Sand And Silt In The Saugatuck River: The Sequel

A recent “06880” post on the Saugatuck River sand and silt buildup drew many comments. Longtime Westporter Dick Fincher reached deep in his memory bank, and added these thoughts:

The river channel, from the bay to the Post Road bridge, was last dredged by the Corps of Engineers in 1969. That is a firm date, because we had just moved here. We were living in a rented house at 165 Riverside Avenue, right on the river.

In theory the Corps is supposed to keep the channel dredged on a regular basis. But in fact it has not, since the river is not considered an essential waterway for commerce and/or extensive pleasure boat traffic.

I believe the Saugatuck dredging had 2 forks, about 300 yards south of the Post Road bridge. One went straight up the channel. The other bore over to the quay more or less in front of the library, then alongside it to the bridge.

This no doubt was because in the old, old days the commercial channel actually went right up to the backs of the buildings on the east side of Parker Harding, before it became a parking lot.

Until the mid-1950s, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the back of Main Street stores. Construction of the Parker Harding parking lot changed the river's currents substantially.

Until the mid-1950s, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the back of Main Street stores. Construction of the Parker Harding parking lot changed the river’s currents substantially.

Despite not being dredged, for many years — probably into the early 1990s or thereabouts – the lower portion had a good channel (almost to the Bridge Street bridge) because Gault got regular barge deliveries to their dock. Barges with 8-foot draft scraped the channel clean every time they came in or went out.

I would venture that the shallowness your contributor saw in the upper river (unless he just happened to see it at extremely low tide) is exacerbated by the fact that the lower river is also silting. There are spots even in the lower channel that at low tide are barely passable in the middle of the channel, right by Stony Point.

I know the folks at Earthplace take regular readings on the river’s health. Perhaps they can shed some light on this.

Dick’s insights reminded me of a romanticized version of the Saugatuck River’s traffic. A number of years ago, when commercial brokers were trying to market the gruesome glass building on Gorham Island, they ran a big ad in the real estate section of the Sunday New York Times. It featured a drawing of the building — and right next to it, way upriver of the Post Road bridge, was an enormous schooner. As if.

(Photo/Scott Smith)

The Saugatuck River at low tide. (Photo/Scott Smith)

14 responses to “Sand And Silt In The Saugatuck River: The Sequel

  1. Rindy Higgins

    Here is what we displayed at the Westport Historical Society’s 2012 exhibit The Sound and the Saugatuck that I curated:

    Dredging the River
    The Saugatuck River once was deeper and navigable further inland than other local rivers. Keeping the channel open was crucial to commercial activity. In the 19th century, part of the lower Saugatuck was rerouted for manufacturing, and in the 20th century, the upper Saugatuck was dammed to create the Saugatuck Reservoir, among other changes, diminishing water flow and volume to the Sound. Finding money to dredge became more challenging, especially as other rivers along the Connecticut coastline assumed greater commercial importance.
    1827-1836 Small obstructions in the Saugatuck River are removed.
    1886-1896 Considerable debate over deepening and widening the Great Marsh (Saugatuck Shores) canal or dredging the natural channel up the river. Growing manufacturing businesses petition for river channel improvement as vital to commerce. Extensive cost analysis of the benefits of the canal versus the channel ensues. Ships begin to favor Norwalk due to risk of wrecking on rock obstructions as well as time lost waiting for high tides to navigate the shallow Saugatuck. Coal shippers from New York testify that they could lower rates for Westport deliveries if the channel were deepened to allow for boats up to 500 tons.
    The canal solution is seen as short-lived due to silting and vulnerability to storms. Commercial statistics for 1894 report total harbor commerce of 59,700 tons: 70% by steamboats and 30% by sailing boats, with a draft of 6-8 feet.
    1896 Completion of a channel and breakwater at Cedar Point and removal of ledges and boulders.
    1913-1928 Several surveys for river improvements generated but projects abandoned.
    1946-49 Discussions about channel improvements and a turning basin, both for commercial and recreational use.
    • Coal deliveries terminated in 1930 due to high cost of delivery in partially loaded barges.
    • Annual commercial activity 1936-1945 reported as 4,371 tons for receipts of sand, gravel, stone.
    • 1946 total commerce is 4,549 tons: 3,229 of sand, gravel, stone and 1,320 of fuel oil which had to be delivered by tankers with just 50% load due to the shallow depths.
    • In 1946, the harbor is home port for 300 recreational craft plus a growing number of satellite boatyard services for these and transiting recreational boats, supporting arguments for river improvements. There are also several small fishing vessels.
    • By 1949, most coal and lumber is delivered by truck or rail. Commercial fishermen claim that lack of depth has discouraged development of the fishing industry in Westport. They argue that channel improvement would bring benefits since much time is lost waiting for favorable tides. Annual fish and shellfish receipts are valued at about $48,000. A modified plan of river improvements up to the Bridge Street bridge is approved and performed.
    1988: Another dredge feasibility study done but abandoned due to lack of funding.

    Army Corp of Engineers, “Preliminary Examination of the Saugatuck River,”1891
    Department of the Army, “Report of the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors,” 1949
    Steve Edwards, Director of Public Works, Town of Westport

  2. This is probably Westport’s most under utilized natural resource. We still have the duck races….possibly inspired by ducking under the post road bridge.

  3. Joan Constantikes

    Dan, this is just an amusing little aside. In April 1956 I first met my husband-to-be, young Westport attorney George Constantikes, in the offices of the Westport Town Crier, where I was doing my 3-month non-resident work term from Bennington College. He had come in to announce he was opening his own office in Colonial Green and we were introduced by the society editor, Vera Olson. I had just broken up with my first love, Bruce Agnew of Weston, the day before.Several days later George asked me if I wanted to go to the movies and I accepted. When we got to the box office, he turned to me and asked: How would you like to go to a town meeting instead. Lying through my teeth, I smiled and said, of course. So we sat through three hours of the most boring conversation I had ever sat through, in which the army engineers and the town fathers were discussing the DREDGING OF THE SAUTATUCK RIVER. The meeting finally ended, George and I went to the movies two nights later, got married two years later, had four kids and were together forty nine years before he died in 2007. Several months later I phoned my old beau, Bruce Agnew, found out he was single–divorced –and interested, We got together, hit it off as if nothing had changed, and got married in Westport at the Methodist Church in Oct. of 20ll. And now you bring the whole memory back with your piece on the Saugatuck River. I say let’s—have a meeting and discuss the whole thing again. All best, Joan Constantikes (use this tidbit or not ==as you like.—————————————–

  4. Having read all the previous comments I would add that all of our waterways are having the same problem as the river. Constant construction of commercial and residential properties throughout Westport have created silting issues that go far beyond the natural Fall foliage leaf droppings and have affected many other streams and ponds in our town. The Conservation Department needs to take a hard look at how past, present and future construction effects waterways in a far more holistic manner. Conservation’s problem is that each construction project is reviewed individually with little or no consideration of the more ‘global’ effect of projects in combination. Much like the traffic study software used by the Downtown Steering Committee to estimate traffic flow, Conservation could use a similar application to better understand the effects of silting as water travels through Westports interconnected highway of streams, ponds and lakes. The DSC is reviewing flooding issues which one would assume includes the silting in the Saugatuck but only in relation to a limited geography. To properly address the silting problem I would suggest that Mr. Marpe may want to appoint a special committee to specifically review and make recommendations for all of Westport before the town reverts to being a swampland.

  5. 06880 crowd-sourcing of local wisdom and wonder at its finest. Cool! Still curious whether the Saugatuck was dredged in ’69, as stated above, yet no mention in Rindy’s WHS chronology. Guess it’s all water under the bridge at this point…

    • Dick Fincher

      Scott, Don’t know where you were in 1969, but you obviously were not in Westport. I was here, and I saw the work being done. You seem to be questioning either my veracity or my memory. Why don’t you check with the Corps or with Steve Edwards office if you need another source for the information.

  6. Dan Lasley (Laz)

    Not mentioned in the Westport Historical Society list is the hurricane of 1935 or 1938(?) which closed the Saugatuck Shores canal. As recounted to me, the canal was used most often by shallow-draft barges carrying vegetables, especially onions.

    Regarding dredging, what future use of the river do you desire? Do you want fishing and oyster boats to offload near the Black Duck? Or do you just want to eliminate the “ugly” mud flats at low tide? It’s not clear to me what the “problem” is, and I sailed these waters for 20 years (though no longer).

    • Good question, Dan. To what end? My original query was about safety and security. Again, I’m not a hydrology expert, but it seems if there’s ever more gravel and silt filling in the river bottom, there’s ever less room for water to flow over it. And though my cell pic of the river above the Post Road bridge was taken at low tide, to show the stream bed, you should see how close the water comes to the bridge at a normal high tide. You’d think a major flood could overflow it. With that bridge and two more downstream, boating and barging prospects are long gone. But the subject of expanding recreational opportunities on this stretch of the Saugatuck appeals to me as a kayaker, paddleboarder and angler. I bet the members of the thriving Saugatuck Rowing Club would agree, as would possibly the restaurants and other venues along the way. For sure we’ve ignored if not turned our backs on the Saugatuck for a long time… (Last, as a member of various town committees over the years, I couldn’t disagree more with the following comment. The volunteer work and input of involved Westporters is part of what makes this town special. The process is sometimes messy, but that’s what democracy is all about.)

      • Laz - Dan Lasley

        Scott – I am not an expert either, but I know that there are two types of floods. The first is due to rainwater inland causing rivers to rise. I doubt that the Saugatuck has ever flooded south of the spillway (just north of Rt 57) due to rainfall. The silting would have to be a lot higher than it is today to reduce the flood capacity of the river basin. Also, heavy river flow at low tide tends to erode the mud flats upriver, and deposits that mud on the flats in front of Longshore.
        The second is saltwater flooding due to storms and/or lunar extremes. Silting has very little impact on these. The “ocean” will get as high as it goes based on the winds and tides, largely independent of the depth of any river or bay. I believe that floods of Parker Harding have been salt water due to storms.
        An inch of rain can cause a river to rise 1 foot, but the ocean will only rise an inch. River floods can last for days; a salt water flood can only last for 6 hours, though it might come back. A heavy rainstorm won’t cause a flood at high tide at the Post Road, and a full-moon flood can happen on a sunny day.
        Does anyone know if the flooding along Richmondville Ave was due to rainfall or storm tides? This is above the lowest spillway, but could be low enough for storm tides.
        Last, check Google Maps to see the channel that goes up to the Library.

  7. Jeff, please NOT another committee. We are laden with committees enough as it is. The mess at Compo, the future uncertainties downtown, both done by committee. I still believe in the adage, a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Maybe Marpe should put together a committee to look into whether other committees should be implemented, and then have a final review committee. Also, I believe a committee is just a scapegoat for a politician who, if something goes, wrong, can say well, I had a committee look into it.

  8. Quite a gap in documents between 1949 to 1988.
    A place like Westport should have an archivist.

  9. Public Works responded to my inquiry the other day:

    According to our Town files the last “major” dredging of the Saugatuck was in 1948. The last “maintenance” dredging was in 1969-70. There is a long history with regard to trying to get the river dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) over the last ten years which did not ultimately go anywhere. To let everyone know this is a priority project for First Selectman Jim Marpe. We have been in direct contact with the Corps and have formally written to them stating that we want to re-open our dormant dredging file and application and reinitiate the process to get the river dredged. In the next two week the Boston based engineering team from the COE at our invitation will be coming here to discuss our dredging project with the First Selectman, Steve Edwards and myself. This will be the first step in what is a long review and application process to get the river dredged but one which this administration is committed to follow-thru on and expedite as quickly as possible.

    As we move forward with the project we will be looking for citizens who will be interested in getting involved.

    If you have any questions please feel free to give me a call at 203 341-1194.


    Dewey Loselle
    Operations Director
    Selectman’s Office
    Town of Westport

  10. Here’s more river dredging info and an update from Ed O’Donnell,
    Chief, Navigation Section,USCAE, New England District,696 Virginia Road
    Concord, MA 01742; phone=978-318-8375 :
    Our records show the last time we dredged the Saugatuck River was in 1970 when we dredged close to 26,000 cy of material. We are planning to dredge the project again and Jack Karalius from my office is the project manager for the work if you need additional info. A recent survey of the project can be found on our web site at – .