "progress" by its inaccessibility.

However, draining and filling techniques are constantly being perfected and with the pressure on the land mounting to the danger mark, the Hock's days are numbered unless Massachusetts citizens decide to preserve it.

existing wetland legislation lacks the muscle needed for a quick and solid stance against environmental exploitation. If we rely on present regulations it will take years to place even a fraction of the Hockomock under the umbrella of the law. During that time the remainder of the swamp will have been drained and filled and Massachusetts will be a poorer place.

The future of the Hockomock depends upon YOU. a favorable public attitude is the only effective defense of any wetland or open space. If those who really care about the Hockomock convince others of its value the first step toward its safety in the future has been accomplished.

 

The preceding is from a booklet published 30 odd years ago about the Hockomock Swamp. At the time of its publication the Hockomock did not have the protection that it now enjoys. It was threatened by many different development schemes. Today the Hock is fairly well protected, designated by the state as an area of Critical Environmental Concern. This protection is due impart to this booklet and to a small group of people who saw value in a wetland which at the time was considered a wasteland by most.

We have shamelessly copied the booklet here on our website. The only contact we could make about using it was with Ted Williams. Ted wrote the history chapter of the booklet. He was pleased that we wanted to use his writing on our website and was surprised that copies of the booklet were still around after thirty years. We were unable to contact the others who contributed, but we used their writing anyway. Its just to good and to important to be out of circulation. This booklet came into my hands only because my dad was part of the small group that recognized the value of the Hock thirty years ago. Although I was quite young thirty years ago, I can still recall seeing bumper stickers around the Town of Easton where I grew up. They said "Don't Knock The Hock."

While some of the info in regards to the protection status of the Hock is dated, this booklet is still the best single source of information on the Hockomock Swamp. And be sure that there are many smaller wetlands and streams in southeastern Massachusetts and through out New England that still need our concern and protection. Furthermore the last segment of this booklet "Preservation of Hockomock" stands as true today as it did thirty years ago. Enjoy and Participate.

 

 

 

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