Day Tripping to Franklin Falls Dam

By Thomas P. Caldwell

In the cool of the morning, shortly after the sun comes up, a short trip with the dogs to Periwinkle Field can provide a positive start to the day.

Arriving that early, ahead of the other groups that will come to the Profile Falls recreation area in Bristol, we can let the dogs off their leashes so they are free to run ahead of us and dash off into the underbrush in pursuit of an animal that left its scent during a nocturnal journey or upon awakening to a new day.

Once we reach the field, the dogs will bound through the grass and scrub vegetation while we humans make a loop — or two, or four — around the quarter-mile circle that cars and trucks follow to reach the canoe and kayak launching site, or the picnic tables placed alongside the river.

Periwinkle Field is a fairly recent addition to the Franklin Falls Reservoir, a section of the Pemigewasset River Valley that came under the control of the federal government following the flood of 1936 and the hurricane of 1938.

Because the Pemigewasset joins the Winnipesaukee River in Franklin to form the Merrimack, a river that continues through New Hampshire into Massachusetts, the downriver towns and cities that were flooded looked to the US government to do something that would protect them. Part of the solution was the Franklin Flood Control Project. The government bought up homes along the river, and even had the village of Hill pack up and move to higher ground in order to create a containment area for the water that the US Army Corps of Engineers would hold back with a dam it would build about three miles upstream from the confluence of the two rivers.

Related projects were the Blackwater Dam in Webster and dams at Hopkinton and Everett lakes which, along with Franklin, help to control flooding in the residential and industrial centers downstream along the Merrimack, including Manchester and Nashua in New Hampshire and Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill MA.

Work on the dam got underway in November 1939 and it was completed in October 1943. An earth-fill dam covered with stones to protect the slopes, the dam is 1,740 feet long and 140 feet high, with two gated horseshoe-shaped conduits and a chute spillway of rock and concrete. The cost at the time was $7.9 million.

The dam creates a 440-acre pool that is about seven feet deep, but is capable of holding back 50.2 billion gallons of water on 2,800 acres, extending 12.5 miles upstream — through Sanbornton, Hill, and New Hampton, to Ayers Island dam in Bristol. With the associated lands the government purchased, the project encompasses 3,683 acres.

That land, when not flooded, provides an assortment of recreational uses, ranging from walking to bicycling, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, hunting, and sled dog racing.

Those interested in the dam itself can take a tour or volunteer for some of the educational programs conducted by Franklin Falls Dam. They include trail walks, water safety demonstrations, Junior Ranger programs, and internships for students from local school districts.

Access to the dam is from Route 127 in Franklin.

The NH Department of Resources and Economic Development’s Division of Forests and Lands works in cooperation with the US Army Corps of Engineers to manage the land, planting trees and other vegetation to serve as habitats for birds and other animals, placing picnic tables and outhouses to serve people, and creating water access.

In addition to the launch site at Periwinkle Field, there are sites at Shaw Cove Recreation Area in Sanbornton and Coolidge Woods Road in New Hampton. Small motor boats also can launch from Shaw Cove.

For those interested in picnicking, there are tables at Profile Falls, Periwinkle Field, Overlook, and at the dam, with grills at the dam and at Profile Falls.

There are several trails close to the dam, some for hiking and some for biking. Hiking trails range from the short, 1.8-mile Piney Point Nature Trail, with interpretive signs, to the Heritage Trail, which runs the length of the property. Those bringing dogs, as we like to do, will find convenient plastic bag dispensers on the dam side, for picking up after the animals, and bins for disposal.

The New England Mountain Bike Association developed a 10-mile trail system for bicyclists, much of it suitable for mixed skill levels. The faster trails are Moose Gully, Pine Snake, Bee, Lost Wall, Rusty Bucket, and Stump. Sniper offers undulating terrain that still offers fast riding.

Salmon Brook Trail offers more of a challenge, with steeper pitches, tight switchbacks, bridges, and rock gardens; and Mighty Chicken is a natural half-pipe that has the trail going up and down the ravine walls, with a series of drops and berms.

Any of these activities will make a great day trip, and the dam entrance is particularly popular because of the number of activities offered.

While we have hiked many of trails in the flood control area, we had never hiked one of the earliest, the Piney Point Nature Trail, which is on the downstream side of the dam. So, on a hot Monday afternoon, we decided to make a day trip and see what the other side of the dam looks like.

Because the day was so hot, and because we weren’t sure what the trail was like, we decided to leave the dogs at home for this hike. It turns out, they would have had a wonderful time, for the trail runs along a peninsula, with plenty of places where they could have entered the water to cool off.

With so many other popular trails, Piney Point does not see the traffic it once had. The trail is slightly overgrown, and we encountered two downed trees — one of them a huge pine — that blocked the trail. Surprisingly, while the trail appeared little-used, with an ancient picnic table covered in pine needles alongside it, there were fresh signs of mountain bike use. How the bikes got there, on a section between the two downed trees, we could not figure out, unless they had landed a boat on the point and had bikes with them.

Nevertheless, it was a delightful walk among pines, paper birch, and hemlock trees, with still water at the side of the trail. In one spot, a group of kayakers passed downstream, taking advantage of the cooling breezes that blew down the valley.

After finishing that loop, we walked along the paved road across the top of the dam, looking down at where we’d been and getting a closer look at the huge concrete gatehouse on the north side of the dam. At the end is a beautiful gazebo, perfect for a picnic lunch and relaxation before turning around and walking back to the parking lot.

We did not recall seeing a playground on the property in the past, and it looked quite new, although it was not in use on that Monday afternoon. Most of the trails are on the other side of that playground, and perhaps people do not usually come by with their children. Those we saw walking along the paved road were adults, out for some healthy exercise.

We also like to enter the flood control area from Hill Village or an entrance off Route 3-A in Franklin, and walk along the road through the Old Town, where stone foundations and patches of pavement indicate where the old village of Hill used to sit before it was moved — including its cemetery. At the Franklin end is the stonework for the gates that once led to the Golden Rule Farm, known as New England’s “Boys’ Town” where boys from many walks of life worked together for “an experience in good living.” After it was removed to make way for the dam, the Golden Rule Farm continued to operate elsewhere until 1958 when it merged with the Daniel Webster Home for Children as a new non-profit organization, the Spaulding Youth Center of Northfield.

For the hunters, Old Hill Village provides a great place to go after deer and game birds. The NH Fish and Game Department stocks upland game birds and administers a fur-bearer trapping season, as well as maintaining waterfowl nesting boxes in the flood control area.

Franklin Falls Dam and its impoundment area offer multiple choices, and the Army Corps of Engineers welcomes other suggestions, as well as making provisions for special events, from Scouting activities to fishing derbies to fire department training. It’s definitely worth a visit, making it one our favorite day tripping destinations.

15 August 2016

The gatehouse at the Franklin Falls Dam allows the free flow of the Pemigewasset River until the water table requires intervention to prevent flooding downstream.

The road to the Franklin Falls Dam ends in a cul-de-sac with a gazebo overlooking the Pemigewasset River.

Kayakers enjoy a day out on the Pemigewasset River, downstream of the Franklin Falls Dam.

The Piney Point Nature Trail runs along a peninsula on the downstream side of Franklin Falls Dam.

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