Hundreds of years removed from the white noise hum of the 21st century HVAC system at PSNH’s Energy Park headquarters in Manchester, echoes of a simpler yet much noisier time when the site was part of the sprawling Amoskeag Manufacturing Company are noted in three historic log books that were retrieved by a former employee of the Manchester Steam Plant before its closure in 1981.
By Elizabeth LaRocca, Southern Div. Community Relations
Employee Discovers Handwritten Notes on Mill Life
Retiree Gene Fraser of Hooksett recently returned the books to PSNH—a timekeeper’s log book and two canal system gate level log books, both dating from the 1850-1885 time period. I brought the books to the Manchester Historic Association for their review, and members agree that the logs are filled with great information of the canal system for Amoskeag Manufacturing Co., weather conditions, and environmental conditions. Of particular interest are references to the operation of a “wing dam,” which is an enigma to local industrial historians.
The timekeeper’s book features artistic penmanship and sparse details—checkmarks indicating who showed up to work on what day, a brief mention of weather conditions, and itemized expenses for mill workers:
- J. Batchelder. ¾ day .$75 paid
- Streetcar fare from Manchester to Hooksett, $.45. Money for two dinners, $.75
- “The snow fell 12 inches deep, and moist at that.”
More details of what it was like along the Merrimack River in the 19th century emerge in the two gate level log books, which were kept by a gatekeeper to monitor how much water was being released from the Merrimack into the canal system—too much could flood the mills, too little could hamper the steam engine operations.
According to Amoskeag, Life and Work In an American Factory City (T. K. Hareven and R. Langenbach, New York, Pantheon Books, 1978), life along the millyard “resembled a walled, medieval city with a population at its peak of some 17,000 people. This population was treated by the company as its children, who in return for support in the form of wages, housing, education, and recreation, owed the company their labor and their loyalty.” Typical of industrial revolution conditions, the millworker’s life featured long work hours, harsh working conditions, but a strong sense of worker camaraderie.
The two gate level log books provide a glimpse of that atmosphere, including numerous mentions of flooding rains, ice jams, and logs floating downstream from nearby sawmills breaking off flashboards on the dams and requiring continual maintenance and repair. (“The ice knocked off about 50 lengths of boards from main dam and 5 lengths on wing dam.”—entry from March 1878)
Nearby areas that impacted gate conditions received much attention in the log books, including a sawmill upstream at Ray Brook (what is now Dorrs Pond), and an ice harvesting business in the same vicinity. Logs and ice floating downstream and over the falls seemed to have been an ongoing issue. Perhaps reminiscent of their own jet ski incident (it’s still wedged in the rocks behind Jefferson Mill), an 1882 entry notes: “Davis’ and Sargent’s men commenced getting logs off between the islands.”
Among other anecdotal comments:
- “Snow and blow! 11 am snowfall 18 inches” (February 1882)
- Several references to “finished caulking both dams”
- An 1882 reference to the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving, which at the time was the official holiday established by President Lincoln
- A heavily underlined Sept. 8, 1885 note: “Gen. U.S. Grant’s funeral.”
- Matters of life and death—“Evening, girl drowned in upper canal”…”Man killed in paper mill 4 AM”…”Boy knocked over by engine on 11 AM train”
- “Saw 10-lb. dead salmon. Killed by logs or other way below bridge.” (Sightings of live and large salmon “near the fishways” were also duly noted over a seven-day period in 1879.)
The books will soon be presented to the Historic Association by PSNH for use by history scholars and researchers.
Each month, one of PSNH’s three Community Relations Managers highlights the company’s involvement in local cooperative energy efficiency programs, energy education, and nonprofit and civic projects.