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Epitaph for an American Landmark: the Amoskeag Mills

June 2024
4min read

At one time it was the largest cotton mill in the world. Now, in the name of progress, one of New England’s most historic and unusual urban areas is being carved into parking lots

In the year 1807 in the town of Derryfield, New Hampshire, a gentleman by the name of Samuel Blodeet proclaimed: “For as the country increases in population, we must have manufactories, and here at my canal will be a manufacturing town— the Manchester of America! ” Blodget (right) built his canal around the Amoskeag Falls on the Merrimack River, and in 1810 Derryfield (population: 615) indeed took Manchester as its new name. But the Amoskeag Cotton and Woolen Manufactory that evolved there would doubtless have amazed even the prophetic Mr. Blodget. Construction of new mills began in 1831, backed by Boston money. Two years later President Andrew Jackson paid a visit and was much impressed by “all these spindles in motion.” By 1845 Manchester had a population of ten thousand, and forty years after that the Amoskeag complex was the biggest concentration of textile mills in the country, if not the world. No other place could match it. By 1915 the mills were employing fifteen thousand people and were turning out cloth at an incredible fifty miles per hour.

But apart from its colossal scale and its very considerable importance to the new industrial America then emerging, the Amoskeag complex was a unique and highly successful product of total planning. Unlike virtually every other industrial community in the country, the whole affair had been worked out on paper in advance, and with remarkable foresight and common sense. Except for a few Victorian towers and gateways, the buildings were quite plain and simple. But it was the arrangement of everything, the cobblestone streets with their white granite curbstones, the neat red brick houses for the workers, the mills, warehouses, and bridges, that gave the place its special appeal. “The handsomest manufacturing city in the world,” it was called, and rightfully so. Like its immediate predecessor, Lowell, Massachusetts, Manchester was founded on the early nineteenth-century Utopian idea of providing for the complete life of the new industrial man, all within a carefully organized community. (In Manchester, U. S. of A., there would be none of the squalor of Manchester, England!) The town was treated as an architectural unity, built on the gentle curve of two parallel granite-lined canals more than a mile in length, which served as the principal power source for the mills. To get to the mills in the morning “the enterprising citizens” had only to cross the canals directly opposite their houses, passing over bridges and through archways in much the same way as in a medieval cathedral close, while trains and trucks were able to run unrestricted the full length of the yard between the mill buildings, out of sight and hearing from where people lived. The plan struck a balance between the needs of industry and the needs of people, and that was rare in urban America, then and since.

But starting about fifty years ago, like countless other New England textile towns, Manchester fell on hard times, and in another generation the old mills on the river were looked upon by most townsmen as scarcely more than huge symbols of economic gloom.

As a result the great Amoskeag complex has become another tragic victim of twentieth-century urban “renewal” and of a typical shortsighted caving in to the demands of the automobile. Economic vitality has returned to Manchester through other kinds of manufacturing, but to judge by what the city has done with its historic old mills, a new kind of bankruptcy of spirit and imagination appears to have set in. Instead of making an all-out effort to produce a plan befitting a vital and confident community, urban renewal has carried out only the most obvious stopgap measures, wiping out whole city blocks for parking lots.

Demolition began last year, along lines established a decade ago in a report drawn up by Arthur D. Eittle, Inc., a Massachusetts-based consulting firm. So far nearly all the long, curved buildings bordering the canal and two large mills have been torn down. Part of the great wall of brick buildings along the river will also be destroyed. Once the demolition is complete, the canals will be filled in. Not a single building is to be built on the urban renewal site except for an industrial sewage plant that will replace two blocks of the original housing (still in use) and thus ruin the essential continuity of what architectural historians have called New England’s handsomest cluster of nineteenth-century company houses. Two roads, sixty and ninety feet wide, will slice through the mill yard, over the old canals, and all remaining cleared space will be covered over with enough asphalt to accommodate 2,500 cars. At this writing it appears that some of the large rectangular mills will survive, but even so they will be left stranded in a sea of automobiles. Plans like this “simple and sensible solution,” as it has been called by advocates of urban renewal, have rarely if ever been the most creative solution; but increasingly they are becoming the “final solution” all over America.


At Manchester the alternative of making something of the Amoskeag mills, something inspired, such as a riverside cultural center (which might include a museum of New England’s illustrious industrial history), or even something as plainly needed by the community as a branch of the state university, has been rejected for the short-term gain of parking space for a few modern industrial plants. The result will be a large contribution to the very chaos that is destroying the city’s identity and sense of community. “Even with extensive improvements and upgrading, the millyard will never be an asset from an aesthetic point of view,” the planners of Arthur D. Little proclaimed; and that was that, even though it was abundant nonsense.

The modern American noncity with its freeway sprawl and its tasteless subdivision monotony is advancing rapidly across the land, and one readily identifiable community after another is being carved up, paved over, and obliterated.

At Manchester the nation has suffered just such a loss. Of course, by some people’s standards the loss has been only a lot of old factories, and since the aesthetic value of anything is always a subjective matter, there is no easy way to refute this view. But that Amoskeag has long been a place of considerable historic importance, that the complex of mills, housing, and canals represented far more advanced urban planning and a more human environment than what it is being replaced by, and that the city of Manchester has lost an immensely fascinating and, to some, powerfully beautiful part of its heritage there is no doubt whatsoever.

—David G. McCullough

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