A canal runs through it

/ Saturday, February 25, 2012 /

In 1807, the local industrialist visionary, Samuel Blodget, announced, "For as the country increases in population, we must have manufactories, and here at my canal will be a manufacturing town, the Manchester of America!"

Whether you're biking through the Millyard or grabbing a drink at Milly's Tavern, imagine for a second that Commercial street was filled with the dark, churning flows of the Merrimack River. Rafts and small boats polling their way through the street carrying mill workers and business men. Barges transporting goods between Lowell and Concord plodding along the watery steps of an old lock system. Maybe even a small canoe being paddled by the young naturalist, Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John Thoreau. At the top of the Millyard, just beyond the parking lots of PSNH's Energy Park, sit the truncated remains of two small canals that once flowed through the arteries of Victorian Manchester's industrial, beating heart.

The remains of the Amoskeag Canals.
The remnants of the Upper Canal in PSNH's Energy Park.
Between Chelmsford, MA and Concord, NH the Merrimack River descends 135 feet, the largest drop being the Amoskeag Falls (where the Amoskeag dam currently sits) descending 54 feet in half a mile, making movement up the river via boat near impossible. After gaining the state legislature's approval and leveraging funds from several New Hampshire and Massachusetts state lotteries, Samuel Blodget broke ground on the first of these canals in 1798, that took a decade to complete. The Blodget Canal flowed through what is presently the center of Commercial Street in the Millyard and served to carry boats and barges passed the Amoskeag falls through a series of locks, each lock 11' x 100'. Blodget, in lockstep with the local governments and businessmen, intended to open up trade along the Merrimack River from Lowell, MA, to Concord, NH.

The granite-lined canal sat naked against the small village of what was then Derryfield with a population of 600+. It wouldn't be until 1815 that the town would change its name to Manchester and the first mills would begin to setup shop along the riverfront. The Blodget Canal was also renamed the "Amoskeag Canal" during this time. The mills utilized the river's torrents to power the textile manufacturing machinery, but it wouldn't be until the late 1830s, when the Amoskeag Manufacturing Corporation bought land and water rights along the river and canal, that Manchester would become the textile production powerhouse that we came to know it as in local history.

Taken from the Central Street Canal Bridge which crosses the Lower Canal. (1969)

In 1839, Henry David Thoreau paddled up and down the Merrimack River with his brother, John Thoreau, over the course of a fortnight. His recorded and collected thoughts on the trip were published in the book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (despite the title, Thoreau spent two weeks on the river) first published in 1849. Coming upon Manchester and its canals Thoreau said:

Just above the mouth of this river we passed the artificial falls where the canals of the Manchester Manufacturing Company discharge themselves into the Merrimack. They are striking enough to have a name, and, with the scenery of a Bashpish, would be visited from far and near. The water falls thirty or forty feet over seven or eight steep and narrow terraces of stone, probably to break its force, and is converted into one mass of foam. This canal-water did not seem to be the worse for the wear, but foamed and fumed as purely, and boomed as savagely and impressively, as a mountain torrent, and, though it came from under a factory, we saw a rainbow here. These are now the Amoskeag Falls, removed a mile down-stream. But we did not tarry to examine them minutely, 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.
Even in the 1800s, people we're trying to escape the encroaching commercialism and industrialization of society.

In 1836, the Amoskeag Dam was built and in 1838, coinciding with the sudden rise of the Amoskeag Corporation, a second canal was built a block east of the Amoskeag Canal and followed what is now the current railroad bed through the Millyard. The canals would be named the Upper Canal and Lower Canal, respectively. The Upper Canal ran from the top of Millyard, beside the dam, down to Pleasant Street where it turned West and rejoined the Lower Canal. The Lower Canal also started at the top of the Millyard, flowed through center of present-day Commercial Street for a mile and a half and eventually terminated right in front of Fisher Cat stadium. The boat launch beside the stadium, known as Stark Landing, is most likely the exact point of the canal's exit and the result of the canal's eventual fill-in.

A map of the Lower and Upper Canals. Click here for the hi-res version.

When Blodget visualized the Manchester of America, it's doubtful that he foresaw the industrial complex the city would become. In the span of a decade, the population jumped from under 1000 to over 10,000 and the mills eventually extended the entire length of the Amoskeag Canal. One might conclude that the canals are almost as much of a cornerstone to the city's development as the river itself. Without them, the city may have never attracted the business necessary to propagate the city's future.

The canals powered the mills until the 1880s when electricity and steam power gained purchase in the industry. Eventually losing all function, other than an aesthetic, the canals sat vacant and unused for almost a century. With the decline of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Corporation in the 1930s and a plethora of new businesses occupying the old mill buildings, the canals were eventually filled in during the 1970s as part of a large public works project aimed at revitalizing the Millyard. The Lower Canal was filled in and glazed over with the new pavement of Commercial Street. The railroad tracks running beside a narrower iteration of Canal Street were moved over the top of the former Upper Canal, and Canal Street was widened into the downtown bypass it has become. Several of the smaller accessory buildings were demolished in this project as well, leaving only the larger mills.

Once again, the route of an antiquated form of transportation has been renewed for a current one, in this case, canals for boats and power being replaced by roads for automobiles and track for trains. But in some ways, the canals may as well still be there. Over recent years, Manchester has been in a constant struggle to draw more people from Elm Street and into its prized historic district, expanding the physical idea of "downtown". Using myself as an example, when I'm walking around downtown, I feel little incentive to turn foot and head down the slope into the Millyard. Some might say, "that's because there is nothing there worth walking to in the Millyard," but in my case, and I assume a lot of people's cases, that's not it. One of my favorite bars resides in the Millyard, as do several good restaurants and the climbing gym that I patronize at least twice a week. It's almost subconscious, but what it comes down to is that it's a hassle. The wonderful Livable MHT blog painted it perfectly saying, "...pedestrians must pass through the automobile-oriented wasteland of Canal and Bedford Streets and what feels like the backside of the Millyard." It's almost as if the spaces were converted just short of what the city actually wanted accomplish with them. The canals' prior presence still perpetuate an unconscious barrier to the walkability of the Millyard. The Livable MHT blog has covered this topic with far more clarity than I could hope to accomplish. Make sure to check it out.

The Upper Canal in the process of being filled in. Canal Street can be seen to the left of the railroad tracks.
What Manchester spaces and structures, that seem necessary now, will be obsolete in the future and how will we convert them? Perhaps in a new energy scenario, the hydro-electric dam will be reconverted back into the Amoskeag falls with fancy restaurants utilizing the old dam buildings overlooking a white water rush, the rapids illuminated from underneath giving the falls a different hue every night of the week.

Lower Canal, Looking North From South Lower Canal Building Central Division. (1969)


{ Julia Riber Pitt } on: July 4, 2012 at 7:04 PM said...

Beautiful pics. So sad to see how much of its history Manchester is losing.

{ brian O'Connor } on: December 16, 2012 at 7:56 PM said...

My father worked all his career at the power station at the north end of the mill yard. I am currently working up plans for a documentary - would enjoy chatting with you. pelicanwind@yahoo.com

{ Unknown } on: March 24, 2016 at 11:16 AM said...

The lower canal and the Blodget canal are not to be confused. The original barge canal merged with the rive somewhere north of Bridge St. The Amoskeag filled in the land and continued its course south of granite st in the 1830s. The original holding pond and foundations of the gate house remain as well as a few pieces of worked granite from the lock gates

{ Dana Lemieux } on: March 23, 2018 at 11:17 AM said...

I've been wondering where the canal in Manchester was. This explained a lot. Thank you for your work in preserving this piece of history.

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