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Merrimack River

Related subjects: North American Geography

Background Information

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Merrimack River
A man on the waterfront of downtown Lowell, Massachusetts examines the flooded Merrimack
Origin Franklin, New Hampshire
Mouth Atlantic Ocean
Basin countries  United States
Length 110  mi (177  km)
Source elevation n/a
Avg. discharge 7,562 ft3/s
Basin area Approx. 5,000  sq mi (12,900  km2)
Merrimack River watershed

The Merrimack River (or Merrimac River, an earlier spelling that is sometimes still used) is a 110- mile (177  km)-long river in the northeastern United States. It rises at the confluence of the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers in Franklin, New Hampshire, flows southward into Massachusetts, and then flows northeast until it empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Newburyport. From the point where the Merrimack turns northeast in Lowell, Massachusetts onward, the Massachusetts–New Hampshire border is roughly calculated as the line three miles north of the river.

The Merrimack is an important regional focus in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. In New Hampshire, the central-southern part of the state is known as the Merrimack Valley Region, and in Massachusetts, the " Merrimack Valley" refers to a cluster of towns and small cities in the northeastern part of the state.

Several U.S. naval ships have been named the USS Merrimack and USS Merrimac in honour of this river.

History and details

Prior to glaciation, the Merrimack continued its southward course far beyond the present day New Hampshire-Massachusetts border to enter the Atlantic Ocean near Boston. Upon the glacier's retreat, debris deposited north of Boston filled the lower Merrimack Valley, redirecting the river into its current northeast bend at Lowell. The Neville archaeological site is located along the river's banks in New Hampshire.

The total watershed of the river is approximately 5,000 square miles (12,900  km2), covering much of southern New Hampshire and a portion of northeastern Massachusetts. On its banks are a number of cities built to take advantage of water power in the 19th Century, when textile mills dominated the New England economy: Concord, Manchester, and Nashua in New Hampshire, and Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill in Massachusetts. At the mouth of the river is the small city of Newburyport. Prior to the construction of the Middlesex Canal, Newburyport was an important shipbuilding city, in a location to receive New Hampshire timber that had been floated downriver.

The river is perhaps best known for the early American literary classic A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River by Henry David Thoreau. Among its tributaries are the Souhegan River, which extends west from the town of Merrimack, New Hampshire; the Nashua River, which flows north into the city of Nashua; the Concord River, which flows north from Concord, Massachusetts to Lowell; and the Shawsheen River, which after also flowing north, joins the Merrimack at Lawrence.

Etymology and spelling

Merrimack River in Pembroke, NH
Merrimack River in Lowell, MA

The etymology of the name of the Merrimack River - from which all subsequent uses derive, such as the name of the Civil War ironclad - remains unknown.

There is some evidence that it is native American. In 1604 the natives of later New England told Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Monts, who was leading a colony of French language speakers to Acadia (later Nova Scotia), of a beautiful river to the south. The French promptly pronounced its native name as Merremack. In 1605 Samuel de Champlain followed this lead, found the river and renamed it Riviere du Gas.

The French and their name did not remain on the Merrimack. The natives dwelling along the river at that time were the Agawam on the lower reaches, the Pawtucket at Lowell, Massachusetts, the Nashua, Souhegan and Namoskeag around Manchester, New Hampshire, the Penacook northward from Bow, New Hampshire, and the Winnepisseogee at the source, Lake Winnipesaukee. These were all members of a nation of Algonquian speakers known as the Nipmuck.

According to Joseph B. Walker, relying on Chandler Eastman Potter's The History of Manchester (1856), Merremack contains the elements merruh ("strong") and auke ("place"—a recognizable locative ending), and means "the place of strong current,- a term not inappropriate, when we consider ... the river's rapids ...." Potter was an authority on native American affairs in colonial New England.

Walker goes on to cite spellings of Merimacke, Merimack and Merrimacke in "the colonial records of Massachusetts", as well as the Merrimake and Merrymake of a 1721 land grant at Penacook, New Hampshire. William Wood's New England's Prospect of 1634 calls the river the Merrimacke and locates it eight miles beyond Agowamme ( Ipswich, Massachusetts). It hosts, he says, "Sturgeon, Sammon and Basse, and divers other kinds of fish."

Merrimac, Massachusetts, settled in 1638 and originally part of Amesbury, Massachusetts, was called West Amesbury until 1876, at which time it adopted its current name and spelling. Merrimack, New Hampshire was incorporated in 1746, spelling its name "Marrymac" in the record of its first town meeting. It is referred to as Merrimac into the early 19th century: in the 1810 decennial census, it was spelled Merrimac, but in the 1820 and afterwards, Merrimack.

In 1914, US Congressman John Jacob Rogers (MA) petitioned that the official spelling be Merrimack.

May 2006 Flooding

While the Merrimack River is prone to minor flooding, on May 15, 2006 rainfall raised the river more than 8 feet (2.4  m) above flood stage, forcing evacuations, damaging property, and breaking the main sewage pipeline in the city of Haverhill, Massachusetts, dumping 35 million gallons of raw sewage waste into the river per day. Reports of total rainfall vary, but most areas appear to have received around a foot of rain with some areas receiving as much as 17 inches (43  cm).

According to The Boston Globe, around 1,500 people evacuated their homes to escape the flood.

This flood also prompted the city of Lowell, Massachusetts to drop the flood-controlling Francis Gate for only the third time in its 150 years of service. When lowered, the Francis gate seals the city's canal system off from its source on the Merrimack. The Great Gate, as it is also called, was built in 1850 under the direction of James B. Francis. Considered unnecessary when it was first constructed, "Francis' Folly" first saved the city in 1852, and has done so a handful of times since, most recently in the April 2007 flood - due to a powerful Nor'easter. The water level at Lowell reached approximately 58 feet (18 m) in this event, or less than a foot less severe than the 2006 flood.

The most significant flood in the recorded history of the Merrimack was in March of 1936, when a double flood of rain and melting snow and ice swelled the Merrimack to 68.4 feet (20.8 m), 10 feet (3 m) higher than the 2006 flood. The Jack Kerouac book Doctor Sax is set during this event.

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