The Power of the Powow River
by John Mayer
Editor’s note: This essay has been written by John Mayer, executive director of the Amesbury Carriage Museum. John has a life-long interest in industrial history and has been part of the industrial survey team since he began his work for the museum. “It seems like every day there is something new we learn about Amesbury history,” he says. “It is such a fascinating and rich story – I love it!”
As a result of our very rainy fall, there is a lot of water flowing in the Powow River. If you haven’t been to the Amesbury millyard recently, it is worth the trip. The view of the river from one of the bridges is dramatic, if not hypnotic. The sight and sound of the flowing water provides a powerful insight into how this portion of the river served as a focus for early settlement and industrial development.
Until the introduction of steam engines after 1850, water served as the main source of power for local industry. William Osgood built the first water-powered sawmill along the river in 1640. Over time, other property owners added dams to provide the power needed for their mills. Gradually the area gained a reputation as a place for innovation and industry even attracting a visit from President Monroe in 1817.
It is a fascinating story and certainly helps understand the way the millyard evolved into the space we enjoy today. The following is a brief outline of the way the Powow River has powered the development of Amesbury.
The Power of the Powow River
The Powow River watershed extends to Danville, New Hampshire, and encompasses about 58 square miles of land. The river meanders through several communities before flowing into Lake Attitash and Lake Gardner and then reaching the falls in the millyard. From the upper dam in the millyard to the tidal waters in Heritage Park, there is an 80-foot drop in elevation over a distance of about a quarter mile.
It is the flow of the river and the potential to power water wheels that attracted mill and factory owners to the millyard.
The historical record provides a glimpse into the progression of industrial developments along the river. William Osgood built his sawmill in 1640, and others followed. Of note was the addition of a grain or grist mill, an oil mill (to press flax or sunflower seeds), a fulling mill (to wash wool fabric), and even an iron works. By 1792 there were at least five dams and an assemblage of over 14 mills that created a thriving industrial community.
Growth and development in industrial activity continued through the 19th and 20th centuries. Textile mills first appeared in the 1812. By 1880, both sides of the river was lined with a nearly unbroken five-story wall of brick wall created by the mills built for the making of cloth.
The mills used waterwheels and then later turbines connected to gear works, wooden and metal shafts and leather belts to provide the power needed to drive the machinery. Each floor was filled with machinery creating a density of activity and sounds not seen before. Like other New England towns, the river supported the development of Amesbury’s industrial economy and created a new way of life – working in the mills.
Mill owners built dams to create a reservoir in the hopes of providing a flow of water throughout the year. In times of drought – there was not enough water for the mills to operate and workers would be left to find other ways to make a living. When the water was abundant, it was released by a control gate into a raceway which channeled it to the turbines and waterwheels.
There are a few features still standing that are part of our water-power history.
The dam in the upper millyard is a 1985 restoration of a much-earlier wood-frame or crib dam. There was a dam on this site as early as 1710. Water from this dam was directed into two different raceways – one to power Mill 2 (now Amesbury Industrial Supply on High Street) and the other to power the machines in the Perkin’s Nail Manufactory which was the site of Mill 8. These raceways are gone or buried by parking lots and roadways.
Lake Gardner Dam was constructed in 1872. It was part of a significant investment in the power system for the mills. With the dam in place, Lake Gardner was formed with an area of 80 acres of water that could be used by the mills.
In 1916, new owners of the millyard built a hydroelectric station at Lake Gardner and at Mill 5 in the lower millyard. The construction of these two electric power plants was considered “the most important and far-reaching” engineering project in the history of the town. The power station at Lake Gardner dam included a generator and 800 horsepower turbine. The Mill 5 hydroelectric station required construction of a 600’ long penstock that ran from the upper millyard dam, across Friend and Main Street, and then to a newly constructed power house that was 42’ x 47’. The turbine and generator in Mill 6 could produce over 1000 horsepower.
We have not determined when the hydroelectric plants stopped producing power. The power station at Lake Gardner was removed in the 1990s. Looking across the Powow in the lower millyard, remnants of the power station are visible under the transformer station on Mill Street.
Watching the dramatic flow of water today provides a reminder about this history and how the Powow River has been a source of power for Amesbury for centuries.