Wood-Pawcatuck Rivers Watershed
Rhode Island, Connecticut
The Wood and Pawcatuck Rivers System lies in southeastern Connecticut and the southwestern region of Rhode Island. The source of the Pawcatuck River is in the town of South Kingston, Rhode Island, and its terminus is in the towns of Westerly, Rhode Island, and Stonington, Connecticut, where it drains to the Little Narragansett Bay (Long Island Sound). The watershed area is approximately 300-square miles, encompassing many high-quality tributaries within seven major drainage areas, including the Queen-Usquepaugh, Beaver, Wood, Chipuxet, Shunock, Green Fall-Ashway, and Pawcatuck Rivers. It is one of the few remaining relatively pristine natural areas along the northeast corridor between New York and Boston.
The Pawcatuck River and its associated tributaries run through a rural, wooded landscape amongst a series of towns that grew up on the banks of the watercourses, historically as mill villages. Vestiges of the textile and fabric dyeing industry can still be found on the banks of the rivers. The watershed is the most rural, least developed in Rhode Island, with approximately 87 percent of the land undeveloped or in agriculture and approximately 75 percent forested. The estuary of the Pawcatuck River winds its way through the more highly developed communities of Pawcatuck, Connecticut, and Westerly, Rhode Island. Development pressure is high in this region as is typical in the states along the Atlantic coastline.
These rivers are especially important because they are close to major population centers in southern New England and provide large expanses of open space and recreation.
March 12, 2019. Much of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed was designated, including:
- The Ashaway River from its confluence with the Green Fall River to its confluence with the Pawcatuck River in Hopkinton, Rhode Island.
- The Beaver River from its headwaters in Exeter and West Greenwich, Rhode Island, to its confluence with the Pawcatuck River in Richmond, Rhode Island.
- The Chipuxet River from the Kingstown Road Bridge, South Kingstown, Rhode Island, to its outlet in Worden Pond.
- The Green River from its headwaters in Voluntown, Connecticut, to its confluence with the Ashaway River in Hopkinton, Rhode Island.
- The Pawcatuck River from the Worden Pond outlet in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, to the mouth of the river between Pawcatuck Point in Stonington, Connecticut, and Rhodes Point in Westerly, Rhode Island.
- The Queen River from its headwaters in Exeter and West Greenwich, Rhode Island, to the Kingstown Road Bridge in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.
- The Shunock River from its headwaters in North Stonington, Connecticut, to its confluence with the Pawcatuck River.
- The Usquepaugh River from the Kingstown Road Bridge to its confluence with the Pawcatuck River in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.
- The Wood River from its headwaters in Sterling and Voluntown, Connecticut, and Exeter and West Greenwich, Rhode Island, to the confluence with the Pawcatuck River in Charlestown, Hopkinton, and Richmond, Rhode Island.
The abundant wildlife and fish in the region attracted Native American tribes to the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed, such as the Narragansetts and Pequots. Prior to the arrival of European colonists, there were about 7,000 Native Americans living in southern Rhode Island. Many current names in the watershed are Native American in origin.
The colonization of southern Rhode Island began with the arrival of Roger Williams in Wickford in 1637. By the mid 18th century these large plantations extended across southern Rhode Island and resulted in an aristocratic plantation culture. Rhode Island was an important part of commerce within the entire Atlantic community. Shipbuilding began in 1681 in Westerly and continued for 200 years.
At the end of the 18th century, political power shifted to the more mercantilist cities, such as Newport, Bristol, and Providence. The many rivers and streams in the watershed were dammed and used to power over 30 mills. Buildings, dams, and other remnants of these historical sites are present on every river in the watershed. The Wood, Pawcatuck, Beaver, Shunock, and Green Fall-Ashaway Rivers contain many fine examples of early to late industrial mill buildings and structures. There are many other dams and historic mill artifacts throughout the watershed on tributaries to all seven rivers.
The Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed is one of the least developed watershed ecosystems in the New York to Boston corridor. Due to the lack of development and large forested tracts, the watershed remains one of the darkest areas in the region. The watershed also contains considerable aquatic habitat suitable to the maintenance of diadromous fish and other native fishes. It has been the site of several ongoing fish passage restoration programs.
The key geological feature of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed is the formation of the basin. About 20,000 years ago, retreating glaciers left a recessional moraine, now known as the Charlestown Moraine. This 150-foot-high land mass effectively blocked the southerly flow of historic rivers. Instead, the rivers collected into the Pawcatuck River which flowed west, and even north at times, before forming an outlet into Little Narragansett Bay between present-day Westerly, Rhode Island, and Stonington, Connecticut. In addition, the moraine created extensive wetlands to the north, including the Great Swamp, Cedar Swamp, and Chapman Swamp.
Aquatic resources in the watershed are highly prized for recreational activities, particularly paddling, fishing, and birding. Thirty-four miles of the Pawcatuck River and twenty-four miles of the Wood River present exceptionally scenic canoeing and kayaking. The Wood River and its tributaries are nationally known as outstanding trout fishing streams. The lower Pawcatuck provides safe harbor for several marinas, with access to Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. The thousands of acres owned by state and non-government agencies and local land trusts along the rivers offer hundreds of miles of trails for hiking, biking, and birding. State management areas supply ample hunting and fishing for local residents.
The Pawcatuck River’s scenic beauty is encountered along the entire water byway. The river flows through a rural wooded landscape. This watershed region is one of the few remaining pristine areas between New York and Boston. The water is clean and clear with many transparent views of the riverbed. Alluring marshes and swamps are viewed along the river course. Seasonal changes bring a variety of auditory and visual attractions to the river, along with captivating sunrises and sunsets for the river tourist. A mature canopy of trees line the river’s forested banks.