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Thoreau’s Vacation

July 2024
17min read

EARLY IN THE afternoon of the last day of August 1839, Henry David Thoreau and his brother John put a homemade dory in the Concord River, not far above the bridge where the Minutemen had fired on British troops sixty-four years before. They traveled light. For food they took melons and potatoes grown in their own garden and a few other provisions. For shelter they had a tent, also made at home, and for warmth a pair of buffalo skins. They had a few tools, some pots and pans, two pairs of oars, a sail, and a set of wheels to portage their boat.

The brothers planned to follow the Concord to its junction with the Merrimack, then row up that river as far as they could. For Henry, who was twenty-two and not long out of Harvard, and John, who was twenty-four and teaching school, this was a vacation. But Henry, as always, kept a journal, recording his minute observations of nature, along with reflections on history, philosophy, and the universe. Ten years later the story of this trip would be published as his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers .

The Concord in August was then, as it is today, about as placid and sluggish as a river can be. In ten miles it falls ten inches. When Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in Concord, he was always complaining about the current: “One dip into the salt sea would be worth more than a whole week’s soaking in such a lifeless tide.” To the Indians the Concord had been the Musketaquid, or Grass-ground River, because of the wide meadows through which it flowed. The brothers glided down the gentle stream, past borders of willows and floats of water lilies, sometimes starting a least bittern from the bank or a pickerel from its shady pool. Tortoises jumped from fallen limbs, as they do today, when the oars came near.

But this primeval idyll was already flawed. Thoreau had heard tales of an earlier time when the Concord was filled so thick with shad and salmon and alewives during the spring run that a man could scoop them up with a bushel basket. Now the immemorial migrations of these river-spawning fish had been blocked by a dam at Billerica. “I for one am with thee,” Thoreau assured the shad. “Who knows what may avail a crow-bar against the Billerica dam?”

Some three miles above the dam the brothers camped on a high bank, where they picked huckleberries to have with their bread and cocoa. After dark they listened to foxes trotting over the dead leaves and then caught the sound of a muskrat nosing about the potatoes and melons in their boat. Thoreau, no man to deny a fellow creature a share of his food supply (“His presumption kindles in me a brotherly feeling”), started down to make friends. But the muskrat, not knowing that it was dealing with Henry David Thoreau, swam off.


The dam at Billerica supplied power for a small woolen mill, while its millpond provided water for the Middlesex Canal, one of America’s first large-scale engineering projects. Built in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the canal connected the Merrimack River with Boston Harbor, giving barge traffic from up-country a fast, efficient route to the sea. From the dam at Billerica, which stood at the high point on the canal route, Concord River water flowed in both directions, north to the Merrimack and south to Boston.

The Thoreaus might have portaged around the dam and continued on down the Concord to the Merrimack. But the lower Concord is full of rocks and rapids, and with some of its water diverted to fill the canal, there was hardly enough left in August to float a dory. For all his devotion to wilderness, Thoreau was not one to refuse the works of man when they gave convenience. After breaking camp on Sunday and rowing through the millpond, the brothers were glad to put the dory in the canal.

THE MIDDLESEX CANAL , though barely four decades old when the Thoreaus passed through it, was already obsolescent. The engine of its doom was the locomotive that ran along the same route on the tracks of the Boston and Lowell Railroad. In a kind of industrial suicide, canalboats had carried the rails and ties to build the railroad. Many of the railroad entrepreneurs had also backed the canal. Pioneers of corporate finance, they did not hesitate to pull the plug on the canal, as they would later shut down the Merrimack textile mills, when they found better uses for their money.

The Thoreaus’ passage through the six miles of canal was quickly made, with one brother running ahead to pull the boat by a towline, while the other used a pole to fend it off the banks. Today the canal has all but disappeared. A few stretches may still be seen, stranded by roads and buildings. Near its Merrimack end it runs between fairways of the Mt. Pleasant Golf Club, where it has been preserved as a water hazard. But then its course plunges into an urban-fringe wasteland of garbage dumps, glass-strewn parking lots, filling stations, fast-food restaurants, and an automobile graveyard. The very mouth has been sealed beneath the tracks of the Boston & Maine Railroad.

As they passed under the last bridge before reaching the Merrimack on that peaceful Sunday in 1839, the Thoreaus were peered down upon by a group of churchgoers who, Henry suspected, were indulging in “some heathenish comparisons.” This experience provoked twenty pages of reflections on the foibles of the faithful in his book. It probably diverted him from an even more unsettling sight, the city of Lowell, newly risen at the Pawtucket Falls, just below the point where the Thoreaus were let down by a kindly lockkeeper from the canal to the river.

The Merrimack is all that the Concord is not, a river of speed and power, cascading over falls and rapids, carrying the waters of the White Mountains down through New Hampshire and Massachusetts to the sea at Newbury-port. Ever since the glaciers of the Ice Age melted back, leaving this new river, the sharp drops in its bed have governed the human economy on its banks. To the Pawtucket Falls the Indians came each spring to spear the salmon as they swam upriver to spawn, and there they planted their gardens of beans and squash and corn for the summer. There the first white colonists came to trade with the Indians for furs and later to convert them to Christianity, and later still to take their lands. There, finally, a party of Boston businessmen came in 1821 to build a textile mill that would get its power from the falls. The Indians’ campground of Wamesit, beside the falls, became Lowell, the first great factory city in the United States.

The father of this enterprise was Francis Cabot Lowell, the son of a Boston merchant family, who had visited the spinning and weaving mills in England, where the Industrial Revolution had begun. Lowell studied the machinery, particularly the new power looms, and decided to go the British one better by putting all the operations, from raw cotton to finished cloth, under one roof. With money raised from his family and others in Boston, who had made it, for the most part, in ocean commerce and privateering, his plan was first put into operation on the Charles River at Waltham. But the Charles was almost as placid a stream as the Concord, and the search for a better site led to the Pawtucket Falls. Lowell, dead at forty-two, did not live to see the mills of the city that bears his name, but his partners carried out his plan.

FACTORIES AT Lowell were quite unlike the “dark Satanic mills” of the English Midlands. The buildings were light and comparatively clean, and the young women who made up most of the labor force were neatly dressed. The owners took pride in the mills but they also had a sound business reason. New England, unlike old England, had no surplus of impoverished labor to draw upon. Francis Lowell’s plan was to attract the daughters of New England farmers by making the mills attractive and by building company boardinghouses where the young women would live safely and respectably under the care of matrons. It was no Utopia. A typical workday was twelve hours, six days a week, and the pay was something like $3.50 a week, of which $1.25 went for board and lodging. But these mills were sufficiently different from the English models to win the admiration of English visitors, such as Harriet Martineau and Anthony Trollope. Even that dyspeptic tourist Charles Dickens, who disliked the United States with almost as much fervor as he abhorred the bleak house of English industrialism, could find no fault when he visited Lowell in 1841. He wrote: “I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one girl whom, assuming it to be a matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power.”

The American writers and intellectuals of Thoreau’s circle were no less caught up by the vision of clean and wholesome factories set in a sunny green landscape. They wanted to believe in a Utopian dream that a modern writer, Leo Marx, has summed up in the phrase “the machine in the garden.” Thoreau himself was something of a mechanic and tinkerer who could not escape the fascination of the swiftly spinning machinery when he visited a textile factory. Even while living in his cabin at Waiden Pond, he felt excitement when the rattle and whistle of the railroad locomotive broke his solitude, and he mused upon the “iron horse”: “It seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.” But he hated the ugly cut the roadbed made across the fields, as he hated dams that blocked the natural flow of rivers. And he felt that man had made a poor choice when he gave up farming for factory work—almost as poor a choice as when he gave up hunting and fishing for farming.

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.

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.

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.

In the Merrimack Valley the signs of the future are still overshadowed by the relies of the past. Enough time has passed for the sites of its industrial heyday to take on the appeal of antiques. Largely through the efforts of Massachusetts^ young senator Paul Tsongas, who grew up there, a national historic park is taking shape among the maze of canals and factories at Lowell. Guides conduct tours of the mills and mill yards. But at the same time, the new high-tech industry has spread northward into the Merrimack Valley, rising among the sites of “historic preservation.” The visitor begins to see the monuments of the new industrial era, exemplified by the fourteen-story building of the computer-making Wang Laboratories. Even in a time of national recession the valley shows signs of a new prosperity.


Meanwhile the river itself is being restored to something like its original condition. Under the guidance of Nathan Tufts, Jr., the six-year-old Merrimack River Watershed Council has carried on an ambitious program to clean up the water and develop the lower basin for recreational use. With pressure from the states and funding from the federal government, the big cities along the river have installed more or less effective sewage treatment plants.

ALTHOUGH THE Merrimack was on the ten-most-polluted list, it is an easier case than some, for its current is swift and its bed, in many sections, rocky. Once the flow of sewage is stopped, it cleans itself quickly. Even the shad and the salmon are coming back. Sometime in the not too distant future it may be possible to canoe all the way down the Merrimack, as well as the Concord, without the risk of paddling through an outflow of sewage, and perhaps to catch a fish to cook over a campfire. Thoreau looked forward to that day: “Perchance, after a few thousands of years, if the fishes will be patient, and pass their summers elsewhere, meanwhile, nature will have leveled the Billerica dam and the Lowell factories, and the Grass-ground River run clear again to be explored by new migratory shoals, even as far as the Hopkinton pond and the Westborough swamp.”

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