Maritime Log #43 Thoreau Loved Merrimack River but Hated Pollution from Mills

By Dyke Hendrickson, Custom House Maritime Museum Outreach Historian

One of the earliest literary observers of the Merrimack River was Henry David Thoreau.

In 1849, he wrote a book titled, “A Week Along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.”

The naturalist had gone on a canoe trip with his brother. Most of his book talked about the idyllic condition of the Concord River.

But they did spend a short time on the Merrimack.

He was displeased because he felt new factories were ruining the view of the landscape and putting industrial waste into the river.

Thoreau wrote that this part of the Merrimack was “a mere wastewater, as it were, sending little good from Lowell to the sea.”

The subject is relevant today because the Merrimack sometimes is getting dirtier, not cleaner.

Combined sewage outflows (CSOs) from Manchester, N.H., Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill are sending untreated effluent into the river after heavy rainstorms.

The treatment plants are designed to do this. But because of climate change, we are getting more rain in shorter bursts.

So these facilities are overwhelmed, and frequently discharge waste into the river.

Numerous civic groups are working to alert residents downstream after a large CSO.

Recently, the Merrimack River Watershed Council issued a warning not to swim in the river on June 22-23 because of large releases.

The federal EPA is working to clean the river. On Monday, June 24, it held a webinar that provided information about the level of effluent actually entering the Merrimack.

Industrialists began building mills in Lowell in about 1822, meaning we are approaching two centuries of our mixed blessing. The mills provided thousands of jobs, and yet their presence polluted the river.

But the river has a great capacity to cleanse itself.

In coming months, efforts will continue to develop ways to clean the Merrimack to a level of which Thoreau might approve.

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