Double trouble: Volunteers clear Pratt Dam

Double trouble: Volunteers clear Pratt Dam

Dan Marsland, with a chainsaw, backs away quickly as the branch he just cut splashes into the Blackstone River as he partakes in the cleanup of Pratt Dam last Saturday, July 6. (Breeze photos by Robert Emerson)

CUMBERLAND – Last year’s heavy rains caused such high waters along the Blackstone River that volunteers were unable to get in the water at the Pratt Dam to remove the accumulated debris.

That delay meant another year of dead trees and other debris would accumulate at the dam, which carries the Blackstone River Bikeway across the river behind Stop & Shop on Mendon Road in Cumberland.

River advocates, who have been doing this labor of love for the past 18 years, staged an elaborate removal operation last Saturday, July 6, complete with safety ropes, chainsaws and a boat. Cyclists on the bike path stopped to take pictures of this impressive operation, a few dropping dollars into a collection bucket to help fund the ongoing efforts of the Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the Blackstone.

Suzanne Matta, secretary of the BRWC/FOB, told The Breeze that Hope Global, a company further up the river where flooding has been a recurring issue, contributed money to the cleaning of the dam.

“This will prevent upstream flooding of homes and businesses,” she said.

Two years of debris buildup meant a much more formidable job than ever before, said John Marsland, founder and president of the group and one of the “Valley Boys” who have cared for the Blackstone River like it’s their own backyard.

A project such as this takes immense resources, Matta said, including worker time, safety equipment, and chainsaws. In just a few minutes, three chainsaws had already broken down last Saturday.

Frank Matta, Suzanne’s husband and past president of the organization, was in the water last Saturday as logs were chopped up and thrown through the Pratt Dam, also known locally as “The Tubes.” The entire Blackstone River is forced through these five tubes, and the Friends of the Blackstone has been clearing these tubes once each year for nearly two decades.

Though less flooding is one benefit of the work, the initiative is mainly designed to promote river safety, said Matta. After two fatalities at this location involving novice paddlers in the past few years, the group installed buoys upstream and members maintain that added safety feature.

To guard against a potential tragedy during last Saturday’s cleanout, those working the chainsaws had someone behind them holding onto their safety belt just in case. Pieces of the blockage were pulled out carefully, each wood chunk removed from the edges of the pile as water began flowing again at each of the tubes.

Judy Hadley, a director with the BRWC/FOB and photographer at group events, said there is no entity or organization anywhere that commits the kind of volunteer resources this group does to maintaining public resources such as the river.

“Nobody would do this, nobody in their right mind,” she said. “These guys are amazing. The guts and nerve it must take to do that is beyond me.”

It took 10 to 12 men in the water nearly four hours to clear a wall of debris reaching 20 feet high, she said.

Visit for more on the BRWC/FOB and its work.

Volunteers begin the process of clearing debris from the Pratt Dam along the Blackstone River last Saturday morning, July 6. Two year’s worth of upstream debris, piled 10 feet high in spots, threatened to block the Pratt Dam along the Blackstone River in Cumberland until a squad of volunteers cut, pushed, pulled and dragged the obstructions away from the dam tubes.
An after photo of what the Pratt Dam looks like now after volunteers cleaned it.
Ray Pado throws a smaller log into the Blackstone River during the cleanup.