Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: At Amoskeag Falls, even the boulders have stories to tell
In 1904 local writer George E. Burnham wrote about fishing at Amoskeag Falls in the Manchester Union newspaper. He explained, "As . . . more settlers gathered around the falls to build their homes, it became necessary to allot the best fishing places to those who, by reason of first occupation, had a right to them. In that way it came about that many of the rocks and pools in the water below the falls came to have names, either those of the owners or from some incident."
Most of the "localities for fishing" were on the east side of the Falls. Wooden fishing stands were built on the boulders, and names were painted on the rocks to claim ownership. The favorite spots were guarded jealously, and passed down from generation to generation. Here fish could be netted or hooked in large numbers from late May through June and into July.
One of these "localities for fishing" was "Point Rock." It was valued as an excellent place to catch salmon and shad. In the early days the man who got to this rock first claimed it for the season. In later years it was considered common property and anyone was allowed to use it. By custom "Point Rock" could be occupied by only one man at a time. The first fisherman dipped his net in the water until he got a catch. After he left, another man would quickly take his place.
According to Burnham, "This rule was strictly enforced, and if a man attempted to fish out of turn, or to throw off a boy or a weaker man, the others interfered and the matter was quickly righted."
"Eel Falls" was close to the western shore of the Merrimack at the head of the Falls. The scrawnier of the eels (sea lamprey) tended to congregate there as the current was weaker there than it was in the middle of the river.
The "Fire Mill" is where the fishermen customarily built a fire at night. This boulder was later renamed after local resident Russ Ray, who occupied the site regularly.
The "Crack in the Rock" was the descriptive name of a large fracture in the rocks that the fish passed through. It was said to be a favorite fishing spot for General John Stark.
"Mudgett's Place" got its name from the unfortunate Mr. Mudgett, who drowned there. Jonas Kemp also met his end in the roiling waters of the channel near this rock.
Not surprisingly, there are several more stories of drownings in the treacherous waters. "Todd's Gut," for example, was named for John Todd of Londonderry, who tragically drowned there in 1759 when he fell off the fishing platform. His friend held on to his feet, but he couldn't pull him up in time to save him. Here a small wooden dam was built to block the eels as they swam upstream.
A curve in another rock nearby made it look like a pulpit in a church, so it was given the name "Little Pulpit." Here the fishermen hooked eels under the natural rock shelving. The large boulders that created the channel at this location were washed away in a spring freshet (flood), causing the supply of eels to disappear. So, the spot was abandoned.
In 1851, attorney and poet William Stark described the rough and tumble world of the Amoskeag Falls fishermen: "And they loved to stand on the slip'ry rock, / Which had stood through time 'mid the waters' shock, / In the foaming waves below to feel / With an iron crook for the squirming eel, / And they loved to take from the eel his life / With a horrid gash, from a monstrous knife; / And to stain their hands and garments o'er / With the sticky slime and the ruddy gore; / And they loved to fish through the live-long night, / And they loved to drink and they loved to fight."
The glory days of fishing at Amoskeag Falls ended in 1840 with the construction of a stone dam at the head of the falls that spanned the entire width of the Merrimack, turning the river into a giant mill pond for the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. Sadly, this and other dams blocked the ancient migratory route of the anadromous fish.
Next week: The life and times of Matthew Patten of Bedford.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at email@example.com.