Thoreau’s Vacation


On the second day of his river trip, Thoreau must have been glad to round the bend above the falls and leave Lowell behind. The river here was no longer the rushing stream of earlier times but a broad expanse of flat water, backed up for miles above the dam. Aside from that change, which at least made the rowing easier, the brothers found the river little touched by the hand of man. Cattle came down to drink, but the farmers’ houses stood back from the river, widely spaced and hidden by trees. Even today the stretch of the valley south of Tyngsboro is still remarkably natural. The very abuse that the river has taken, in the form of pollution from towns and factories, has been its protection against house builders and recreation seekers. The banks are high, the roads are out of sight, and the old river commerce has vanished. Through this densely settled valley it is still possible to paddle a canoe in something close to solitude.

In the afternoon the Thoreaus rowed past Wicasuck Island, which had once been the home of Wannalancet, the last chief of the Pennacooks. Before the white men came, the Merrimack Valley belonged to several Indian peoples—the Nashua, Souhegan, Amoskeag, Pennacook, and Winnipesaukee—all members of the Algonquian linguistic group. They were loosely allied for defense against other tribes to the north and west in the Pennacook Confederacy. Wannalancet’s father, the sachem Passaconaway, made friends with the whites and was converted to Christianity by John Eliot, the “Apostle to the Indians,” who thought that the sachem might be the leader of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Wannalancet too accepted the white man’s religion—”a new canoe” as he called it—but relations with the colonists grew steadily worse, and most of the “praying Indians” drifted away into the northern forests.


By Thoreau’s time the Indians were only a memory. They had left little trace except for pots and arrowheads, which could be had for the picking up. Thoreau felt a strong kinship with a people who lived so lightly on the land. He too was what would now be called a zero-impact camper.

That night the brothers made camp on a sloping bank near a patch of ripening beach plums. They built a fire and after dinner they settled down on the buffalo skins, lulled by the river sounds and conscious of the small animals—mink, muskrat, meadow mice, woodchucks, squirrels, skunks, rabbits, foxes, and weasels—that watched from the ring of darkness around their camp. But sleep did not come. They were kept awake by “the boisterous sport of some Irish laborers on the railroad, wafted to us over the water, still unwearied and unresting on this seventh day, who would not have done with whirling up and down the track with ever increasing velocity and still reviving shouts, till late in the night.”

THE IRISH LABORERS were the first wave of the immigration that was to make the Merrimack Valley one of the great ethnic melting pots of the country. Though they came to work on the railroad, the Irish stayed to work in the mills. But they were not put up in company houses, and their daughters were not watched over by “virtuous matrons.” In Lowell the Irish had to shift for themselves in a shantytown that became known as “The Acre.”


Once the Merrimack millowners had found a plentiful supply of immigrant labor, they had no strong motive to preserve the paternalistic pattern of mill-town life. By 1860 the factories were beginning to look and sound more and more like their counterparts in England. That was the year when one of them, shoddily built and overloaded with machinery, collapsed at Lawrence, the nearby city that was named for another Boston capitalist (and Lowell in-law), Abbott Lawrence. There were ninety dead—Yankee girls and Irish girls alike—and relations between capital and labor were never the same in the Merrimack Valley.

ALL THIS LAY IN the future when the Thoreaus made their journey up the Merrimack. Before dawn the next morning they were back in the dory and rowing through the fog that lay over the river. A little ferry was busy with Monday-morning traffic, and the brothers were glad to get across its chain without scraping their bottom. Farther on, they passed canal boats, with their sails up, moving downstream in stately procession with their loads of brick and timber. Sometimes one of the brothers would run ahead along the shore to have a deeper look at the country and call at a farmhouse for a jug of milk or some fresh vegetables. Rowing upstream in a heavy dory is a workout. Sometimes they had to pull hard to get round a point where the current was fast, but often they found slack water in the eddies along the bank. At noon they stopped for a swim and stretched out for a rest beneath the buttonwoods.