LAWRENCE — Much of this city's story can be told by the Spicket River.
A trickle in mid-summer but a thundering force after a heavy spring rain, the Spicket offered a reedy settlement to the Pentucket Indians, drove the turbines in some of the world's biggest mills and provided a place where industrial wastes and sewage could be dumped and forgotten about for a century.
As the mills closed and the jobs disappeared, the Spicket became a symbol of the decline of the city at its mouth. Most of the river was barricaded behind chain link fences and a wall of weeds, largely forgotten except by illegal dumpers and the neighbors who are reminded of its presence whenever it overflows its banks.
"People would pull their trucks up as close as they could and throw their garbage over," city planner Dan McCarthy said during a walk along the river on a recent sweltering morning. "Industries pumped in their dirty water. There was raw sewage coming in from the flats. There were a lot of dye houses in this city. The river would be painted different colors."
This month, work began on the final phase of a 13-year, multi-million-dollar project that officials hope will remake the Spicket into a glistening centerpiece of the city's Arlington and downtown neighborhoods and open a new chapter in the story of both the river and the city.
On a short strip of ground behind the city garage on Myrtle Street, contractors are breaking ground on a $2.6 million riverfront trail that will throw open access to a cleaner Spicket and, officials hope, aid in a recovery of the neighborhoods that surround it, which include many of Lawrence's poorest.
The greenway will run along all but a few short stretches of the Spicket's 2.5 mile course through Lawrence, jumping back and forth on bridges over the river to connect the four parks that have been built on former mills and other industrial sites since 2006 in the first phase of the greenway project.