Reinventing A River

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The river runs through Concord, New Hampshire, but somehow the state capital is not a river town. Concord sits back from the water, and unlike every other city on the route, it lacks massive squat brick mills, favoring instead graceful Victorian architecture and granite buildings designed to impress people with the seriousness of government. The first of the great Merrimack mill towns is Manchester, about 20 miles to the south. On a sunny Sunday in August, the water is so clear we can read the labels on the refrigerators and tires dumped in the past and not yet cleared away; the air is pure, the scene quiet. Even as we skim past a full mile of mill buildings, it just doesn’t seem possible that for a century this was a pulsing center of industry.

Despite its industrial past, fully 80 percent of the New Hampshire portion of the Merrimack watershed is undeveloped farmland, forest, or wetland.

Manchester grew up around the Amoskeag Mills, which grew up around the Amoskeag Falls of the Merrimack River. In its day the Amoskeag mill complex was the world’s largest, employing 17,000 people in the early 1900s. In their uniformity and scale, Amoskeag’s buildings resembled a medieval walled city, an all-inclusive social world, as the historians Tamara Hareven and Randolph Langenbach have noted. Starting with its first owners, the Boston Associates (of whom more later), the Amoskeag was always more than a company. It was a way of life. “At one time, the Amoskeag owned practically everything in town,” Frederic Dumaine, Jr., who began work at the mills as an errand boy, told Hareven and Langenbach for their oral history of the complex. “The churches and the YMCA received land from the Amoskeag free. All the parks were given to the town by the Amoskeag. They had sewing classes, cooking schools, gardens.” By the early 1920s the currents that were to undermine all of New England’s nineteenth-century textile production—failure to modernize, labor problems, competition from the South, and excess capacity—had weakened the Amoskeag. In 1936, after a string of punishing strikes, it closed, devastating the local economy. Merchants made an effort to attract small-scale businesses into the abandoned mills, but many of the buildings didn’t see a tenant for 40 years, and most of the businesses that did move in were gone by the mid-1970s.

Then things got worse. “The year 1991 was a real low,” recalled Manchester’s director of planning and development, Robert McKenzie. “On one day, five of the state’s six largest banks, which were headquartered here, closed, with the loss of thousands of jobs. It forced the community to come together.” A Citizens Planning Revitalization, or CPR, committee was born, involving 200 community leaders in a near-desperate attempt to rescue their city.

The CPR team had one thing going for it, the power of example. Dean Kamen—a developer of medical devices, promoter of science education, and conceiver of the Segway Human Transporter, a well-hyped campaign to transform life as we know it with a sort of motorized scooter that can think —had turned his visionary eye to Manchester’s abandoned mills in the mid-1980s. He bought eight of them and renovated seven. Scorning the use of government incentives ("they add time and money,” said his head of property management, Don Clark), he moved his own company, DEKA Research and Development, to the mill yard and attracted such tenants as Texas Instruments and Autodesk. In all, he has reclaimed 750,000 square feet of mill space, and his success has stimulated the city and other developers to rehabilitate the remaining mill-yard properties.

Following more familiar economic development strategies, the CPR created a downtown master plan and a business improvement district and built a civic center. The city has attracted educational institutions like New Hampshire College to the mill yard, established a historic district, and redeveloped a former military base into Manchester Airport. Manchester has clearly come back from its dark days. The downtown is active with restaurants, shops, and cultural institutions, and the mill yards have probably never looked better. Planning for an extended riverwalk is under way, but making the river more of a destination in itself has surprisingly not been a priority. During a full day on the Merrimack near Manchester, we saw no other boaters. Perhaps this is just a matter of time; to many who grew up along it, seeing the river as recreational still doesn’t come naturally.

 

The best white water on the river surges between Manchester and Merrimack, which are also rich in remains of the Middlesex Canal, built in 1803, an engineering warm-up for the Erie Canal. The Middlesex was built to bypass the rapids and allow for clear passage of the lumber from northern New England, used by the shipbuilders of Newburyport. Later, during the factory-building era, Merrimack Valley farmers discovered a lucrative sideline making bricks from local clay. But the mills used the bricks to build dams to spin turbines to drive textile looms, and the river’s purpose became power, not transportation. Good-bye, canal-boats; hello, railroads.

Paddling south, we are alone on the river, passing farmlands and an island Thoreau once camped on; fully 80 percent of the New Hampshire portion of the Merrimack watershed is undeveloped farmland, forest, or wetland.