Hiking RI’s Big River Management Area, site of the flood that never was

  • Access: From Route 95, take Route 3 to Congdon Mill Road and drive 1.3 miles to a turnout just after a cement bridge.
  • Parking: Spaces are available for several cars at the trailhead.
  • Dogs: Allowed, but must be leashed.
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate.

WEST GREENWICH — The Big River Reservoir, a project planned to flood 3,470 acres of woods, roads, streams, structures and cemeteries under 27 billion gallons of water, never happened.

Opposition from environmentalists, local residents and others killed it 30 years ago.

But the footprint of the project remains as the Big River Management Area — an 8,600-acre expanse of trails, paths, foundations, dams, mill sites, fields, stone walls, graveyards and other vestiges of a lost civilization.

I hiked there recently and tried to imagine everything I saw under 60 feet of water. It’s a bit mind-boggling … and a little eerie.

Water flows over the dam from Capwell Mill Pond, once the site of a sawmill and shingle mill, in the Big River Management Area in West Greenwich.

The vast state management area, which is open to the public, includes a confusing maze of unmarked trails, paths and roads cut by early settlers, hikers, bikers, runners, hunters and dog walkers. My friend Craig and I picked an easy-to-follow loop trail that took us by some historic sites and gave us a good look at the land that was to be the bottom of the reservoir.

We set out from a small turnout at the intersection of Congdon Mill Road and the Congdon River, which runs north and joins the Nooseneck River to form the Big River, which flows all the way to Johnson’s Pond in Coventry.

Signs along Route 3 in West Greenwich mark the edges of the Big River Watershed, once the planned site for a new reservoir that would have flooded 3,470 acres with 27 billion gallons of water.

At the start, just south of a cement bridge over the river, is a bit of history — the remains of a stone-lined sluiceway that directed water to a grist mill in 1778 and later a sawmill in 1806, both named for their owner, Joseph Congdon.

We walked north on Sweet Sawmill Road, a wide, flat, stone-wall lined path with openings leading to large fields. Some of the fields were years ago part of farms with houses and barns that are now long gone.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management supervises the property, owned by the Rhode Island Water Resources Board, and mows the fields in late winter on a rotating basis to limit shrub growth and maintain a grassland habitat that is stocked with pheasants.

A huge wet meadow was once Sweet Pond before the water drained out after the failure of a stone dam at an old mill site.

The road winds under pine and oak trees and includes a series of whoop-dee-doos — round, earthen mounds built into the path that mountain bikers use for jumps or as speed bumps to slow their speed.

The mystery of the missing pond

After about a mile, the trail opens on the left to a wet, grassy meadow that the map identifies as Sweet Pond. But there’s no pond. To figure out what happened, we turned left on a narrow path called Blue Drum Trail. We walked west and turned down a side spur called Jim’s Dam Bridge Trail that led down a short slope to a mill foundation.

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