Thoreau’s Vacation

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The Amoskeag was the creation of the same Boston venture capitalists who had built Lowell, but Thoreau did not live to see the unfolding of its story. In the sixty years after Thoreau’s trip, it grew to become the biggest cottonmanufacturing enterprise in the world. At the peak of its development it employed seventeen thousand people and turned out enough cloth each year to run a thirty-six-inch band six times around the world. The brick fronts of the mills rose four and five stories high for a mile and a half along both banks of the river.

Unlike the mills of an earlier day, the Amoskeag had no single owner living as a kind of squire in the house on the hill with his employes ranged in descending tiers down to the riverbank. The millowners of Manchester, as of Lowell and Lawrence, lived on Beacon Hill and kept their offices on State Street. Their lives were not in the mill towns—only a portion of their capital. The people of the mill towns never saw them and did not know their names.

So long as the Amoskeag kept paying good dividends, as it did for sixty years, the absentee owners were content. But by the end of the nineteenth century they had cause to worry. The machines were getting old, and they broke down often. The wooden shafts and leather belts that ran them were now powered by coal, which canceled out the original reason for locating mills near waterfalls. There was rising complaint, and even strikes, over the low wages and the long hours (from six in the morning until six at night).

But the real threat came from outside the valley. Soon after the turn of the century, T. Jefferson Coolidge, who had been treasurer of the Amoskeag through most of its great years, wrote in his diary: “I lunched with a man named Smythe who is the head of the best mill in the South, I believe, in the Alleghany foothills in South Carolina. He owns the whole county, sees to the schooling of the children and really regulates the expenditures and taxes. The employes have never had an opportunity of earning money and a dollar looks very large. Besides, food such as they are accustomed to—chicken, hog and hominy—is very cheap and the climate mild in winter. They receive about 30 per cent less than our operatives in New Hampshire.”

At about this time the directors of the Amoskeag made the crucial decision not to invest the company’s money in new machinery that might have kept the mills competitive. Their interest now was less in getting dividends from the Amoskeag than in getting their money out. In 1925 they accomplished this purpose by diverting $18 million, the accumulated capital of ninety years, into a holding company with no ties to the mills. That left $5 million in the manufacturing company. In effect it was a cutoff allowance; upon that capital the Amoskeag would sink or swim.

All through the 1920s, while the rest of the country was enjoying a boom, the New England textile industry staged its private rehearsal of the Great Depression. Then, even as that depression was lifting, the Amoskeag ran out of money. If the year had been 1979, the company might have appealed, as Chrysler did, for a government bailout. If the competition had come from abroad, it might have sought government protection from foreign imports, as the steel and automobile industries have done in their time. But the year was 1936, and the mortal threat came from the Southern states. On a bleak Monday in the fall of that year, for the first time in a century, no morning bell sounded at the Amoskeag.

In the course of 105 years, from its incorporation to its dissolution, the Amoskeag had completed the first phase of the Industrial Revolution. None of the other mill towns had grown so big or collapsed so totally, but the whole valley had gone through the same cycle. The wild river of the Indians had been converted into one great millstream. People had been drawn in the tens of thousands from the blighted potato fields of Ireland, from the meager farms of Quebec, from the remote villages of Poland and Greece. They had made the Merrimack Valley for a time the most heavily populated region of the United States. Now the mills were closed, the work gone, and the people of the valley stranded.

MEANWHILE THE natural river flowed desolate. No one now rowed or paddled on the Merrimack. No one swam in it. No one fished in it, for almost all the fish were gone. The dams still stood but the locks were idle. There was no boat traffic. The Merrimack was a dead river, a swift sewer to the Atlantic.

During the great expansion after World War II, the Merrimack Valley remained an economic backwater, while elsewhere a new phase of the Industrial Revolution was taking shape. Some of the future could be seen no more than thirty miles away, just south of the Merrimack watershed. There, stretched out along Route 128, which makes a wide arc around Boston, sprang up the plants and offices of new, scientifically based, technologically advanced companies, bearing names like Polaroid, Tektronic, Geodyne, Xerox, and Invac. The visionary writers and philosophers of the 184Os—Emerson and Hawthorne and Thoreau—might have liked the look of these bright, clean buildings with well-tended grounds. Perhaps, after all the smoke and clatter of the preceding century, the dream of the machine in the garden was coming true.