Walking Distance: 5.8 miles
Special Note: At the conclusion of the blog, I've included details about the Nashua Manufacturing Company and photos of the existing mill complex.
Mine Falls is an island of 325 acres of forest, river, and wetlands surrounded by the city of Nashua. It was purchased by the City in 1969 for use as a recreational oasis. Before we moved to Nashua in the spring of 2021, we had heard about the park, but never visited it. Now it's my go-to location for running in the summer and fall. After a recent snowfall we decided to check out the winter scenery here. This map is provided courtesy of the City of Nashua.
The name "Mine Falls" is derived from the 1700s when low quality lead was mined from an island located below the falls. Although the falls have changed little during the past 150 years, the surrounding area has changed dramatically with concrete improvements to the dam and the addition of a hydroelectric facility. In the picture below, low water levels in the winter have exposed most of the 24 foot high and 145 foot long dam. Also visible is the penstock (bottom left) that diverts water to the hydroelectric plant.
Standing by the dam and looking down the length of the penstock toward the hydroelectric plant.
Because of security around the hydroelectric building (left of center) it's difficult to get close to the dam and falls. The snow and ice covered falls are visible in the distant center of the picture below.
The first person to seize advantage of Nashua's location on the Nashua River was Daniel Abbot. In 1823 Abbot and his partners chartered the Nashua Manufacturing Company to make cloth and to trade near the river. Their plan was to harness and control water diverted from the Nashua River to support textile mills operations. They spent 3 years (1822-1825), quietly acquiring land, building the dam and gate system at Mine Falls, and then digging a 3-mile long canal system to channel water to their mill site. At the planned site, a 36-foot drop in water levels at the waterwheels would power their textile looms.
In 1826, the first gate was installed to divert a portion of the Nashua River's flow to Mill Pond and the connecting canal system. Although the project was successful, the mills required additional consistent power. So in 1886, a state-of-the-art complex to divert water to the canal was built with five new lift gates protected by a brick gatehouse.
An engineering document titled "Jackson Mills and Mine Falls Dam Nashua, New Hampshire. Reconnaissance Report, Hydroelectric Feasibility. Volume 2. Mine Falls Dam" provides a diagram of how the gatehouse controls flow from the river into Mill Pond. According to this 1980 report, less than 4% of Nashua River flow is diverted into the canal system.
Even today the gates still divert water to Mill Pond. Inside this building are five 6ft by 9ft wooden gates which allowed water to fall 7 feet from the from the dam to the water level of the canal. Because of recent concerns of flooding if these gates failed, three of the five gates have been completely blocked and the remaining two gates reduced to 1/3 of their original size.
From the gatehouse, water enters the 25-acre Mill Pond which was created by flooding when the gates were first opened.
After the gatehouse, there are a variety of trail options. Some trails follow the river, others follow the canal, and still other weave in the area between the two waterways.
Someone got creative building a snowman on a fence post.
At Mine Falls you're never far from water. Two overflow spillways discharge water from Mill Pond back to the Nashua River resulting in several streams crisscrossing the park between the two waterways.
Water from Mill Pond flows directly into the 3-mile long canal. The canal is a simple ditch design with limited stone lining. There's not much to see in this ice-covered section of the canal.
Something and someone was vey trusting of the "not so deep" ice.
The canal is on average 35-60 feet wide and 6-10 feet deep.
Presently, water flow through the canal is negligible in order to allow recreational use. There are several spots along the trail where bridges provide access to both sides of the canal.
A cross country skier's dream, fresh fallen snow without footprints or other tracks.
Less than 1/2 mile before the canal ends we arrived at the overlook for Oxbow Lake. This lake is squeezed between the canal and the Nashua River. Oxbow Lake was formed as a result of periodic flooding of the river over extended periods of time. As waters receded from these flood plains, new channels and permanent water-filled depressions were formed.
We approached the end of the canal as it weaved its way through the start of the industrial area.
Surprisingly, the canal came to an abrupt stop at Pine Street in downtown Nashua. Water from the canal flows through a concrete box structure and discharges to the Nashua River through an underground pipe beneath the Picker Building in the mill complex. What an unassuming end for this engineering feat that contributed so heavily to the City of Nashua success during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
At this point we walked around some of the wooden mill buildings and rejoined the path as it wound its way along the opposite end of Oxbow Lake and the banks of the Nashua River. The wetlands around Oxbow provide important habitat sanctuaries for local birds and wildlife.
We followed the river for a short distance before the path took a more inland route
For some reason we felt like we were walking down the middle of a church nave on this section of the path. The upper branches seemed to form a dome-like shape.
In no time, we were back to walking along the canal and wrapping up our walk of Mine Falls Park.
Hike distance 5.8 miles.
I couldn't resist including these two pictures that were taken at Mine Falls during the fall. It's a beautiful location during every season.
Side Trip Wandering Around the Old Nashua Manufacturing Co. Mill Complex
The Nashua Manufacturing Company's smokestack was built in 1881-82 and is unique among the great textile manufacturing sites because it’s structural shape is not round but instead a tapered square. The 215-foot smokestack is located several hundred yards from most of the existing mill buildings.
The Nashua Manufacturing Company site operated from 1823 until 1945 when it was sold to Textron Corporation. The company's first three years of business were focused on acquiring land, constructing the dam, and digging the canal. Once those tasks were completed, they focused their attention on building the mill complex.
Mill #1 was completed in 1825 and during the spring of 1826 the waters of the Nashua River were set loose into the newly dug canal, providing the first power to its waterwheels.
In 1827, Mill #2 was built and in full operation by 1828. This six story high building features the elaborate clocktower which even today is impressive and dominates the skyline. By 1835 the two mills employed 417 females and 87 males who operated the 11,000 spindles and 388 looms.
Mills #1 and #2 were run by breastshot waterwheels. In this type of wheel, water flows onto the wheel about half way up and pushes the blades of the wheel downwards as it falls. The water then continues to flow underneath the wheel, pushing it more as it flows forward. By carefully guiding the entrance and exit of water from the wheel structure, the loss of kinetic energy was greatly minimized which led to greater output power.
Mill building #3 and #4 pictured below were slower coming on-line. In 1836 Mill #3 was added giving the company over 32,000 spindles and 710 looms with an annual production of 9.3 million yards of cloth annually. Almost another decade passed before Mill #4 was built.
Although the canal now terminates at Pine Street, when the complex was operating the canal flowed in front of the mills as shown in this 1920 plot plan. Individual penstocks, or pipes, from the canal supplied water directly to each building's power apparatus.
With the addition of Mill #3 and #4, new technology was brought on-line. These two mills were now run by water turbines wheels. In these wheels, the water enters from above the horizontally placed wheel. Water turbine could deliver much more power than a water wheel for the same amount of water supplied, thereby improving the productivity of the machinery. As shown below, the turbines were attached to shafts which in turn were connected to gears and pulleys which produced mechanical power to run the machinery.
Construction at the complex continued for over 90 years until the mill complex grew to 34 buildings on a 61-acres that stretched along the southern bank of the Nashua River. Despite the growth and new construction, the focal point has always been the long row (circa 1830s-1860) of 5 brick buildings situated along the river.
Originally each mill was a separate structure. Starting in 1856, the space between the mills was gradually enclosed until a single continuous building of 1,000 feet in length was obtained. This is the building design that we still see today. At its peak in 1912, Nashua Manufacturing Co. employed over 3,000 people and by 1928 was reputed to be the largest blanket mill in the world.
It was fun wandering around the mill complex and snapping pictures of what remains from this powerhouse of a company.
Mill #7 was built in 1904 and the clocktower added in 1913. The building forms the boundary with other downtown buildings. Mill #7, the last substantial mill to be erected, supported the the company's increasing blanket business.
Just separate from the mill row is the Picker Building (1866) where picking and carding were carried out. These are the first steps in the cotton manufacturing process. In the most simple of definitions, carding involves removing impurities from cotton fibers and lumps so the cotton can be drawn into sliver or combed threads.
Mystery solved! With no mill operations and no operating penstocks, the canal now discharges water to the Nashua River through an underground pipe beneath the Picker Building.
The Wheel House is set into a hill in front of Mill #3 and #4. It was originally built in 1874 to house water turbines which provided mechanical power to run the textile machinery. The present building, however, dates to the early 1900s.
Across the river from the row of mills is the South Cotton Storehouse which was built in 1916. It represents the last major building period of the complex. The building is connected to the row of mills via the Warren Truss Bridge built in 1902.
The bridge was originally covered in wood and was designed to transport raw cotton to the production mills located across the river.
Originally the Cotton House, pictured below, provided warehouse space but later the building was converted to support turbines operations for boiler and steam production. There is an impressive cast iron steel pipe structure on the back of the building but I haven't been able to identify its purpose. Key dates relative to power production at the complex:
In 1882, the mills converted from water power to coal-fired boilers.
In 1902, the mills were fully electrified but also continued to utilize steam boilers
Some areas of the mill are struggling to stand up to the test of time.
Women in the Textile Industry
As mentioned earlier, in 1835 the Nashua Manufacturing Co employed 417 females and 87 males. This heavy reliance on women was not unusual in the industry. People believed that machinery made textile mill work "easy" enough for women and children to provide most of the labor, under the supervision of male overseers. Nonetheless, some of the working and living conditions such as 12- to 14-hour workdays for six days a week for both adult and child workers; low wages; deafening noise; dangerous machinery; unhealthful, fiber-laden air; and overcrowded housing made the work far from "easy". Typical pay for these workers in the mid 1800s was 30-50¢ per day.
Women wore long dresses, long sleeves, and long hair, and being careless could be disastrous. Catching a sleeve in the machinery meant losing a hand or an arm. A strand of hair, fallen out of its bun in the humidity and into the machinery could cost a woman her scalp. The women worked very carefully, holding their bodies well away from the moving parts as they reached in to fix a problem.
Young women typically toiled for only a few years in the mills during their late teens and early twenties before marrying and leaving the factories to start a family. Other women, however, such as widows, spinsters, and poor immigrants, could work for many more years.