Maritime Log #33 – Venerable Merrimack River is getting fouled once again

By Dyke Hendrickson, Custom House Maritime Museum Outreach Historian

City, state and federal officials have become increasingly concerned about the cleanliness of the Merrimack River, to wit, because heavy rain enters sewage-treatment plants along the river.

The plants become overwhelmed, and sewage is discharged along with rain into the river. Scientists say climate change is generating more rain, so the problem appears to be long-term.

Several bills have been proposed at the state level, so that treatment plant operators will have to inform the public of when the discharges take place and how much effluent has entered the water.

This bill is crucial to the Lower Merrimack Valley, since Newburyport is at the end of the line when it comes to the flow of the river. Shown here is the Newburyport harbormaster’s headquarters on the river.

The Merrimack River has a history of being soiled by man’s imperfections.

In the 19th century, textile mills in Concord, Manchester and Nashua (N.H.) and Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill dumped refuse into the 117-mile-long river.

In the early 1970s, U.S. Senators Ed Muskie and George Mitchell pushed for a federal Clean Water Act that helped improve New England rivers.

Only then does it appear that industrialists began taking responsibility for pollution. Indeed, onetime Massachusetts Gov. Edward Everett (1836-1840) once declared that the Merrimack River was an “unprofitable murmur” until “practical science and wisely applied capital converted the river to a source of growth and progress.”

(An aside: This quote comes from the federal parks museum in Lowell, which I visited recently).

The river’s first commercial use came from the timber that was cut in New Hampshire and floated down to make Newburyport the leading ship-building city in northern New England.

Then came the textile mills, which offered many jobs but fouled the river.

Today the river is challenged again. In coming months, government officials and private citizens will be developing legislation to help clean the Merrimack.

(Another aside: The correct spelling of the river is Merrimack, though some old maps call it the Merrimac. In 1914, Massachusetts Congressman Jacob Rogers had a measure passed in the Capitol that decreed the spelling read Merrimack).

If you would like me to speak at an event, I can be reached at dhendrickson@thechmm.org.