Thoreau’s Vacation


Between Tyngsboro and Hudson, just south of the New Hampshire border, they passed a small desert on the east bank. An old inhabitant, who was working his field nearby, told them that he remembered when the place had been a farm. But the fishermen had pulled up the bushes along the shore to make it easier to haul their seine. “And when the bank was thus broken, the wind began to blow up the sand from the shore, until at length it had covered about fifteen acres several feet deep.” The old man did not need an ecologist to tell him about land erosion. He had seen it happen.

A century earlier this land had been the forest frontier and the scene of many bloody encounters with hostile Indians from the north. The history of the valley is replete with tales of the Indian wars—of John Lovewell, who led raids into the Indian country and brought back scalps for a bounty of one hundred dollars apiece paid by the colonial government of New Hampshire—of Hannah Dustin, the Haverhill housewife who was carried off by a party of Abenakis but killed them with a hatchet in their sleep and returned (with their scalps) to Haverhill—of John Stark, the hero of Bunker Hill and Bennington, who, to the end of his days, referred to the Indian conflict as “The War.”

Lovewell’s house in Dunstable, Thoreau had heard, was the first outpost of the white man’s world that Hannah Dustin reached after her escape. On an earlier trip he had gone looking for its remains but all he could find was “a dent in the earth.” In the Dunstable graveyard he did see tombstones of the Lovewells and other famous Indian fighters, but Thoreau did not hold with tombs and gravestones. “The farmer,” he suggested, “who has skimmed his farm might perchance leave his body to Nature to be plowed in, and in some measure restore its fertility. We should not retard but forward her economies.” (Thoreau is buried in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery at Concord.)

So the brothers rowed on for two more days, mostly alone on the river except when they were lifted through locks or when the canalboats passed them on their way to Boston. After tying up to one of these boats for a while and chatting with the boatmen, Thoreau recorded: “They appeared to be green hands from far among the hills, who had taken this means to get to the seaboard; and would possibly visit the Falkland Isles, and the China seas, before they again saw the waters of the Merrimack, or perchance, not return this way forever.”

Though they were never far from settled towns, the brothers found solitary campsites near the outlet of Penichook Brook above Nashua and just below Goff’s Falls in Bedford. In his account of the trip, Henry reflected: “The wilderness is near, as well as dear, to every man. Even the oldest villages are indebted to the border of wild wood which surrounds them, more than to the gardens of men. There is something indescribably inspiriting and beautiful in the aspect of the forest skirting and occasionally jutting into the midst of new towns, which, like the sand-heaps of fresh fox burrows, have sprung up in their midst. The very uprightness of the pines and maples asserts the ancient rectitude and vigor of nature. Our lives need the relief of such a background, where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.”

THE BOND BETWEEN man and his environment was being broken before their eyes. As they neared the end of their trip, the brothers came to the Amoskeag Falls, where the Merrimack drops fifty feet in a half-mile, making this the best source of waterpower on the river. Here they saw the beginnings of the valley’s greatest mill city, Manchester. “We did not tarry,” Henry noted, “making haste to get past the village here collected, and out of hearing of the hammer which was laying the foundation of another Lowell on the banks.”

The brothers camped that night just downstream from a steep wooded hill known to the boatmen as Hooksett Pinnacle. This was the end of the trip, for above Hooksett there were no locks, and their boat was too heavy to be carried overland around long and frequent rapids. For all his distaste for the milk, Thoreau was indebted to the dams and locks for a voyage that would have been much more arduous without them.

They left their dory on the bank at Hooksett and set out to explore on land the upper reaches of the Merrimack, traveling up the river to Franklin, where the Merrimack is formed by the junction of the Pemigewasset and the Winnipesaukee. They followed a dank forest path up the valley of the tumbling Pemigewasset to its source, then over to the Wild Ammonoosuc and on through the White Mountains. After climbing to the summit of Agiocochook (Mount Washington), they returned by foot and stage to their landing place at Hooksett. On the afternoon of September 12 they raised the sail in their dory and started downstream for Concord.

As they passed the construction site of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company on their homeward journey, Thoreau and his brother were looking at the shape of the future in the Merrimack Valley. At that time Manchester was a town of two thousand, but by the time Henry came to write his account of the trip, nine years later, it had grown to a city of sixteen thousand, and the big growth was still to come. As Lowell represented the first impact of the Industrial Revolution on the Valley, Manchester embodied its full development and, in the next century, its catastrophic collapse.