Water Power, Industrial Manufacturing, and Environmental Transformation in 19th-Century New England

Module Elements

From the time Puritans settled in New England in the seventeenth century to the decades after the American Revolution, the region’s landscape was dotted by small mills that used water power for sawing wood, grinding grain, and carding wool to meet the needs of local communities.  During the Industrial Revolution, however, corporate investors established mills and factories for manufacturing that harnessed water power on much greater scale and toward different ends, producing an extraordinary bounty of textiles, shoes, paper, and iron goods for markets near and far.  Unlike the older mills, which relied on dams that could be lowered or removed during spring freshets and typically featured some version of a water wheel, the industrial enterprises depended on ever-higher permanent dams to make huge mill ponds that fed turbines to turn intricate belt systems. 

The environmental impact of the new dams was immediate and dramatic, blocking migratory fish and flooding upstream meadows.  Some local residents responded by removing flash boards and tearing down whole structures, or at least attempting to do so.  Initially, they did this openly, empowered by both custom and law to take matters into their own hands and fix a “public nuisance” themselves.  And when states passed laws making dam-breaking a crime, aggrieved residents continued to act surreptitiously and under cover of night.  Others filed lawsuits against offending corporations but, over the course of the nineteenth century, courts increasingly interpreted riparian (water) law in favor of industry.  The older principle of “reasonable use,” requiring users to do no significant harm to other users, gave way to the notion that water use for manufacturing had precedence over fishing and farming because it provided a greater public good. 

As industrialization intensified and cities grew around the increasing number of mills and factories, many streams and rivers also became open sewers.  Manufacturers dumped millions of gallons of waste into waterways where it mixed with copious amounts of raw municipal sewage, greatly worsening the frequency and severity of disease epidemics.  Some local and state governments tried to address the problem by creating boards of health and passing pollution control laws.  Yet even the strongest legislation had significant gaps, making exceptions for heavily industrialized and urbanized areas and providing for only limited enforcement.  At the same time, corporations filed lawsuits of their own, questioning and subverting various aspects of the laws.

New England’s water-powered mills and factories significantly altered people’s relationship to nature as well, particularly the first group of operatives recruited from the countryside.  These workers were primarily women, lured by the promises of comparatively high wages, corporate paternalism, and vibrant town culture.  As they migrated from rural homesteads to urban boarding houses, however, the shift from agricultural work to industrial labor severed the more direct connection they had once had with the land and its flora and fauna through traditional homestead tasks.  In response, the “mill girls” developed a working-class literary romanticism.  They wrote and published poetry, stories, and essays in journals and newspapers that blended musing on metaphysical aspects of the natural world with criticism of noisy, filthy cities and regimented labor in prison-like mills.

Mary Blewett, ed., Caught Between Two Worlds: The Diary of a Lowell Mill Girl, Susan Brown of Epsom, New Hampshire (Lowell: Lowell Musuem, 1984).

John Cumbler, Reasonable Use: The People, the Environment, and the State, New England 1790-1930 (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Thomas Dublin, ed., Farm to Factory: Women’s Letters, 1830-1860 (Columbia University Press, 1981).

Chad Montrie, The Myth of Silent Spring: Rethinking the Origins of American Environmentalism (University of California Press, 2018).

Chad Montrie, Making a Living: Work and Environment in the United States (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Theodore Steinberg, Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 1991).

Chad Montrie is a professor in the History Department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His most recent book is "The Myth of Silent Spring: Rethinking the Origins of American Environmentalism" (University of California Press, 2018).