Flood Risk Management
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Birch Hill Dam from 1940-1942 to reduce flood damages on the Millers and Connecticut Rivers. Since then the dam has prevented more than $71 million in flood damages.
Birch Hill Dam is located on the Miller's River in South Royalston, Mass., and is part of a network of flood damage reduction projects (including sister dam Tully Lake) on tributaries of the Connecticut River. Completed at a cost of $4 million, Birch Hill Dam was one the first dams the Corps of Engineers built in New England to reduce damage caused by floods like those that devastated Athol and Orange in 1936 and 1938. Its storage capacity of 16.3 billion gallons of water could fill 439 Empire State Buildings.
The Reservoir Regulation Team (RRT), is the control center for the New England flood damage reduction dams. Using radio and satellite communications, RRT constantly monitors river levels and weather conditions that influence water regulation decisions. Click here to view current water levels at Birch Hill Dam.
Under RRT’s guidance Corps Park Rangers regulate the amount of water released downstream by raising or lowering the four 6' X 12' gates located in the dam’s gatehouse. To reduce downstream flooding, the gates are lowered to hold back water. When downstream river levels begin to recede the gates are raised to safely release the stored flood water.
The greatest flood since the dam was built occurred in April 1987 when two storms dropped over 6 inches of rain, raising the water level to 33.8 feet at the dam and utilizing 81% of the storage capacity. It is estimated that Birch Hill Dam prevented more than $9 million in damages to downstream property from this one storm.
Note: Park roads and facilities may be flooded whenever Birch Hill Dam stores water. Contact the Park Office for more information.
Besides flood risk management, another significant benefit of the dam is that the 4,384-acre reservoir area provides open space for public recreation. Since 1976, the Corps of Engineers has leased most of the reservoir area (4,221 acres) to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) for recreation and fish and wildlife purposes, including the popular Lake Dennison Campground and Day Use Area. Under the supervision of DCR, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife stocks fish and pheasants and promotes healthy wildlife populations within the reservoir area for public hunting and fishing.
There are many paddling opportunities on the Millers River, Otter River and Priest Brook. Electric motors are allowed on 82-acre Lake Dennison and 38-acre Beaver Pond. Please wear your life jacket!
The dam entrance road provides easy pedaling for riders of all abilities. For more adventure there are over 25 miles of dirt roads and trails in the reservoir area.
DCR provides tent and RV camping at both the Lake Dennison Campground and Otter River State Forest. Sites may be reserved at www.reserveamerica.com.
Fishing and Hunting
Between federal and state lands, the Birch Hill Dam area offers about 8,000 acres of public lands and waters. We encourage you to enjoy these public resources responsibly.
This family-friendly treasure-hunt has you following your GPS to find hidden geocaches all over the world. To learn more, visit http://www.geocaching.com.
The reservoir area provides over 25 miles of roads and trails for a refreshing walk in the woods.
DCR allows horseback riding on gated and ungated dirt roads throughout the reservoir area. For organized group events, contact DCR for special event permits. Horseback riding is NOT allowed along the dam’s entrance road.
Picnic tables are provided near the dam, at Beaver Pond, and Lake Dennison (DCR charges a fee during the summer).
During the winter, many miles of roads become groomed snowmobile trails. Please check with DCR and your local club for riding rules and responsibilities.
DCR provides a sandy swimming beach with lifeguards at Lake Dennison Day Use Area. Fee charged.
The following rules are the most commonly encountered. For the complete rules, read Title 36.
- Pets must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet and their waste picked up. (327.11)
- Park only in designated parking spaces. Obey posted parking restrictions. (327.2)
- No camping outside the Lake Dennison and Otter River campgrounds. (327.7)
- No fires except in designated fire rings or grills. (327.10)
- No cutting of trees or shrubs. (327.14)
- No littering or dumping. (327.9)
- No ATV’s. Only street-legal automobiles and motorcycles are allowed on our roads. No vehicles are allowed beyond closed gates or other barriers. (327.2)
Reservations and Fees
Birch Hill Dam Recreation Area
- No day use fees
- Special Use Permits start at $50.00
Lake Dennison Recreation Area
Interpretive programs are provided by Park Rangers upon request. Common topics are Flood Control, Water Cycle, Water Safety, and the History of the Corps of Engineers. Programs may be on-site or at your location. Please contact us for more information or to schedule a program.
At one time most of the forests in New England were cleared for farmland. Today the majority of forests are second growth, including those at Birch Hill. As you explore the reservoir, you can see evidence of the once open pastures, such as the fieldstone walls that crisscross the area and clusters of overgrown apple trees which mark where orchards once flourished.
Today these former pastures and orchards are forested with pine, oak, maple, hemlock, beech, and ash. Corps Park Rangers manage the forests and fields for a diversity of tree species and wildlife habitat in support of MassWildlife’s biodiversity goals.
On any given day you could see a moose standing in a marsh or a family of river otters playing in the water. Look to the sky and you may see a majestic osprey riding the thermals, a hunting red-tailed hawk, a great horned owl at rest in a tree, or a spindly great blue heron standing in the shallows. We encourage you to respectfully enjoy the plants and animals that make Birch Hill Dam their home by observing from a safe distance and not littering.
The Birch Hill Dam reservoir area is rich in history. As you explore the area, you may come upon sites that hint at that history. Sites like King Philip's Rock where it is reported that the Chief of the Narragansett Indians, Metacomet (known by the English as "King Philip"), held tribal councils and met with English settlers.
Perhaps you may discover an old foundation or well site. These are reminders of the once thriving farm and factory community present here in the 1930's. Residents may have worked on the Biron chicken farm, Jarvenpaa fox farm, Flematti, or Neale farms. Others worked at one of the area factories, such as the American Woolen Company. The remains of the mill dam that powered all of South Royalston can still be seen in the river near River Road.
Some residents worked at the Otter River State Forest Headquarters which was near the site of Birch Hill Dam. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Work Progress Administration (WPA) had camps located on Goodnow Road. You might find the concrete piers that once supported the camps'cabins. CCC and WPA crews were responsible for the building and maintenance of the roads and also planted most of the red pine forest you see at Birch Hill today.
People have long enjoyed recreation at Birch Hill. By the 1930s Lake Dennison's shores were dotted with summer cottages. Across from the modern day use beach once stood the Fagerstrom House. Children came from all over the Commonwealth to board here for summer camp. A large dance pavilion once stood where the East Camping Area is today. During the day visitors could rent a canoe and paddle the lake or take a steamboat cruise. Any night of the week listening to the sounds of the big bands cost a dime, an extra nickel to dance. When a famous big band came to town, admission was a quarter but the dancing was free.
Ice fishing was a popular activity on those winter days in the thirties. After a day on the frozen lake, cold anglers often stopped at the Stumble Inn, on what is now Old Route 202, for a warming cup of coffee. Those with bad luck on the lake could pick up dinner at Dolan's Fish Market, in the area now known as Dolan Flats.
A little Baptist church once stood on the corner of New Boston and Burgess Road. Its foundation can still be found with a little exploring.
Birch Hill Dam’s past is rich and colorful. Many areas still show signs of its busy and populated time. Find out more by asking your Park Rangers or the local libraries and historical societies. Please help preserve our history by leaving sites untouched for future visitors to see.