Date of Award

Fall 2016

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Jeff Bolster

Second Advisor

Ellen F. Fitzpatrick

Third Advisor

Eliga H. Gould


The Merrimack River and its landscape reflect the priorities that have shaped the stream for two centuries. When Henry David Thoreau and his brother John put their dory into the Merrimack in September of 1839, they were paddling into a landscape that was shifting towards water-powered industries and mill cities. The legal transformation of water and the completion of the Great Stone Dam at Lawrence in 1847 spelled the end of the anadromous fish runs that had populated the Merrimack for centuries. Salmon restoration proceeded for three decades after the Civil War until fish passage failed. Later, water filtration plants allowed communities to draw clean water from the Merrimack, although it ran as an open sewer well into the middle of the twentieth century. After World War Two suburban growth rapidly expanded the water map beyond the old mill cities, increasing the need for local supplies. Starting in 1965, the restoration of the Merrimack began with new efforts at federal water pollution control and federal-state fisheries partnerships. An instrumental vision of nature had given way to a wider consideration of what a river could do for local people, and in the multiple restorations that followed leadership was provided at different times by the federal government, state governments, local groups, and private citizens. Along the way, the dams were put back to work generating cheap local hydroelectricity. While some anadromous fish came back to a cleaner river, many did not. The legacy ecosystem of the Merrimack River today reveals how the tension between industry and nature continues to define the priorities that shape local landscapes.