LAKE SHIRLEY HISTORY
Shirley Reservoir was created in 1852 when a consortium of mill owners, acting under the name of the Shirley Reservoir Company, constructed a dam on Catacunemaug Brook. This dam washed out in 1856. It took out the bridge on Catacunemaug Road, the railroad bridge on the main line of the Fitchburg Railway, the twin bridges at Center Road and Main Street, ant the bridge on Shaker Road. It also destroyed a sawmill, some other buildings and a number of mill-pond dams.
The principal owner of the Shirley Reservoir Company was the Phoenix Company, which had about 50% of the investment. The Fredonia mills had about 25% and four other mill owners had the remaining 25%.
A replacement dam was completed in 1857. This dam was supported by a cofferdam in 1987 and existed until 1996. By 1880 it would seem that the four smallest owners had given up their interest to the Phoenix Company, which held 75% interest, while Fredonia maintained its 25%. Both companies were owned by C.W. and J.E. Smith. The Phoenix and Fredonia mills closed in 1884. In 1886 the dam and its’ water rights were taken over by the Sampson Cordage Works.
Note that the dam was built to create a reservoir that would supply replenishment water for the various mill ponds downstream. The water from the reservoir did not turn any machinery until after it had been stored in a local mill pond in the Town of Shirley.
It was not the intention of the mill owners to create a lake for recreational purposes. The dam was not designed to hold the water level as some particular height. During its use as a reservoir for the mills, the water level frequently varied from 3 feet to 14 feet and back over a relatively short period of time. In general the water level was much lower than it is today.
The growth of summer camps (and some year-round housed) along the shore started around 1940. The LSIC was formed in 1951 and acquired from Samson Cordage Works first the right to regulate the water level, then the actual ownership of the dam itself. The LSIC has always been under some pressure from people living on the lake to maintain a relatively high level for two reasons: first, because the level of the lake influences the level of the ground water around the lake, too low a lake level causes wells to run dry. And second, to create a deeper lake for recreational boating.
This pressure to maintain a high water level may have stressed the dam. The LSIC has, from its very beginnings, been faced with maintenance and repair problems.
In 1951, when the LSIC took over, dam operation and inspections were the responsibility of the County Commissioners. The LSIC had to deal with the County Commissioners of both Worcester and Middlesex counties.
As far back as 1960 the LSIC recognized the need for a spillway to assist in maintaining the lake at a more constant level. The splashboards and gate did not give enough control. However, the Country Commissioners could offer no assistance, and the LSIC couldn’t afford to do the work.
In 1967 the state itself assumed jurisdiction over privately- owned dams, taking them out of the hands of the Country Commissioners. The LSIC started getting involved with DEQE around 1978 or 1980.
In 1982 the LSIC had to drain the lake to make repairs at the dam. This action caused some homeowners wells to run dry. Around January 1984 the DEQE issued directives regarding the water level. These directives required a higher level than was safe, according to an engineering company hired by the LSIC. However, the LSIC did make every attempt to conform.
But in 1985 the DEM also became concerned with Lake Shirley dam. They classified it as a High Hazard, Unsafe, and recommended a level lower than that prescribed by DEQE. The LSIC was forced to adhere to the DEQE levels.
In April 1987 occurred the 100-year flood. The dam was severely damaged. When the flooding subsided, the lake ran out through a hole under the dam.
In order to qualify for state aid in making both emergency and permanent repairs to the dam, the LSIC campaigned throughout the summer of 1987 for support to have the Town of Lunenburg take possession. The Town took possession following a special town meeting in August 1987.
Late in the summer of 1987 the state erected a coffer dam in front of the old dam, bringing the lake up to a level that maintained the ground water level for homeowners and allowed some degree of recreational boating. Efforts are now underway to replace or modify the dam in such ways as to provide better safety and a spillway that will help to maintain more nearly constant water levels.