Reinventing A River

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Lowell is not rich; beyond the restored downtown, many a neighborhood is clearly struggling. But it has both found its past and stayed true to it. Still a port of first resort for immigrants, it is home to the world’s largest community of Cambodians outside Cambodia.

A few miles downriver the Merrimack takes a sharp northeastern turn and passes through small towns and suburbs on its way to another remnant of the Industrial Revolution. This is Lawrence, which is a kind of anti-Lowell, the image of what Lowell would have been without the national park, Paul Tsongas, and all the rest. Clearly, the comparison hurts. Charlie Boddy, a land-use planner for the city, has to concede that his town, founded in 1845 by the ubiquitous Boston Associates, is younger than Lowell. But in every other way, he insists, when it comes to historical importance, “Lawrence wins hands down.” Its dam was the biggest in the world. The clock tower that looms over the city is the world’s second largest, just six inches smaller than Big Ben. And the 1912 “bread and roses” strike was a turning point in labor history.

 

Lawrence is impressive. Its old mills line the river as far as the eye can see, and they trace the early designs of its planners. Boardinghouses for workers were sited immediately parallel to the mills (one of which has been restored as the Lawrence Heritage State Park), followed by a row of commercial and municipal buildings and then another of houses of the gentry. But many of the mill buildings are either vacant or used as warehouses; a few downtown streets have been spruced up, while others are desolate. Lawrence, in short, is a work in progress. Still, it is progress, fueled by a population that, as before, is composed largely of immigrants, this time from Latin America. “Lowell had a lot of political players with a lot of vision who came on the scene early on,” said Boddy. “That is where we can be, given the same amount of time. We’re on the same track, just in a different and earlier place.”

One of the intriguing facts of life in New England is how towns next door to each other can have such different characters. Haverhill lies on the same side of the Merrimack as Lawrence and just a few miles away, but it’s a completely different kind of place. Though for some years it was a major shoemaking center, the “Queen Shoe City of the World,” Haverhill looks and feels like the old New England village it still is. Founded in 1640, it enjoys the distinction of having been the inspiration for Archie comics (Archie’s creator, Bob Montana, was a 1939 graduate of Haverhill High, immortalized as “Riverdale High.")

 

But it is Newburyport, where the Merrimack opens into the Atlantic, that beckons us on this stretch of the river. Newburyport was never as rough-edged as Manchester, Lowell, Lawrence, or even Haverhill. Still, being downriver from all those factories took its toll. “I remember growing up seeing the scum caused by the bacteria in the water,” said Suellen Welch, who works in the harbormaster’s office. “Sometimes there would be dead fish on top, and there was a stench.” Newburyport also suffered the economic decline all too characteristic of the region.

Newburyport saved the buildings that are its heart, but the simultaneous restoration of the Merrimack gave it back its soul.

Yet its history is entirely different. European settlers founded it in 1635, quickly built a church, and then proceeded to engage in three decades of arcane doctrinal disputes. Usually this was civil, always it was earnest, but occasionally it became sinister. Newburyport had tried one of its residents as a witch in 1680. Remarkably, three houses from that era survive: the Noyes House, built in 1646, and the Tristram Coffin House and the Spence-Pierce-Little Farm, both also from the mid-seventeenth century; all are open to visitors.

Diverting as the religious disputes were, by the end of Newburyport’s first century much of its attention had been given over to shipbuilding. The region’s pine and oak provided raw materials, and the town’s access to the Atlantic made it an ideal location. For a hundred years Newburyport was one of the nation’s leading shipbuilders, turning out thousands of vessels. The late 1700s and early 1800s were Newburyport’s glory days, as it grew rich on the ships it built and the cargo they brought home, a good deal of it illicitly. Then protectionist legislation in 1807 and 1812 killed off international trade, while the Middlesex Canal diverted traffic to Boston; in 1811 a fire swept through downtown. But the town rebuilt itself, this time in brick, and endured as an important point of entry for foreign vessels. The mortal blow came in the 1840s, when railroads displaced the port. Like many of its upstart neighbors, Newburyport turned to cotton mills and immigrants for its economic survival. When the mills went overseas, or south, Newburyport hit the skids.