Winter still has us in its icy grip and we will soon have our boots stuck firmly in the grasp of mud season. Why not lighten the mood by contemplating warm summer breezes along the riverbank enjoying the rich history and beauty of the Merrimack River. This meandering 110-mile waterway was plied by Native American dugout canoes from Boston to as far inland as Concord. It powered textile, paper and flour mills, tanneries, and even foundries, was used for transportation of goods and even served as a sewer for New Hampshire’s industrial revolution’s wastes.
The Merrimack River has had its ups and downs. It was a pristine salmon and sturgeon river before being polluted and dammed during the Industrial Revolution. During the heyday of the textile mills, the color of the Merrimack River changed colors daily depending on what materials were being dyed at the factories. Today, however, the river has been revitalized by Clean Water Act mandated wastewater treatment plants and meets the bacteria criteria for safe swimming on all but the rainiest days. The Merrimack has a fascinating history and is a great recreational opportunity for hiking, boating or sunning on the water. So why not take one of my suggestions and explore history while enjoying an outdoor recreational experience.
In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Henry David Thoreau recalled his 1839 journey up the Merrimack. “The river is by far the most attractive highway, and those boatmen who have spent twenty or twenty-five years on it must have had a much fairer, more wild, and memorable experience than the dusty and jarring one of the teamster who has driven, during the same time, on the roads which run parallel with the stream.” In fact, Thoreau’s retreat to a cabin at Walden Pond was for peace and quiet, so he could concentrate on publishing a book about his Merrimack River trip. Why not emulate Thoreau and paddle the Merrimack? There are many places to put in such as Jamie Welch Memorial Park in Boscawen or near Everett Arena in Concord.
If you end up in Boscawen with your canoe, stop at the island near Boscawen’s park and ride and visit the Hannah Duston Memorial, a monument erected in the late 19th century on an island located at the confluence of the Contoocook and Merrimack Rivers. The monument is at the spot where a Colonial mom executed and scalped the Indian captors that killed her baby and abducted her. The Hannah Duston statue is quite interesting. Hannah’s granite nose has been chipped off and repaired and in her hand is a tomahawk and scalps. There is a similar bronze statue of her in Haverhill that is reportedly the first statue honoring a woman to be erected in the U.S. For those of you that are more into the story, the Haverhill historical society reportedly has the tomahawk she used. Of course, every story has two sides. For the sake of balance, it might be good to also visit Concord’s New Hampshire History Museum to better understand pre-settler tribal life.
Adding a poignant backdrop to your visit to the Hannah Dustin Memorial is the former Allied Leather Tannery and the Stratton flour mill. These abandoned mills were once thriving businesses; if you let your imagination transport you, you can hear the water powered pulleys operate the tannery machinery and the sound of rats scurrying out of the train car loaded with hides from Texas ready to be tanned and sewn into kid gloves.
If a canoe seems too wet and wild for you, in Manchester you don’t have to look hard to find evidence of the river’s influence. The brick mill buildings along the river are the heart of New Hampshire’s Industrial Revolution and are located here because of the energy that could be derived from Amoskeag Falls. The first mill began operating in 1838. By 1840 the mill owners dammed the Merrimack creating the power source for their mills. By 1912 the Amoskeag Mills were manufacturing enough textiles each day to stretch two and a half times the length of the New Hampshire or about 471 miles of fabric a day. The Amoskeag Mills produced the cloth for the first Levis jeans and for uniforms during the Civil War. But they didn’t just make cloth. Its foundry produced iron fences, gates, fire hydrants, railroad engines, steam fire trucks and rifles for the Civil War. To learn more about the history of the mills, I strongly suggest a visit to the Millyard Museum on Bedford Street. The impact of the mills and the Merrimack River extends far beyond Manchester, however. The White Mountain National Forest exists in part because wealthy, early 1900s textile businessmen in the Manchester milliard were concerned that excessive logging of the forest was resulting in rapid runoff and unreliable river flows.
Still not finding enough reasons to explore the Merrimack? Why not drop by the round brick gasholder in Concord that you can spot from I-93 going north through Concord? Although the gasholder is not open to the public, its architecture and history is interesting. A gasholder is a building with a huge upside down steel cup inside, used for storing natural gas for lighting and heating. The steel cup floats up and down on a water seal so that constant gas pressure is maintained in the gas lines while gas demand fluctuates. According to the society of industrial archeology, the Concord Gas Light Co. was repeatedly running out of gas when demand peaked around 10:00 pm every evening. The gasholder was put into service in 1888 to solve this problem and was constructed for $35,000 (over $800,000 in today’s dollars). It was used until the company ceased gas manufacture late in the summer of 1952. That year the Concord Natural Gas Corp. connected to natural gas production areas via the national natural gas pipeline system. How is the gasholder connected to the river you ask? Coal tar produced from the manufacture of coal gas was sewered to the tar pond in the Merrimack’s flood plain. The exit 13 on ramp actually goes over the former tar pond. During the new Exit 13 ramp construction in 1996, 172,877 gallons of coal tar was removed.
If the mainstem of the Merrimack doesn’t intrigue you, don’t forget the tributaries such as the Contoocook River. There is a nice five mile, two hour hike at the Mast Yard State Forest. According to Bouton’s History of Concord, in the early 1800s, this area supplied trees that were used as masts for the king of England’s ships. The trees were dragged to the Contoocook River to an area now called the “Mast Yard”, then floated down to the Merrimack River. Larger logs were dragged by teams of oxen to the sandbanks below Sewalls Falls and thrown into the Merrimack River and subsequently floated to the coast.
Don’t take my word on it, Google Hannah Dustin, Amoskeag Mills or Mast Yard. There is a lot of colorful and interesting history and fun things to do – all connected to one of the most interesting rivers in the U.S., the Merrimack.
This month’s River Ramblings column was written by Gary Lynn, Representative from Bow to the Upper Merrimack River Local Advisory Committee. Please visit www.MerrimackRiver.org to learn more about the river and watershed, view water quality data, access natural resource information and tools, and to sign up to be notified about river events and news. For further information, please call 603.796.2615 or email UMRLAC@MerrimackRiver.org.