Cause of the Spicket Floods

When the Spicket overflowed its banks during March it was a serious problem for families and businesses affected, but it was not a surprise. It was the third major flood since 1987, punctuating a long series of less dramatic flooding events. The strategy currently being implemented is to remove a number of structures from near the banks of the river in order to permit it to flood without damage to property. By doing this, the City is actually allowing the Spicket to spread over its original channel. That’s right. In 1880, the Spicket was a “sluggish” river, slowly meandering through the Arlington District and the Plains without ever flooding. It was regarded as a “nuisance” because it was the outlet for household garbage and sewerage. Today’s complaints about trash, tires and pollutants can’t compare with the outcries over the filth, smell and fear of disease prevalent during the 1870s.

The solution devised by the undaunted local engineers was to install a major sewer line for the northern part of the City, roughly parallel with the overall direction of the Spicket, and finally emptying into that river near the point where it meets the Merrimack. But this wasn’t all. Confident of the purifying qualities of fast moving water, the engineers devised a plan to straighten the Spicket. And they did it. The contours of the river look very little today like they did 120 years ago, as the map below illustrates. In fact, the ever-resourceful designers calculated that there would be a net increase of eight acres of land available for housing and other development. Central Catholic wouldn’t be where it is today had the project not been developed.

What they failed to plan adequately for was the need to increase the depth of the new channel to allow for the same volume of water in a shorter length, especially during the Spring. We can readily see how often the water of the Spicket rises to within inches of the bottoms of the bridges these same engineers constructed over the new channel. In addition to the visible problems, there is some evidence of less obvious damage caused by the project.

In 1880, the river flowed under a bridge on East Haverhill Street between the intersections of Newbury and Avon. The new channel pushed the Spicket closer to the Avon Street intersection. Within two decades, a new St. Laurence OToole church was built on the triangular lot that was now further from the bank of the Spicket. It was argued that the Church was closed and demolished in 1976 because of structural damage – perhaps because of underground encroachment of the river. The connection has not been firmly established, and many former parishioners remain unconvinced of incurable defects, but water does seek its own path, and it is certainly possible that the Spicket contributed to the loss of a beloved parish.

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Founded in 1978 as the Immigrant City Archives, the mission of the Lawrence History Center is to collect, preserve, share, and interpret the history and heritage of Lawrence and its people.