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THE NATURAL HISTORY OF LOWELL, MASSACHUSETTS
| Early European settlers
traded with the Pennacooks who gathered at Pawtucket, but they also found
the river a valuable source of food and commerce. Gradually, Europeans
,established permanent settlements at Billerica, Chelmsford, and Dracut.
As war and diseases decimated the Pennacook population, more Europeans
settled in the river valley. Farming was the dominant activity, but
fishing provided a good, supplementary income. A cart load of salmon
caught in the Merrimack in 1779 could be sold in Boston for $200.
The rivers also powered grist mills, saw mills, and woolen mills. The earliest of these were constructed on the Concord River, a river easier to control than the Merrimack. Fishing and the operation of small mills were carried on side-by-side.
Dams that blocked the passage of fish were prohibited by early laws. The dam at Pawtucket challenged these laws and created a conflict ,between fishermen and dam builders. "The creation of a dam at the Pawtucket Falls will totally destroy the fish and deprive the people of taking near their doors the most delicate food and much of the real necessaries of life," State Senator William Hildreth of Dracut (a fisherman himself) told the Massachusetts General Court in 1801. Nevertheless, wealthy, powerful merchants built larger dams to power more mills. This led to direct confrontations between dam builders and fishermen. Conflict erupted in 1825 when saboteurs attempted to tear down the Pawtucket Dam. Kirk Boott advertised a $100 reward for information leading to their arrest. It is thought that fishermen from Dracut were the perpetrators.
As the American economy blossomed in Lowell during the Industrial Revolution, the value of water for turning the spindles in the new textile mills far outweighed its value as a fish habitat. In 1845, the 30-foot Great Stone Dam in Lawrence blocked the salmon's passage up the Merrimack River and prevented them from reaching the headwaters. Unable to lay eggs in its spawning grounds, the Merrimack River Atlantic Salmon became extinct.
Industry also brought pollution. More mills meant more people and more people meant more
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