A look at the history of the Merrimack River as it passes by

BY JOHN HARRIGAN December 01. 2012 10:59PM

Thousands of people driving by Manchester on I-93 or crossing its bridges across the Merrimack River may well have little or no inkling of what's gone on with fish in the river over history or what's going on today. School kids, I think, know more about the Amazon rain basin than they do about New Hampshire's own rich wildlife heritage. In teachers' defense, this is often due to the lack of locally oriented course material.

Aurore Eaton, the executive director of the Manchester Historic Association, has been doing a fine job of raising consciousness about the Merrimack River in her "Looking Back" column in the New Hampshire Union Leader.

She has been writing some great stuff about the Amoskeag Falls, one of the state's stellar geographic locations and landmarks, right up there with the Old Man of the Mountain, which sad to say has succumbed to the inevitability of time and gravity.

The Amoskeag Falls, on the other hand, are here to stay, and do not run the risk of aging steadily backwards, as does Niagara Falls, due to soft underlying rock. The Amoskeag Falls are of hard rock, albeit changed somewhat recently, in nature's long, slow clock, by the hand of man.

Three decades or so ago, I came upon a journal kept by an indentured servant who, in his time off from his job in one of the Manchester mills, loved to fish in the great eddy on the west side of the falls, just below where Public Service's outlet from its beautiful, almost art deco turbines is today. He wrote, with great emotion and glee, about a giant sturgeon he had finally snagged after trying to do so for hours. "And I had him," was his final triumphant entry.

Aurore wrote about certain rocks and other fishing points during the great salmon and shad runs that were staked out by early settlers and fishermen from adjoining lands.

They had learned about these sites, of course, from the various tribes of the Abenaki, who for centuries had resorted there in the spring and fall to camp, fish and share social news.

"Most of the localities for fishing were on the east side of the falls," she wrote. "Wooden fishing stands were built on the boulders, and names were painted on the rocks to claim ownership."

The best spots, she noted, were jealously reserved and passed down from generation to generation, in a manner that reminds me of New Hampshire's seacoast lobstering sites that are similarly, if unofficially, passed down today.

There is a fallacy that pollution spelled the end of the anadromous fish migrations, those stupendous springtime runs of salmon and shad that the early Europeans described in such vivid and wondrous detail.

But this makes no sense. True, there was much pollution as the Industrial Revolution took hold, with little thought of the consequences.

But any pollution, most of it bio-degradable, was diluted by the stupendous annual spring freshet, which was precisely when the salmon and shad ran upriver to seek their ancestral birthplaces.

No, it was the building of massive dams to run the waterwheels and turbines that spelled the end of the great runs of fish. Other lower and imperfect and thus passable dams had been built downriver, but Amoskeag was the nail in the coffin. To quote Aurore Eaton:

"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."

(Housekeeping note: Beginning this week, I'll be a guest-host on Concord's WTPL-FM, at 107.7 FM - 94.3 FM in the Upper Valley, 1400 AM into Vermont - on Jack Heath's call-in show, at 5:30 Friday afternoons. I'll be doing it from my farmhouse kitchen in Colebrook, and I relish that kind of spontaneous give and take, so I hope to hear you there.)

(John Harrigan's address: Box 39, Colebrook NH 03576, or e-mail at hooligan@ncia.net)

ColumnHistoryJohn HarriganColebrookManchester

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