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Reinventing A River

May 2024
14min read

Its waters drove our first Industrial Revolution—and were poisoned by it. Thoreau believed the Merrimack might not run pure again for thousands of years, but today it is a welcoming pathway through a hundred-mile-long red-brick museum of America’s rise to power.

Matters did not look promising. the path down to the canoe launch onto the Merrimack River was long and steep, thick with roots and brambles and sharply angled. Pushing, pulling, and grunting, we reached a scum-slicked spit of sand just below a wide stretch of renovated nineteenth-century mill buildings in Manchester, New Hampshire, and pushed off.

In other words, the Merrimack does not always make it easy for boaters to play on its surface. But that is not surprising; until quite recently no one would have wanted to. Its image problems go back more than a century. Described by National Geographic in 1951 as “a veritable slave in the service of industry,” this 116-mile-long river was dammed, canalled, and dumped on to within an inch of its life. Longtime residents recall watching what they sometimes called the “Merrimuck” change color depending on which dyes the textile mills were using that day. Its vegetation grew in mutant forms. As a repository for everything from medical waste to offal, it reeked.

Why bother with the Merrimack? Because it encapsulates much of New England’s history, colonial, industrial, and post-industrial. Because Henry David Thoreau traveled along it to write his elegiac A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. And because it is beautiful.

The waters of the Merrimack powered America’s first Industrial Revolution, initially for the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, and then for those in communities like Manchester and Nashua, New Hampshire, and Lawrence and Haverhill, Massachusetts. But just as the river was sacrificed with little regard for its long-term health, so the vast mill complexes died from underinvestment and resistance to change.

The river’s comeback began with the Clean Water Act of 1972, which required that sewage be treated before it reached the nation’s waterways. “As soon as we stopped dumping pollutants, the river cleansed itself, and much sooner than it was believed it could happen,” said Chuck Mower, a local historian and furniture maker. And not just people appreciate the difference. Bald eagles now nest on the Merrimack’s banks, as do ospreys, egrets, and hawks. American shad, striped bass, trout, and Atlantic salmon swim in its depths. Otters and minks frolic on its shores. What happened was an unusual symbiosis. Communities acted to regenerate the river, an effort that today embraces hundreds of volunteers who monitor its temperature, pulse, and respiration, and the river returned the favor, helping regenerate the communities on its shores.

The Merrimack officially begins where the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset Rivers join in Franklin, New Hampshire, the birthplace of Daniel Webster, whose home you can visit. Determined to start at the exact beginning of the river and assured that we couldn’t miss it (which naturally made us nervous), we parked downtown and asked around for the source of the Merrimack. We might as well have been asking for the source of the Nile. Before long, though, we think we have found its origins behind a parking lot.

For a body of water once so famously tainted, the stretch from Franklin to Concord is improbably bucolic. Mile after mile there is little to see but birdlife, trees, fields of corn, and the occasional church steeple poking up above the vegetation. The Pennacook Indians, who were there long before the factory builders came, might well find the scene familiar.

We ended our day of paddling in Boscawen, just north of Concord, where perhaps the most politically incorrect monument in America bears witness to the difficult relations between Native Americans and early European settlers. A short walk away from U.S. Route 4, it is a 35-foot-high granite statue to Hannah Dustin, erected in 1874 and the first statue in America dedicated to a woman. Dustin’s story began 60 miles away in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which has a more elaborate monument to her. There, on the morning of March 15, 1697, Indians descended on the town, burned half a dozen buildings, and took several people captive, including Dustin, then recovering from the birth of her twelfth child. The baby was killed in the raid. On March 31, held on an island in the Merrimack in what is now Boscawen, Hannah and two companions stole some hatchets and struck back, killing 10 of their 12 captors. They then coolly took the scalps, made their way home, and collected a bounty. Boscawen’s statue to Hannah commemorates the spot where she killed the Indians. Stepping forward with a tomahawk in her right hand and a clutch of scalps in her left, she is clearly a woman to be reckoned with.


A bit back down the railroad tracks from her statue, a group of decayed buildings on the left bear witness to another kind of history. They are the remains of a once-thriving flour mill and tannery complex, now being restored, bit by bit, by a local family that has bought the whole site. It is slow work, but you can easily see the attraction. The mass of brick, granite, and wood structures is striking, a living, if disheveled, history of the gritty industrial life that defined New England for more than a century after the first mill opened along the Merrimack in the 1820s.

The river runs through Concord, New Hampshire, but somehow the state capital is not a river town. Concord sits back from the water, and unlike every other city on the route, it lacks massive squat brick mills, favoring instead graceful Victorian architecture and granite buildings designed to impress people with the seriousness of government. The first of the great Merrimack mill towns is Manchester, about 20 miles to the south. On a sunny Sunday in August, the water is so clear we can read the labels on the refrigerators and tires dumped in the past and not yet cleared away; the air is pure, the scene quiet. Even as we skim past a full mile of mill buildings, it just doesn’t seem possible that for a century this was a pulsing center of industry.

Despite its industrial past, fully 80 percent of the New Hampshire portion of the Merrimack watershed is undeveloped farmland, forest, or wetland.

Manchester grew up around the Amoskeag Mills, which grew up around the Amoskeag Falls of the Merrimack River. In its day the Amoskeag mill complex was the world’s largest, employing 17,000 people in the early 1900s. In their uniformity and scale, Amoskeag’s buildings resembled a medieval walled city, an all-inclusive social world, as the historians Tamara Hareven and Randolph Langenbach have noted. Starting with its first owners, the Boston Associates (of whom more later), the Amoskeag was always more than a company. It was a way of life. “At one time, the Amoskeag owned practically everything in town,” Frederic Dumaine, Jr., who began work at the mills as an errand boy, told Hareven and Langenbach for their oral history of the complex. “The churches and the YMCA received land from the Amoskeag free. All the parks were given to the town by the Amoskeag. They had sewing classes, cooking schools, gardens.” By the early 1920s the currents that were to undermine all of New England’s nineteenth-century textile production—failure to modernize, labor problems, competition from the South, and excess capacity—had weakened the Amoskeag. In 1936, after a string of punishing strikes, it closed, devastating the local economy. Merchants made an effort to attract small-scale businesses into the abandoned mills, but many of the buildings didn’t see a tenant for 40 years, and most of the businesses that did move in were gone by the mid-1970s.

Then things got worse. “The year 1991 was a real low,” recalled Manchester’s director of planning and development, Robert McKenzie. “On one day, five of the state’s six largest banks, which were headquartered here, closed, with the loss of thousands of jobs. It forced the community to come together.” A Citizens Planning Revitalization, or CPR, committee was born, involving 200 community leaders in a near-desperate attempt to rescue their city.

The CPR team had one thing going for it, the power of example. Dean Kamen—a developer of medical devices, promoter of science education, and conceiver of the Segway Human Transporter, a well-hyped campaign to transform life as we know it with a sort of motorized scooter that can think —had turned his visionary eye to Manchester’s abandoned mills in the mid-1980s. He bought eight of them and renovated seven. Scorning the use of government incentives ("they add time and money,” said his head of property management, Don Clark), he moved his own company, DEKA Research and Development, to the mill yard and attracted such tenants as Texas Instruments and Autodesk. In all, he has reclaimed 750,000 square feet of mill space, and his success has stimulated the city and other developers to rehabilitate the remaining mill-yard properties.

Following more familiar economic development strategies, the CPR created a downtown master plan and a business improvement district and built a civic center. The city has attracted educational institutions like New Hampshire College to the mill yard, established a historic district, and redeveloped a former military base into Manchester Airport. Manchester has clearly come back from its dark days. The downtown is active with restaurants, shops, and cultural institutions, and the mill yards have probably never looked better. Planning for an extended riverwalk is under way, but making the river more of a destination in itself has surprisingly not been a priority. During a full day on the Merrimack near Manchester, we saw no other boaters. Perhaps this is just a matter of time; to many who grew up along it, seeing the river as recreational still doesn’t come naturally.


The best white water on the river surges between Manchester and Merrimack, which are also rich in remains of the Middlesex Canal, built in 1803, an engineering warm-up for the Erie Canal. The Middlesex was built to bypass the rapids and allow for clear passage of the lumber from northern New England, used by the shipbuilders of Newburyport. Later, during the factory-building era, Merrimack Valley farmers discovered a lucrative sideline making bricks from local clay. But the mills used the bricks to build dams to spin turbines to drive textile looms, and the river’s purpose became power, not transportation. Good-bye, canal-boats; hello, railroads.

Paddling south, we are alone on the river, passing farmlands and an island Thoreau once camped on; fully 80 percent of the New Hampshire portion of the Merrimack watershed is undeveloped farmland, forest, or wetland.

That changes as the river runs south, and as early as 1839 Thoreau could see the change coming. Camping outside Manchester on his own trip on the Merrimack, he could not be bothered to note the developing city, but he wrote of Lowell, 20 miles south, “Perchance, after a few thousands of years, if the fishes will be patient, and pass their summers elsewhere … nature will have leveled … the Lowell factories, and the Grass-ground River [will] run clear again.” The river is running pretty clear now, but the Lowell factories are unleveled. In fact, they are the centerpiece of a stunning transformation of a decayed New England mill town into something like a showcase. LowelPs modern history began in the 182Os. A hard-eyed business venture from the start, it was nevertheless informed with a visionary idea—that the miseries of industrialism in Europe need not be replicated in America. A group of merchants known as the Boston Associates set about using the Pawtucket Falls, where the Merrimack drops 32 feet, to power a factory complex that, although enormous, would create no permanent working class. The mill hands would be local farm girls who would return to their homes after a few years of wage earning and self-improvement. Good working conditions, albeit for 14 hours a day, a church, supervised boarding homes, a program of lectures and cultural enrichment —all would prove that America could have industrialization without the horrific social effects that came with it in England.

In 1826 Lowell had just 2,500 people and a few looms; by 1850 there were 35,000 residents, and 10,000 workers were producing almost two million square feet of cloth a week. Labor relations were not as smooth as the official story claimed. The “mill girls” struck three times between 1830 and 1840, protesting wages and working conditions and demanding a 10-hour workday, which finally came—for women and children—in 1874. After the Civil War, perhaps weary of dealing with these tiresomely independent Yankee females, the mills’ managers turned to immigrants, particularly to the Irish and French Canadians. These newcomers were willing to work longer hours for less money, and they neither required nor wanted paternalistic supervision. The transition to immigrant labor made economic sense, but it also spelled the end of the Boston Associates’ grand experiment and the beginning of the industrial working class they had been determined to never let form.

Lowell prospered through the First World War, its population peaking in 1920 at just under 113,000. But then, as in Manchester, the mills began to decline. By the mid-1950s the last of the original ones had closed. “The Boott Mills—the great silent light shrouded the redbrick in a maze of haze sorrow,” wrote the Lowell native Jack Kerouac in 1959 of what remained.

Much of the credit for the city’s turnaround goes to local leaders like the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, a native of the town, U.S. Rep. Brad Morse, and the educator Patrick Moogan, who imagined that the story of Lowell’s beginnings as the nation’s first planned industrial city could be the key to its renewal. In contrast to the individual entrepreneurship and locally funded efforts that returned Manchester to its feet, Lowell relied on massive federal and state investments. The big break came in 1978, when Congress designated it the nation’s first urban National Historical Park. If you’ve heard of an economic development strategy, chances are it has been tried in Lowell: downtown facade improvements, streetlamps, plantings, artists’ housing, historic districts, tax abatements, public art, a conference center, plus a rail link to Boston. “The city’s needs were such that it couldn’t rely on one thing,” said Brian Connors, of Lowell’s Division of Planning and Development.


Lowell’s tenacity and inventiveness is its hallmark. There are exceptional interpretive exhibits at the restored Market and Boott Mills, including a working weave room. There is the recreated boardinghouse for mill girls, the restored locks, the riverwalk that links downtown to the new baseball stadium that hosts the minor-league Lowell Spinners. The “Run of the Mill” canal tour, sponsored by the National Park Service, is a cruise through history along a portion of the 5.6 miles of canals that provided the water that powered the town’s mills. And all around there are signs that explain the city’s past with a lack of romanticism perfectly in keeping with the down-to-earth character of the place. One such marker, for example, quotes the remarks in 1907 of a factory inspector worried about the dangers of “working days in a room where others in incapacitative stages of consumption (tuberculosis) habitually spit on the floor.”

Lowell’s big break came in 1978, when Congress designated it the nation’s first urban National Historical Park.

If you can stand a little more history, check out the American Textile History Museum; the walking tour of the Acre, a neighborhood that began as a “Paddy camp,” a tent city for the Irish laborers who came on foot from Boston to dig the first canals; the memorial to Jack Kerouac; and the Whistler House, birthplace of the painter James McNeill Whistler, whose father was Lowell’s first rail engineer.

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.

But like all the towns we visited, Newburyport never lost its spirit. In the early 1960s, when it had reached its nadir of dilapidation, with much of the downtown boarded up, the town officials took action. They got a plan approved by the federal government: Level 20 acres of downtown, including Market Square, the site of a rebellious tea party in 1773 that may have given Boston the idea, and replace it all with a big shopping center. It was urban renewal, and one stretch of Federal-era buildings gave way to a parking lot.

Then a band of saviors from the morning time of the preservation movement stepped in. They formed a committee and in 1963 invited Mayor Albert Zabriskie to come have dessert with them. “That was a legendary moment for the town,” said Mark Sammons, the executive director of the Newburyport Maritime Society. In fact, the committee more or less had the poor mayor for dinner. “We told him we were not happy with what was going on,” recalls Ruth Burke, a Newburyport native who hosted the gathering. Then they presented an alternative. Instead of demolishing downtown, why not redeem it? The mayor was won over by a slide show that hinted at just how beautiful Newburyport was beneath the grime, and the feds came on board as well, allowing the town to use the money granted for demolition for preservation instead.

That was only the beginning of what has become a more than four-decade-long labor of love. The results are spectacular. The Custom House Museum, from 1835, offers a sense of the renaissance. At one level it is underwhelming, with not particularly great paintings and artifacts like the jawbone of a whale. But the building itself, designed by Robert Mills, the architect of the Treasury Building in Washington, is a marvel.

The best way to appreciate the place is by walking around it. Newburyport is, quite simply, one of the loveliest towns in New England. What National Geographic noted in 1951 still exists—”perhaps the largest and most notable collection of square, well-proportioned, three-story, 19th-century houses to be found anywhere in the country.” Street after street is lined with these meticulously restored treasures. The waterfront bustles with boats, and its harbor seals have returned. If Newburyport has any flaw, it’s that it might be too perfect. Full of Ye Olde This and Thatte Shoppes, it is the kind of place where a birdbath is easier to find than a hammer. Still, a surfeit of preciousness is a small price to pay for this miracle of preservation. Newburyport by itself could have saved the buildings that are its heart, but the simultaneous restoration of the Merrimack was what gave it back its soul. “The river is the jewel of this city,” Welch concluded. “It defines the whole waterfront, which is the grand jewel.”

The great challenge ahead for the Merrimack region is to preserve its recent gains. The pressures of success are beginning to build. Now that the river no longer reeks, development on and near its banks is disrupting bird migration routes, and less dramatic sources of pollution, such as runoff of household waste, are growing in relative importance and proving far more difficult to control. The Merrimack has finally been restored to something like economic and environmental health. It would be a shame if its future were to be marked with the same shortsightedness that served it so poorly in the past.

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