Town seeks to build new, safer trail at Cornell Pond

Feb 10, 2024

The town is in the early stages of building a new trail at Cornell Pond. Any actual construction is a ways away: The town is now securing a grant through MassTrails to hire an engineering firm to look into the feasibility of building the trail at Cornell Pond, which would be safer and more scenic.

The proposed trail would include educational kiosks and wooden bridges over spillways, and would extend into surrounding forests, allowing people to hike to the Howland Reserve from the Cornell Pond parking lot. 

Cornell Pond, located in a wetland downstream of the Copicut Reservoir, is a popular destination in Dartmouth for fishing, boating and viewing wildlife. The pond is enclosed within an earthen dam embankment and equipped with four spillways built to control the pond’s water levels and mitigate flooding.

Currently, there’s an unofficial trail that crosses over one of these spillways just to the left of the Cornell Pond parking lot on Old Fall River Road. There are no guard rails for crossing over the spillway, as some people do, which poses a hazard whenever water is flowing over it. The Town posted a sign to discourage people from crossing the spillway. 

“We want to make sure that people are exploring the space safely,” said Assistant Town Administrator Chris Vitale.

Cornell Pond has been the subject of a decades long cleanup effort connected to an EPA Superfund Site, Re-Solve. Every few years, the EPA hosts a fishing derby at Cornell Pond to test the fish for specific chemicals. 

For the trail, the Town submitted an application to MassTrails for a $96,000 grant that would go toward hiring an engineering firm to determine what this new and improved trail should look like. The design and permitting for the project will cost $120,000. If the grant is approved, the Town will cover the remaining $24,000, Vitale said. 

The application to MassTrails is pending approval, but Vitale said that they expect a response within a couple months. 

The trail’s exact design won’t be clear until after an engineering firm has looked over the site. But the trail may include the construction of wooden bridges, boardwalks and railings to allow people to pass over the spillways and dam safely. 

The new trail would connect the Cornell Pond parking lot to an existing trail network located on the 25-acre pine and oak forest of Howland Reserve, a property of the Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust. At this time, there’s no parking lot for people who want to go hiking in the Howland Reserve. Instead, they must park along the west side of North Hixville Road and cross the street to the trailhead.

In a letter of support for the project, Gloria Bancroft, a member of the Cornell Pond Advisory Committee, said this new trail would allow hikers to explore the pond’s western edge where they could experience “new hidden vistas, wildlife viewing areas, and fishing spots.”

Bancroft said the new trail would include educational kiosks and signage that would offer an updated trail map and showcase Cornell Pond’s history, flora and wildlife. 

Over the years, the Advisory Committee has enhanced Cornell Pond through clearing brush, removing trash, adding launch sites for boats and installing a bridge over a shallow canal. 

If the project moves forward beyond the design phase, the Town would seek additional funding for constructing the trail through either state grants, MassTrails or putting it before a vote at Town Meeting. 

The safety of the Cornell Pond dam has come into question in the past. In 2015, a Town Meeting allocated $50,000 to study the dam after the Office of Dam Safety deemed the Cornell Pond Dam to be a “significant hazard,” meaning that its failure could result in major loss of life and property destruction if it were to fail.

However, the Office of Dam Safety downgraded the dam to a “low risk” in 2019 after the Town of Dartmouth, with the assistance of an engineering consultant, provided evidence that the dam’s failure was unlikely to result in any significant property damage or loss of life. 

Despite this downgrade, the Town is continuing to put together a maintenance plan to ensure that people can visit the pond safely. These new improvements would go toward making Cornell Pond a safer and more enjoyable place, Bancroft explained. 

“We need to make sure the dam is safe,” Bancroft said. “Even though it’s low risk, nobody wants to see any neighbor, whether it’s one or two folks, deal with flooding.”