A Brief History of Cat Dam by Susan Playfair

Environmental Author Susan Playfair, a Cat Dam neighbor, researched the history of Cat Dam and sent it to the Cohasset Conservation Commission in February. Although it is not in this article, Susan said Cat Dam got its name because it’s where farmers used to drown their unwanted kittens. This explains a lot of things.

Susan’s article

It’s relevant to point out, with respect to Cat Dam history, that my husband (Richard O’Connell)  and I live in the 1870 barn originally built as part of what became known as the Sears estate.  Charlie Butnam, a Cohasset native who pitched hay as a boy in our barn and whose uncle, Arthur Woods, was the caretaker for the estate, did a lot of work for us in renovating the barn, and he relayed the history of the area to me.  Sadly, he died about nine years ago.  I have since done research at the Cohasset Historical Society and the town library, and have found that everything Charlie told me appears to be correct and factual.

To best understand the early history of Little Harbor and what has now become Inner Little Harbor, we need to start with Town history when it was still a part of Hingham.  A map of the area in 1670 ( as referred to on Historical Map drawn up by Gilbert S. Tower, held by the Conservation Commission) refers to the only connection from the land at the west side of what is today called Cat Dam to the land on what is the East Side as “stepping stones.”  The phrase is presumably a descriptive use of the words.  Early settlers observing that Little Harbor didn’t have potential to be a shipping harbor, “…cast their eyes on the 70 acres of rich marshland as haying pastures.”  [see “Old Stumps Mark Sluice Which Once Drained Harbor”, South Shore News, Mass, Thursday, May 19, 1960, p. 5].

In 1728, a petition to erect a means to “drain Little Harbor for pasture use” [Ibid} was voted down at the Hingham Town Meeting.  On October 29, 1739, thirty-six owners of a tract of land of salt marsh of 104 acres with adjoining flats, signed an indenture to drain the harbor.  They calling their group The Proprietors of the Meadows and Flats in the Little Harbor of Cohasset.

In 1765, five years before Cohasset separated from Hingham, the petition to build a dam finally passed, and a dam, called Cuba Dam (believed to have been named in honor of England’s capture of Havana from Spain in 1762), was built near where Cunningham Bridge is today.  “Thus protected, the area furnished hay for the cattle…when so much of the country was forest.” [ see Oliver H. Howe’s account as cited by Dormitzer in Savor of Salt, p. 57].

The problem of keeping salt water out had been dealt with.  The next problem was finding a means to allow the fresh water from Peck’s Meadow to drain out.  The 36 proprietors dug a sluice to Sandy Beach.  That filled in.  In the spring of 1804, they built a second sluice at a cost of $2,107.69.  At that time, a day’s wage for a laborer was approximately 33 1/3 cents/day; for a carpenter…$1.00/day.  “Every year the land yielded a steady income in grass for the owners.” [ South Shore News, May 19, 1960].

In “A Brief History of Little Harbor”, Robert Fraser writes that under the leadership of Elisha Doane in 1804, a hole was punched in the dam and fitted with a strong gate…”This gate closed and remained shut by the pressure of a rising tide…This [effort] was a complete success, and nearly 100 acres were opened for pasturage.  The company, [proprietors], divided the land into strips and rented them out to the nearby farmers.” [see Dormitzer, Savor of Salt, p. 62.]

Between April 15 – April 17, 1851, the Great Storm raged.  Minot’s Light was toppled, and the proprietors found their pasture flooded with salt water.  The dam that had been built to keep water out was now holding the water in and destroying their crop.  The town spent $500. to blast a hole in the dam and let the water out.  [“Old Stumps…”, South Shore News]. Oliver Howe corroborates this story:  “At that time, as I was informed by the late Philander Bates, Little Harbor became offensive and the dam and sluiceway were removed, leaving a clear channel to the sea as at present.” [Ibid. p. 57]

In 1882, the Town of Cohasset paid “about two thousand five hundred dollars, the five hundred being paid by several private citizens,” to build Nichols Road over the Stepping Stones, connecting a few summer houses near Sandy Beach with Jerusalem Road. [see E. Victor Bigelow, A Narrative History of the Town of Cohasset Massachusetts, p. 532.].  A note on the Tower map referred to above states: “October, 1881, the town voted a road over the Stepping Stones dam, and named it Nichols Road.”  [see Gilbert S. Tower, Local Historian, Historical Map, January 1963].

After Nichols Road was built, various summer homes with gentlemen farms began to be constructed around or near Little Harbor.  Benjamin Clark and George Sears were two of the men who are reported to have visited Warren Bates for the purpose of coot shooting, and decided to construct or buy their own summer homes in Cohasset.  The plan included employing local farmers to run the farms for them in the winters while they were at their city homes.  Produce was to be delivered to them, with the remainder to be sold at Faneuil market to offset the costs.  [see book titled Benjamin Preston Clark, written by his widow, September 19, 1863].

In 1888, George Sears purchased the property from the junction of Jerusalem Road and Nichols Road to the culvert at Peck’s Meadow.  The property included a caretaker’s house at 241, Jerusalem Road, our barn, a chicken coop and other farm structures constructed on the meadows.  Part of the foundation for the chicken coop can still be seen on our property.  The rest has been worn away by weather and brackish water.  The main house was the only structure on what is now surrounded by Little Harbor Road, which exits Jerusalem Road through the original gates to the estate.  The property, with or without the buildings, had originally been owned by Andrew C. Wheelwright, who sold it to Z.T.Hollingsworth in 1888.  Sears bought it from Hollingsworth.  [see Notes to Tower map, Massachusetts Historical Commission listing for 249 Jerusalem Road, and 1894 U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Map of the Town of Cohasset.]

Given the existence of a partial foundation for at least one building that was on ground that is now flooded, I have to assume that the dam that existed where the Cat Dam regulated gates now exist was holding water from flooding the meadows, not holding water in Inner Little Harbor.  Otherwise, the chicken coop and various other farm structures mentioned by Charlie Butnam would not have been built where they were built.

In 1946, Felice Low bought the Sears Estate and tore down the main house.

William Poland bought the property and subdivided it.  [see Historical Note, Tower Map].  Frederick Peterson, a real estate broker in town, and his wife bought the barn at what was then part of 241 Jerusalem from the Poland trusts.  [see Quitclaim Deed, dated July 8, 1955, Norfolk, book No. 3383, page No. 492.]  At some point during the period of subdivision, a decision was made to retain water in Inner Little Harbor.

A subtext to the above material appears in the “Report of the Committee on the Construction of a Dam and Gate at Little Harbor Cohasset” together with reports by Arthur T. Stafford, Consulting Engineer.  This is the Gilbert S. Tower report of 1903, recently referenced in material presented as part of the “Environmental-20” plan.  “Your committee have also gone very exhaustively into the conditions existing above Cat Dam in the so-called “Inner Basin.”  They feel that the only remedy would be to build an open culvert at what is now Cat Dam allowing the fresh salt water to run in and out there as it does at Cuba Dam [today’s location of Cunningham Bridge].”  It continues, “The objection to this plan would be that the flats would be exposed at low water, and in any high course tides, there would be danger of flooding the surrounding meadows, which might entail suits against the town for land damages.”  We can deduce from this material, that Cat Dam in 1903 was still keeping salt water out and away from the meadows and pastures in the area now called Inner Little Harbor.

When this material was submitted at the annual meeting, March 7, 1904, the town voted to defer the matter.  They printed the engineer’s report and all other pertinent material and mailed it to each voter.  The report of the committee was not printed in any Town Report, according to the writings of Gilbert S. Tower.  Mr. Tower was a college student at the time.  Fifty years later, he came across what may be the only surviving copy of the report, and made copies for several neighbors, with the caveat that, “The copying of this report should not be understood to indicate any desire to stir up the matter again.” [see 1903 Tower report and accompanying materials].

John Hubbard, one of Cohasset’s most respected conservationists, received a copy of the 1903 report, and chose to send a reply dated April 10, 1960.   Given the timing relative to the date of the Poland subdivision, we can assume that something similar to what today constitutes the Cat Dam gates was in place holding water inside Inner Little Harbor, and that the meadows and pasture no longer existed.

Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard lived on Beach Street, adjacent to Little Harbor.  The following is an excerpt from Mr. Hubbard’s letter:   “We love to watch the shore birds feeding on the flats and the excitement of these birds and the gulls when the tide turns bringing in fresh sea water from the ocean…There is a rather serious question in my mind as to whether a condition might be brought about in Little Harbor if the flow was restricted which exists in the lagoon behind Cat Dam [Inner Little Harbor].  During the hot summer months the smell and algae growth in this area [Inner Little Harbor] detracts a great deal from the beauty of the place”  [see handwritten letter to Gilbert S. Tower written by John Hubbard and attached to the 1903 report in the Paul Pratt Library, Cohasset, MA.] © Copyright 2011 Tanna K, All rights Reserved. Written For: Tinytown Unleashed


  1 comment for “A Brief History of Cat Dam by Susan Playfair

  1. January 8, 2012 at 4:07 am

    Its wonderful as your other blog posts : D, appreciate it for posting . “If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be–a christian.” by Mark Twain.

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