Westerly's hidden waterways

Westerly's hidden waterways

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WESTERLY – Landscape architect Rebecca Nolan has a fondness for the term “crazy plant lady.” Nolan, a Pawcatuck resident who studied ecology at Cornell after graduating from Fitch High School, also has a passion for nature and the outdoors … a passion that flowed right into her current interest: water.

On Monday night, Nolan, a recent graduate of the Advanced Studies Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, will give a talk about the hidden waterways of Westerly at the Westerly library. It’s an exploration, she said, of the canal that was built nearly 200 years ago to facilitate transportation in town.

Titled “Uncovering Westerly’s Hidden Waterways: an excavation of the Stillmanville Canal,” the talk is the final one in the library’s “Treasure Talk Series,” a series coordinated to accompany the library’s year-long 125th anniversary celebration.

“This whole area is so interesting,” said Nolan, who wrote her master’s thesis – a two year project –  on the canal that was built between Stillmanville and Downtown Westerly to “facilitate transportation and source power between the two manufacturing villages.”

“It’s kind of a hometown thesis,” said Nolan with a laugh. “It’s something they actually advise you not to do … but it’s so interesting.”

Nolan who received her undergraduate degree in Landscape Architecture from Cornell in 2007, has spent the past 10 years working in Colorado, New York and throughout New England on a number of different planning, design and construction projects.

A Mystic native, Nolan said the abundance of open land and hiking trails is one of the many benefits of living in this region of New England.

“I grew up spending time outdoors,” said Nolan who enjoys hiking – especially in Bulingame, where she has spent many an hour.

It was during the historic local floods of of 2010, she said, that she became really interested in all things water in Westerly.

“There was a ton of flooding,” she said, “and I took a personal interest … I wanted to know where it [the water] was  all coming from.”

Nolan said during the talk she plans to take a look back to the 1600s and to the early settlers of the region who bargained with the Narragansett Indians for land and water. She’ll also talk about the “historic and cultural reasons we bury waterways,” the stream that once flowed through Wilcox Park (spoiler alert: it’s still there but is now confined to a pipe.)

Nolan, who praises the “amazing staff” at the library for helping her with the project, said she has done quite a but of research on “the once lively waterway that took one-third of the water from the Pawcatuck River just north of Grey Sail Brewing and diverted it to the mills along Main Street.”

“The Special Collections department is amazing too,” said Nolan, who also spent time with the local watershed associations.

These days Canal Street “is one of the only reminders of the once lively waterway that took one-third of the water from the Pawcatuck River just north of Grey Sail Brewing and diverted it to the mills along Main Street.” However, she said, “the Canal Street name is misleading.”

“As we will discover, the waterway took a much different route through Westerly’s north-end neighborhood before it returned to the river just south of the Broad Street Bridge,” she said.

Nolan said her talk will explore “the history of construction and manufacturing along the river and identify the location of the former waterway in modern day Westerly. It will also highlight the land-use implications of redevelopment along industrial corridors and how buried waterways may contribute to flooding events and other environmental and design challenges.”

“It should be fun,” said the landscape architect. “I hope people will come.”

The talk will take place Monday 6 p.m. in the library auditorium. There is no admission. Visit westerlylibrary.org/event


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