Reinventing A River

PrintPrintEmailEmailMatters did not look promising. the path down to the canoe launch onto the Merrimack River was long and steep, thick with roots and brambles and sharply angled. Pushing, pulling, and grunting, we reached a scum-slicked spit of sand just below a wide stretch of renovated nineteenth-century mill buildings in Manchester, New Hampshire, and pushed off.

In other words, the Merrimack does not always make it easy for boaters to play on its surface. But that is not surprising; until quite recently no one would have wanted to. Its image problems go back more than a century. Described by National Geographic in 1951 as “a veritable slave in the service of industry,” this 116-mile-long river was dammed, canalled, and dumped on to within an inch of its life. Longtime residents recall watching what they sometimes called the “Merrimuck” change color depending on which dyes the textile mills were using that day. Its vegetation grew in mutant forms. As a repository for everything from medical waste to offal, it reeked.

Why bother with the Merrimack? Because it encapsulates much of New England’s history, colonial, industrial, and post-industrial. Because Henry David Thoreau traveled along it to write his elegiac A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. And because it is beautiful.

The waters of the Merrimack powered America’s first Industrial Revolution, initially for the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, and then for those in communities like Manchester and Nashua, New Hampshire, and Lawrence and Haverhill, Massachusetts. But just as the river was sacrificed with little regard for its long-term health, so the vast mill complexes died from underinvestment and resistance to change.

The river’s comeback began with the Clean Water Act of 1972, which required that sewage be treated before it reached the nation’s waterways. “As soon as we stopped dumping pollutants, the river cleansed itself, and much sooner than it was believed it could happen,” said Chuck Mower, a local historian and furniture maker. And not just people appreciate the difference. Bald eagles now nest on the Merrimack’s banks, as do ospreys, egrets, and hawks. American shad, striped bass, trout, and Atlantic salmon swim in its depths. Otters and minks frolic on its shores. What happened was an unusual symbiosis. Communities acted to regenerate the river, an effort that today embraces hundreds of volunteers who monitor its temperature, pulse, and respiration, and the river returned the favor, helping regenerate the communities on its shores.

The Merrimack officially begins where the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset Rivers join in Franklin, New Hampshire, the birthplace of Daniel Webster, whose home you can visit. Determined to start at the exact beginning of the river and assured that we couldn’t miss it (which naturally made us nervous), we parked downtown and asked around for the source of the Merrimack. We might as well have been asking for the source of the Nile. Before long, though, we think we have found its origins behind a parking lot.

For a body of water once so famously tainted, the stretch from Franklin to Concord is improbably bucolic. Mile after mile there is little to see but birdlife, trees, fields of corn, and the occasional church steeple poking up above the vegetation. The Pennacook Indians, who were there long before the factory builders came, might well find the scene familiar.

We ended our day of paddling in Boscawen, just north of Concord, where perhaps the most politically incorrect monument in America bears witness to the difficult relations between Native Americans and early European settlers. A short walk away from U.S. Route 4, it is a 35-foot-high granite statue to Hannah Dustin, erected in 1874 and the first statue in America dedicated to a woman. Dustin’s story began 60 miles away in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which has a more elaborate monument to her. There, on the morning of March 15, 1697, Indians descended on the town, burned half a dozen buildings, and took several people captive, including Dustin, then recovering from the birth of her twelfth child. The baby was killed in the raid. On March 31, held on an island in the Merrimack in what is now Boscawen, Hannah and two companions stole some hatchets and struck back, killing 10 of their 12 captors. They then coolly took the scalps, made their way home, and collected a bounty. Boscawen’s statue to Hannah commemorates the spot where she killed the Indians. Stepping forward with a tomahawk in her right hand and a clutch of scalps in her left, she is clearly a woman to be reckoned with.


A bit back down the railroad tracks from her statue, a group of decayed buildings on the left bear witness to another kind of history. They are the remains of a once-thriving flour mill and tannery complex, now being restored, bit by bit, by a local family that has bought the whole site. It is slow work, but you can easily see the attraction. The mass of brick, granite, and wood structures is striking, a living, if disheveled, history of the gritty industrial life that defined New England for more than a century after the first mill opened along the Merrimack in the 1820s.