THE GREAT SHAD WAR AT BURNHAM'S ROCK
For inquiries contact Libby Klekowski
"No river in New England afforded a greater number of fish than
the Connecticut; and no place on the river presented a more
favorable station for taking them, than the falls between the
present towns of Gill and Montague. Upwards of five thousand
shad have been taken in a day, by dipping nets at Burnham's Rock at that place. This rock was situated at the pitch of the
cataract, and none but the most skillful waterman attempted to
navigate a light canoe or batteau to it; and even to these the
task was considered extremely dangerous. It was only approached
from above by a delicate use of the paddle, and an eye that could
measure a mite, and resolve compound forces at a glance. A
deviation of a few degrees in steering was certain to plunge the
adventurer down the rugged cataract, in which case drowning must
ensue." (Hoyt, p. 127)
This spot evidently had a double attraction: fish and danger!
Burnham's rock was an irregular area over 100 feet long and was
situated on the brink of the cataract. F. M. Thompson (1904),
states that, according to tradition, there had been two instances
in which people had gone over the cataract in canoes and lived to
tell the tale. One survivor was a Native American and the other
survivor figures in the following tale.
"A Mr. Burnham, supposed by my [Mr. Thompson's] informant to
belong to the Montague side...had, with a company of eleven,
taken possession of this rock, making yearly use of it, to the
envy and vexation of a community which considered itself as
having equal claims on the location. On one year, a Captain Mack
(Elisha Mack, the builder of the first Turners Fall's dam), an
ingenious, persevering man, proposed to eleven other men to join
him in an attempt to gain possession of the fishing-rock.
Burnham's men had used a large canoe scooped out of an immense
tree which, being attached to the rock, held the twelve men, as
they dipped their nets in the current. Secretly as possible,
Capt. Mack's company felled a giant tree in the forest on the
river bank above the falls, intending to dig themselves a canoe
which would be a counterpart of Burnham's, and firmly believing
that 'turn about was fair play' hoped to launch it and take
possession before their neighbors thought of beginning their
But one of the enemy's company discovered the half made canoe,
and taking the hint, made known the same to the party.
Consequently the public soon became informed through the public
papers, that Burnham's party had obtained a legal claim on the
rock, from the Great and General Court.
'We wont be outwitted so,' said Capt. Mack; 'they have paid their
three hundred dollars, let them enjoy it. Do as I tell you, and
we will have equal chance with them.' The eleven having full
confidence in the genius of their leader, assented without
hesitation, though how they were to have equal chance with
Burnham's Company baffled even their Yankee sharpness to guess.
I give you this story as it comes to me, from a family connection
of one of Captain Mack's company.
Under their leader's direction they felled large trees, and
floating them down the river, drew them upon the island opposite
the rock of contention. These logs they hewed on two sides, and
when finished the first two were thirty feet long, ten feet were
placed on land and twenty feet projected out over the river, the
shores ends being secured by heavy stones. These timbers were
partly covered with plank to support the next timbers. Then two
timbers forty-five feet long were prepared in the same manner,
thirty feet projecting over the water, and fastened to the lower
logs. Then followed a tier of logs sixty feet long, and a tier
ninety feet long, the shore end being loaded by stone to
counterbalance the added weight. The top was now covered with a
floor and steps reaching nearly to the water attached to the
projecting timbers. Then they launched their canoe, and to
convey it to the exact spot from which they wished to throw their
nets, they attached a large stout rope to a tree standing upon
the upper end of the island, and fastened the lower end to their
bridge near the steps. Around this stout rope they looped a
smaller one which was attached to the boat. It was expected that
the rushing current would swing the boat into the exact position
which they coveted. When all was ready some sort of ballast was
needed; instead of putting in stones, Captain Mack in the moment
asked if some of the men wouldn't like to jump in. Two men
volunteered, one of whom was the ferry man of the place.
The canoe immediately swept down the swift current, when to the
consternation of the occupants, and all of the beholders, the
rope of the boat gave way. One man caught at the large rope
which was attached to the bridge, and was rescued. The canoe
with the ferryman in it went over the falls. Though once the
boat, in the whirl of the waters, neared the island, there was
not time for him to leap out before it was dashed onward and
downward, toward the whirlpool below. The man had no oar or
paddle, but with keen eye and senses all alert, he looked about
for means of escape. He had perfect knowledge of his
surroundings, and long experience in the management of a log
canoe, and, just at the right moment, a small piece of board was
swept by the waters within his reach, which he providentially
caught and with it guided his canoe away from the whirlpools to a
place of safety. The company were not discouraged and had no
thought of giving up. Oxen were brought and the canoe was drawn
up to the ferry and launched again, this time with perfect
success. The rope was made firm, the canoe was ballasted with
stone and swept beautifully to the desired point and stopped
there. The next day the men entered from the steps with their
nets. Burnham's men fished from their canoe and the rocks, and
each party had equal opportunity in the same channel. The haul
of fish that day was five thousand from Burnham's Rock, and six
thousand from the boat at Mack's bridge.
If the story is authentic, and I have no doubt of the building of
the bridge, it would seem that the first application of the
principles of the cantilever bridge are to be credited to Captain
Elisha Mack, the builder of the first dam at Turners Falls."
(F. M. Thompson. 1904. History of Greenfield, Vol. 1,
Make what you will of this "fish story," but it is part of the
historical record. Today Burnham's Rock lies beneath the
surface of the Connecticut and the present day
Turner's Falls dam
extends across the entire river. The shad mount the falls via a
fish ladder now, and although the numbers are increasing, they do
not approach the enormous masses of fish present in the past.
The dates of the shad run in the Connecticut River are from the end of April to mid-June. It is interesting to note that the Indian massacre at Turners Falls occurred May 18, 1676 when the various tribes were gathered at the river to catch fish. The highest concentrations of fish are often found below water falls in the morning.
Hoyt, E. 1824. A History of the Indian Wars. Greenfield, MA.
Thompson, F. M. 1904. History of Greenfield. Vol. 1.
Stoughton, R. M. 1978. History of the Town of Gill.
Published by the Town as a Bicentennial Project.