Merrimack River rich in history
When you go canoeing on the Merrimack, as it flows past Bedford, do you ever think of all the history connected with it? Before the white man appeared on the scene, it was a highway for the native people – a way for them to travel that was easier than making trails through thick forests. This was the land of the Pennacook Native Americans. Their chief, Passaconaway, lived on Carthagenia Island, the island just north of the bridge where Routes 293 and 101 cross the river.
In the 1800s, traces of Native American settlements could still be found on the banks of the Merrimack in Bedford. One place, on the bank opposite Goffe’s Falls, was thought to have been a Native American burial ground. Several skeletons, with fragments of bark in which they had been wrapped, were found there in 1821.
The banks of the Merrimack were also where the first white settlers of Bedford cleared land and established their farms and homesteads. The Walker brothers came to Bedford in fall 1737 and built a hut not far from the river. They were joined there by the Patten brothers the next spring. Here, too, the first mills were built to take advantage of the streams flowing into the Merrimack.
Occasionally, along the edges of the river, the remnants of an old canal can be seen. This was the Middlesex Canal, begun in 1794. It had a series of locks and dams and, before the advent of the railroad, was the means by which goods could be sent to towns farther south. Bedford shipped large quantities of lumber and bricks on boats known as gundalows. When the railroad was built in 1842, the canal was no longer the most economical way to ship goods, and it gradually went out of business.
In the book “A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack Rivers,” written by Henry David Thoreau in 1849, is this interesting passage:
“Just before sundown we reached some more falls in the town of Bedford, where some stone-masons were employed repairing the locks in a solitary part of the river … we were at Coos Falls.
“We wished to camp the night on a large rock in the middle of the stream, just above these falls, but the want of fuel, and the difficulty of fixing our tent firmly, prevented us; so we made our bed on the mainland opposite, on the west bank, in the town of Bedford … We learned afterward that we had pitched our tent on the very spot which a few summers before had been occupied by a party of Penobscots.”