The name Fall River implies the existence of a river. I started to go looking for it this summer. 

Earlier this month, I met two employees from the city water department in a truck loading bay of the old factory occupied by Work Out World. We followed the sound of water to a rusted fence on top of a concrete wall.

Behind the wall, and a significant distance below, the Quequechan River emerges from a pipe built into the highway overpass that surrounds much of the property. The water rushes down a steep hill for about 100 feet, before disappearing under the factory building.

I asked Paul Ferland, the supervisor of the Water Department, where the rest of the river was.

“So primarily as it flows through the center of the city, it's underground in an eight foot diameter pipe,” he said.

His coworker, Mike Labossiere, added that not many people in Fall River know where this place is. 

“People would know Quequechan Street and probably wonder, what is Quequechan and what does that mean?” he said. “And, of course, Quequechan comes from a Wampanoag tongue meaning falling water, and that's the namesake of the city of Fall River.”

The next question I asked is, why is this city’s namesake buried in a pipe beneath the highway?

They told me if there’s anyone in Fall River who can really tell the story, it’s Al Lima.

Lima is 79 years old. Lebossier described him as “the venerable retired town planner.” He is also the author of a history book on Fall River and its relationship to water. 

He lives in a large Victorian House which is built, like most of Fall River, on a ledge above the Taunton River, a wide and brackish body of water feeding Narragansett Bay that dwarfs the Quequechan in size.

“Fall River’s called Fall River, but there's no falls in Fall River,” he said at the beginning of one interview. “We don’t see the falls."

Lima told me the steep hill I walked up was once the natural bed of the Quequechan — a half-mile stretch of wild river that fell through eight waterfalls. The 130-foot drop was unlike anything else in southern New England — bigger than any waterfall east of the Berkshires or south of the White Mountains.

Lima said the falling waters — what the indigenous people called Quequechan — were what attracted the first white settlers to the area. They translated the name to Fall River.

“Every city has its own zeitgeist, I guess,” Lima said. “You know — why things happen. But I think in this city, why things happened was because of the Quequechan River.”

Fall River took more than a name from the Quequechan. Lima said civic buildings were constructed with granite from the banks of the river. Industrialists covered the falls with their factories, sinking wheels into the rushing waters to spin cotton thread into yarn. 

“That's how the city really began really, is with the water power that created it,” Lima said.

By 1910, Fall River produced more textiles than any city in America, weaving two miles of cloth every minute — enough to stretch across the United States in just 25 hours. An article published by Scientific American said so much water ran through Fall River’s steam engines that the river’s temperature could reach 140 degrees in the summer.

But that meant as Fall River built more factories and grew into a city of more than 100,000 people, the Quequechan started to disappear. 

By the time Al Lima was born in 1941, there was only one waterfall left that wasn’t buried in the basement of a factory. Beautiful as it was, it was located behind a bus terminal. 

“I don't think people really knew it was there,” Lima said. “That's part of the problem we have is no one really remembers it.”

The last of those eight waterfalls disappeared in the 1960s, a casualty of America’s emerging interstate highway system.

Transportation planners in Boston set their sights on the Quequechan as the clearest path for the highway through the dense, granite heart of Fall River.

“When the Department of Transportation wanted to put the Quequechan in a culvert, no one raised any big issue about it,” said Lima, who worked in Fall River’s planning department at the time.

The falls had been hidden for a century, but Interstate 195 destroyed them forever. The granite steps the water toppled down were flattened to create an even surface for cars.

Lima said he never thought to go see the Quequechan before it was buried in a pipe. Another 30 years passed before he thought about it again.

In 1997, at the advice of an environmentalist friend, Lima walked into the same factory complex where I met the employees from the Water Department. 

Lima described seeing the Quequechan for the first time in his life — watching its water pour from one pipe into another in the industrial facsimile of a waterfall that it is today.

“When you see the falls of the river, and the power of the river, you realize my God, this is amazing,” he said. “I just thought it was amazing that we had this in the city and that someday we had to make it happen that somebody would see it and be in awe of it.”

Lima decided then that he was going to undo as much of the damage caused by the highway as he could. In 2003, after his retirement, he helped draft a plan for weaving the Quequechan back into Fall River’s landscape. 

Starting at the river’s source, a pond not far from Lima’s house, Lima sketched a bike path following an abandoned railroad. Politicians liked the idea. Today there’s a mile-and-a-half bike path named after Lima where you can follow the Quequechan before it disappears into a pipe downtown.

But the second half of Lima’s vision never got built. Posters Lima still keeps at his house show how he wants the spaghetti of highway ramps and pavement where I first saw the river to become a park, with grass and trees under the shadow of the highway instead of parking lots.


Uphill, on the other side of the overpass, Lima wants the one-story chamber of commerce torn down to make way for a concrete ramp, which would be the frame for a man-made waterfall.

“The rest would be taking it out of the culvert and letting the water roam free,” Lima said.

That part of the plan never got traction at City Hall, Lima said, in part because of a changing political climate in Fall River that made it more challenging to plan ambitious projects. There have been seven mayors in Fall River in the last 14 years, including one headed to prison this fall for corruption. 

But across the country, conversations are picking up about how to reconnect neighborhoods and natural environments that were separated by America’s highways. President Biden’s infrastructure plan — the one held up in Congress — promises $20 billion for these kinds of projects.

Still, the restoration of Fall River’s waterfalls seems unlikely to be one of them.

“I like the project, it's just the cost,” said Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan. “I mean, I can't justify, you know, having a viewing area for a waterfall when people's streets are covered with ruts.”

Coogan said he’d rather seek federal money for basic infrastructure needs, like repairing roads and public buildings.

So unless you want to trespass behind Work Out World, the only experience of the falls you’re likely to have anytime soon is an imaginary one. 

The Fabric Arts Festival has started hosting walking tours along the old river bed. Partway through the tour, the guide unrolls a sheet of aluminum foil under the highway overpass, reflecting shimmering light onto the concrete, similar to the way water would.

A few months earlier, the festival arranged for the artist Tracy Silva Barbosa to project a giant video of a waterfall onto City Hall on a platform above the highway.

“What was really fun was watching the Fall River people — like you know, real Fall River dudes — getting out of their car and being like, ‘Wow, oh my god. Did you know there was a waterfall here?’” said Silva Barbosa.

She said she wanted people to see the Quequechan the way she saw it as a kid — more like a ghostly apparition than a tourist attraction you can actually go see.

Other people see it the same way. There are rumors you can hear the Quequechan from the basement of the post office. A couple of City Hall workers told me there’s an empty union hall across the street, where you can look through a crack in the pavement and see the dried river bed.

For now, that’s the way the river lives on in Fall River.

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at bberke@thepublicsradio.org.