Crib Dam

Ipswich Mills: the water level lowered by the draw-down

I think we’ve found a buried treasure here in Ipswich.

The Ipswich River Watershed Association is exploring the feasibility of removing a dam that once powered the 19th-century textile mills at the Upper Falls. This involved a draw-down of the water upstream of the dam.

And that’s where I got excited: the draw-down gradually revealed a line of rocks across the river that I am convinced are the remains of a dam constructed in 1637, only three years after the town was founded. In that year, Richard Saltonstall was granted the right to build and operate the first gristmill in town. And, of course, he needed a dam to power it.

The remains of the first crib dam?

The first non-residential building in Ipswich was the Meeting House: the grist mill was the second. The Puritans had their priorities straight: feed the soul first, then the body. And next, give that body shelter: yes, the third non-residential building was a saw mill.


Saltonstall most probably built his dam across the Ipswich river at the Upper Falls, a stretch of rocky rapids that was an ancient Native American crossing point. The dam that he would have built was a crib dam, a wooden framework constructed in the river itself and gradually filled with rocks and soil. The remains today consist of just a few rocks – but they cross the river in a straight line – put there by men, not by nature.

Left: Crib dam built by the Atlantic Mining Co. in 1894  Right: Restoration of a crib dam on the St. Regis River, NY

These pictures of crib dams show the construction much better than I could explain it. The big advantages of crib dams were that you could build them while the river kept flowing naturally and that you needed nothing more powerful than a couple of oxen and local timber and stones.

Crib dams were built until into the 20th-century, but I’ve not found any record of an existing one from the 17th century. There’s a chance that we’re looking at the oldest remains of a crib dam in the country, and of the very first dam in the Massachusetts Bay Colony – isn’t that cool!

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