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Sewalls Falls Recreation Area has a complicated history with electricity 

  • An old furnace in the woods of the Sewalls Falls Recreation Area is about the only remnant of a failed attempt to use the new hydropower for industry. Maddie Vanderpool—Concord Monitor

  • Archeologist Dennis Howe talks about the Sewalls Falls dam and hydropower project – remnants of which are still scattered around the Sewalls Falls Recreation Area in Concord today. Maddie Vanderpool / Monitor staff

  • Archeologist Dennis Howe talks about the Sewalls Falls hydropower works, remains of which  are scattered around what is now the Sewalls Falls Recreation Area. Maddie Vanderpool—Concord Monitor

  • Mechanisms that operated gates of the Sewalls Falls dam can still be seen within the Sewalls Falls Recreation Area.

  • Archeologist Dennis Howe talks about the Sewalls Falls hydropower works, remains of which  are scattered around what is now the Sewalls Falls Recreation Area. Maddie Vanderpool—Concord Monitor

  • Remains of the Sewalls Falls dam, including this retaining wall, are scattered around what is now the Sewalls Falls Multi-Use Recreation Area. Photos by Maddie Vanderpool / Monitor staff

  • To keep the power running when the river was unpredictable this building housed a coal-fired generator, now  at the Sewalls Falls Multi-Use Recreation Area. Maddie Vanderpool—Concord Monitor

  • Remains of the Sewalls Falls Dam are scattered around what is now the Sewalls Falls Multi-Use Recreation Area. Maddie Vanderpool—Concord Monitor

  • Remains of the Sewalls Falls Dam are scattered around what is now the Sewalls Falls Multi-Use Recreation Area. Maddie Vanderpool—Concord Monitor

  • ABOVE: The dam at Sewalls Falls was the longest ever built using the timber crib technology, in which logs where overlayed on bricks and stone. Maintenance proved difficult. Courtesy photos

  • LEFT: Generators inside the Sewalls Falls powerhouse, roughly a century ago.

  • An old furnace in the woods of the Sewalls Falls Recreation Area is about the only remnant of a failed attempt to use the new hydropower for industry. Maddie Vanderpool—Concord Monitor

  • The base of what was once the Sewalls Falls dam sits in the water of the Merrimack River at what is now the Sewalls Falls Recreation Area. Maddie Vanderpool—Concord Monitor

  • The main powerhouse that held generators back when Concord Electric Company operated Sewalls Falls as a hydropower operation still stands at what is now the Sewalls Falls Recreation Area. Maddie Vanderpool—Concord Monitor



Monitor staff
Monday, July 09, 2018

Even as New Hampshire tries to figure out what our energy future will look like, a stroll through one of the nicest parks in Concord gives a glimpse of our energy past.

In some ways, it’s not all that different.

You know today’s debate about the benefits and costs of power from solar vs. natural gas? They were debating costs and benefits at Sewalls Falls 120 years ago, although then the details included belt drives and electric wires.

Today’s concern about the effect of electric rates on industry? It was the same back then, when hydropower was pitched to lure a company that made poison specifically aimed at burrowing animals, which were a leg-breaking threat to draft horses on farms.

Today’s concern about fossil fuel power plants to backup intermittent renewables? A coal-fired steam plant had to be built next to the Sewalls Falls hydropower dam because people wanted those newfangled electric lights to turn on even when the river was low.

“There’s a lot of interesting history here,” is how Dennis Howe, an industrial archeologist, put it during a recent stroll through the Sewalls Falls Recreation Area along the Merrimack River in north Concord.

Before the boat launch

Howe, who lives in Concord, has long studied the area around Sewalls Falls – named after a Massachusetts judge who once owned the area – and has published a number of research papers about it. That includes several long articles in the latest edition of The New Hampshire Archeologist, the magazine of the New Hampshire Archeological Society, which prompted a recent tour of the site to get a better understanding of what used to be there.

These days the area is best known for the boat launch next to the rebuilt Sewalls Falls Bridge and its walking trails through woods along the river, which connect to a couple of nice beaches and loop past some dilapidated buildings into the Meadow Brook neighborhood. People are more interested in the beaches than the buildings, but a century ago those boarded-up structures, now standing behind chain-link fences, held cutting-edge technology.

Sewalls Falls was one of the first sources of the modern form of electricity, three-phase AC current, starting up within a year or so of the very first plants in the country. Howe’s research from some unpublished manuscripts goes further: He says that on Sept. 29, 1893, the Concord Electric Company steam plant on Bridge Street, which still stands in front of the Ralph Pill Building, fired up a steam power plant that sent three-phase electricity to a separate building, making it the very first such operation ever. That claim depends partly on definitions, however, and isn’t broadly accepted.

Here’s something that is broadly accepted: The dam at Sewalls Falls was the longest ever built using a system known as timber crib, in which logs were interlayed with stones and brick. That made for a beautiful structure but was not necessarily good in the long run because the dam and its associated timber-lined canal required frequent maintenance compared to the stone and concrete dams being built at the time. This contributed to financial problems that owners had over the years.

Last in line

The Merrimack River is dotted with small waterfalls and rapids, which was bad for river transport and good for industrial power.

Boats could make it over the rapids – “falls” is usually a bit of hyperbole – so canals were dug around them for transport in the days before railroads. You can still find remnants of canals around Sewalls Falls and Garvin Falls in Concord, including the name Towpath Road in East Concord. (A towpath is a path run next to a canal and were used by animals towing river craft.)

On the other hand, these rapids were good for industry because they provided a base for dams, boosting the height of the upstream water level. Manufacturers famously took advantage of rapids up and down the Merrimack River, using waterwheels to drive shafts that powered mills and looms, launching America into the Industrial Revolution.

Sewalls Falls is one of the northernmost of these rapids and was one of the last to be developed. Not until 1871 –a full three decades after a dam had been built on Amoskeag Falls in Manchester – the state Legislature gave a charter to the Sewalls Fall Transmitting Power Company, led by George Page.

Page was behind Page Belting Co., a Concord mainstay that made many of the leather belts used to power all those looms and mills. The company still exists making specialty leather goods, but back then it was an international industrial giant, one of the businesses that built Concord as a city.

Page thought the flat land around Sewalls Falls would be a perfect place to build industry that would use the river. As the project developed, it became obvious that as a site of new-fangled hydropower it could provide electricity not just for industrial machines but for all the electric lights that Concord and other cities wanted to have.

By 1894 the dam was built.

Three-phase power

This is where the debate gets technical. At the time the dam was being built – work began in 1892 – the business of developing and delivering electricity was only a decade old and it wasn’t clear how it should be done. Those two feisty geniuses Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were in the midst of a long and very public fight over whether DC power, the sort used by batteries (Edison’s choice), or AC power (Tesla’s choice) would prevail.

Howe’s article in The New Hampshire Archeologist goes into considerable debate about the issue, including how the electric chair was developed for capital punishment by opponents of AC power, who argued that it shows high voltages were too dangerous to use, since DC power at the time was low voltage.

In the end AC won out because it could travel long distances, whereas widespread DC electricity required power plants to be built every few miles, and the Concord Land and Water Power Co. went with AC. They also benefited from some accidental timing, because three-phase or polyphase power had just been developed and it was much more efficient. Polyphase remains the standard to this day, which is why you’ll see three separate wires on most transmission lines. Sewalls Falls went online Feb. 28, 1894, less than a year after the first official polyphase site, in California.

Technical problems and river flooding – the dam was partly washed away before it was built and then flooded again in 1896 – caused the original owners, including Page, to go into receivership. The newly formed Concord Electric Company took over in 1901; it’s now part of Unitil.

Recreation area

The dam operated as a hydropower plant for some six decades but financial problems, worsened by the maintenance needs of that wooden dam and wood-lined canal, eventually led to hydropower operations ending in 1966. The dam and canal remained, however, and at one point a son of Nelson Rockefeller proposed building a modern, taller hydropower dam on the site. That idea was eventually derailed by environmental concerns.

The original dam was breached by flooding in 1984, putting an end to hopes of reviving it cheaply. In 1987, the state bought much of the surrounding property for a recreation area. Since then it has become a much-loved part of the city’s outdoor scene.

That’s fine by Howe, but the archeologist in him would like people to keep in mind the area’s long history, including its history before Europeans arrived. He appreciates the big, detail-filled signs that were installed next to the boat ramp talking about the area’s history – although if you carefully read how the signs refer to each other, you’ll see they were installed in the wrong order – but there’s plenty more to be learned.

Consider Taylor Chemical Company, which so far as Howe has been able to determine is the only company that actually built in the area to use the electric power. In another echo of today’s activity, they were lured here in 1895 by a capital-investment tax break from the city.

Deep in the woods, nowhere near any path, are a couple of odd-looking crumbling structures, including a strange-looking metal device, rusting away, and the remnants of a brick-lined oven. Uncovered in a 1985 survey by the state, they are all that’s left of two buildings that Taylor installed to do industrial chemistry using electric furnaces.

“It made poison to kill animals that burrowed, which were a major problem when horses and draft animals pulled farm equipment,” Howe said. “It took me several years to figure out what this was.”

However the company went bankrupt in 1897 – then as now, tax breaks are no guarantee – and abandoned the area by the turn of the century.

“This is the only industrial site we have found here,” Howe said. “But it is a good artifact.”

The main buildings from the hydropower operation, some accessible from the beach but most locked behind chain-link fences built by the state to protect the machinery stored there, have long been emptied of their generators and related equipment. A few remnants of the dam can still be seen in the river and the deep power canal will remain a feature of the geography for centuries, even as it fills in with trees.

So the next time you visit the Sewalls Falls Recreation Area to splash in the river or stroll through the woods, don’t forget what used to be there.

“I’d like more people to be interested in the history here,” said Howe. “It’s a fascinating place.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)