The Amoskeag Millyard and the Booms and Busts of Manchester

by George W. Easley

A Mill and a City

The Amoskeag Millyard in Manchester, New Hampshire molded rural New England farmland on the Merrimack into a shining industrial boomtown, into a post-industrial wasteland, and finally into a budding hub of the modern information economy. The Millyard, a mass of red brick and steel, can perhaps best be understood as a locus of power – the powers to pull, create, destroy, inspire, and revitalize. The purpose of this investigation will be to understand how intertwined the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company’s millyard is with the fate of larger Manchester. By exploring the theme of power in the context of natural and man-made geographies, this project will arrive at the conclusion that, to a large extent, “…the Amoskeag was [and is] Manchester.”1

The Power to Attract

The mill’s site on the Merrimack had a history of exerting heavy “pull” effects on regional populations. Prior to European settlement, the location upon which the mill now sits was renowned among native tribes for its resources. “Amoskeag” in the Penacook Indian dialect loosely translates to “abundance of fish,” and the location sustained a number of tribes over the centuries.2 Prior to its growth into a center of manufacturing and creative power, the site of the millyard had to have had the power to attract capital. Simply, “[t]he Amoskeag Manufacturing Company existed because of the enormous power of the water flowing over Amoskeag Falls on the Merrimack River in what is now Manchester.” The site is at the center of a fifty-four-foot decline in the elevation of the river over roughly half of a mile; it is the single most conducive site to hydropower on the river.3

In 1825, a group of investors - namely Larned Pitcher, Ira Gay, Dr. Oliver Dean, Lyman Tiffany, and Willard Sayles - reorganized a preexisting local mill company into the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. Over the next several years, the company built out a small industrial complex and village on the Merrimack’s west bank.4 By virtue of relative success and favorable location, the manufacturing company attracted the attention of prominent Boston financiers. These men – who counted prominent families like the Amories, Cabots, Lowells, Lawrences, and Appletons among their ranks – led the reorganization of the Amoskeag in 1831 as a stock company with the potential to raise $1 million. By 1834, the Amoskeag had acquired 15,000 acres of land on the east bank of the Merrimack and was poised to shape Manchester’s future.5

The Boom Years: The Power to Create

At this point, the Amoskeag began exercising its landscape-changing power. Of the 15,000 acres of land purchased by the Amoskeag, only 700 were allotted for industrial development; the rest of the land would be for lease and the construction of a new industrial boomtown. Every part of the city that would be built over the next century was directly attributable to the actions of the Amoskeag; even the reversion rights to city hall were owned by Amoskeag for nearly a century.6

The firm quickly built out its industrial infrastructure, operating its own mill by 1841. More mills were built throughout the early twentieth century. In 1871, the firm built a new dam to satisfy its growing energy needs and augment an 1830s canal system. The company fleshed out its operational capacity by constructing additional foundries, machine shops, spaces for lease, and a hydropower plant, as well as occasionally buying out regional competitors.7

The Amoskeag Locomotive Works
Amoskeag Buildings Constructed Post-1840, including the Amoskeag Locomotive Works. Image Credit: Manchester Historic Association

Contemporary with the construction of the millyard was the development of the City of Manchester, primarily to accommodate employees and the secondary economic and civil activity the firm brought. The construction of the city was almost entirely at the behest of the company. For example, the grid system that Manchester sits upon today was drawn up by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in the first half of the nineteenth century.8 Public buildings were often situated upon land donated or sold at next-to-nothing prices by the Amoskeag, and worker housing (tenements) grew up around the millyard at the firm’s expense.9

The Manchester Grid
This map sheds light on how the Amoskeag planned the growth of the city of Manchester. Image Credit: Manchester Historic Association
Amoskeag Manufacturing Company Tenements
These tenements are a prime example of how the millyard was the epicenter from which Manchester was created. Image Credit: Manchester Historic Association

Beyond the creative power of the company to alter the physical landscape, one would be well served to understand the economic behemoth that could afford such an undertaking. The physical site of the millyard drew its power from its commercial output. By 1912, at the peak of its power, the firm operated 31 turbine water wheels, 203 boilers, 12 steam engines, 4 steam turbines, 80 electric generators, and 370 electric motors that produced a staggering 183,100 horsepower. In terms of revenue generation, this energy output translated into approximately 260,000,000 yards of cloth and $50,000,000.10

One Day's Product
Each day, the Amoskeag produced the pictured quantity of cloth. Image Credit: Manchester Historic Association
Turn-of-the-20th-Century Tax Assessments
From the late 19th Century, the appraisal of the firm’s taxable assets increased each year without fail. Image Credit: Manchester Historic Association

Naturally, this combination of physical construction and economic output gave the millyard the power to attract a diverse group of people from a range of countries. By 1912, only 8% of Amoskeag’s labor force was American-born; the rest were made up of Poles (8%), Greeks (11%), Irishmen (13%), and French-Canadians (51%); the remaining 9% was an amalgamation of Germans, British, Scots, Swedes, and Lithuanians.11 In a labor force of 15,500 within a city with a population of roughly 50,000, the Amoskeag and the secondary economic activity it fostered possessed ample power to alter Manchester’s community makeup.

Hand-drawn Tenement Layout
Shown here is a hand-drawn plan of the Amoskeag worker tenements from the early 20th century. Image Credit: Manchester Historic Association

Industrial Decline: The Power to Destroy

While the Amoskeag Millyard demonstrated immense creative power, because the fate of the entire city was tied up in its 700-acre millyard, it also had the power to cause precipitous decline. Though the New England textile industry was kept alive by the needs of the First World War, mills started closing their doors shortly thereafter. Under the weight of technological disadvantages and intense competition from southern mills, mills in industrial cities like Lowell went bankrupt, foreshadowing the end of their counterpart in Manchester.12

Beginning with the Strike of 1922, the Amoskeag Manufacturing company entered into a sustained decline. The nine-month long strike caused large numbers of workers to relocate, and the Amoskeag saw its business taken by Southern firms.13 Following the strike, the Amoskeag attempted buyouts of competitors, but all of the firms suffered the same ills; New England was no longer competitive in textiles. In 1925, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company restructured. The Amoskeag Company, a separate holding company, would hold the cash and real assets of the former Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, while a separate entity, the new Amoskeag Manufacturing Company would operate the facilities.14 This decision left the manufacturing arm with inadequate liquidity to continue operating.

Bewteen 1929 and 1935, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company suffered a deficit of $5,000,000.15 By 1935, a quarter of the Amoskeag workforce had left to find work elsewhere. By November of that same year, 22.8% of Manchester’s families claimed welfare benefits.16 Unable to find new business contracts and too cash-strapped to sustain itself, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company declared bankruptcy on Christmas Eve, 1935.17

In 1932, the Amoskeag’s physical assets were valued at $27,234,888. Image Credit: Boston Manufacturers Mutual Fire Insurnace Company
By 1936, the Amoskeag’s PP&E were appraised at a total value of $24,071,730. Image Credit: Coston Manufacturers Mutual Fire Insurance Company.

By mid-1936, the millyard was set for auction, and would likely have been auctioned off to foreign property speculators had it not been for an enterprising group of Manchester elites. This group of investors raised $5,000,000 in just thirty days to acquire the company and all of its assets. In total, they purchased 104 buildings, two canals, machinery, tools, vehicles, and 106 tenement buildings and reorganized as Amoskeag Industries.18 Headlines in Manchester trumpeted: “Yankee Courage Saves Amoskeag.”19 The new management of the Amoskeag undertook a vigorous leasing campaign, and within 18 months, 40 new industries populated the millyard, including textile shops, machine shops, bakeries, bottlers, and trucking companies, among others. Over the course of approximately 20 years, Amoskeag Industries sold off all of the manufacturing company’s assets and leased building space to 132 businesses.20

Beginning with the construction of Interstate 293 in the 1950s, however, more people and businesses were drawn out of the city.21 Tenants fled the millyard, and by the early 1960s, a number of individuals advocated tearing down the millyard and rebuilding. By the late 1960s, most manufacturing had left the city, and by 1969, the millyard was largely abandoned. The canals of the Amoskeag had become open sewers and were filled in in the 1960s as part of a project that simultaneously razed several millyard buildings to widen roadways.22 The millyard entered into a period of decline and neglect for about two decades.

By 1972, industrial flight left Manchester a husk of its former self. In the words of Hunter S. Thompson while covering the 1972 presidential campaign, Manchester was a “broken down mill town with an aggressive Chamber of Commerce and America’s worst newspaper. There’s nothing much else to say for it.”23

A Millyard Ghost Town
In the late sixties and early seventies, the millyard was largely abandoned. Image Credit: Historic American Buildings Survey

An Inflection Point: The Power to Inspire

While the millyard had lost its economic vitality, its larger symbolic value could still work on the imagination. Indeed, the Amoskeag Millyard had a storied history of representing New England and American values. A number of American Presidents visited the millyard, but perhaps the most famous visit was that of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, in which he praised the high-quality work of the mills. Presidents Grant, Hayes, Harrison, Roosevelt, and Taft would follow.24 During the First World War, the mill was selected to produce the massive “All American Flag” (pictured below), which toured the nation and was featured in National Geographic as part of the pre-war preparedness initiative.25 In this way, the millyard had long been intertwined with key American figures, ideas, and patriotic endeavors.

The All American Flag
The Amoskeag played a critical role in patriotic campaigns during the Great War. Image Credit: Manchester Historic Association

The trajectory of the imposing brick structure on the Merrimack reached an inflection point when its symbolic power resonated with entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen. A native of New England, “[t]o Dean, [the mill] symbolized a time when American engineering and technology had led the country to greatness and changed the world.”26 Before selling AutoSyringe to Baxter HealthCare for $30 million, Kamen would acquire two 70,000 square foot buildings with the ultimate goal of turning them into his own personal spaces for invention and experimentation.27 When interviewed in 1984, he told the Union Leader that his overarching goal for the millyard was to “bring the area to a point where it has a large enough high-tech base that it starts developing itself.”28 Soon enough, Kamen’s campaigning on behalf of the millyard began to catch the attention of Boston-based technology firms, particularly in the Route 128 Belt. These often early-stage and barely-profitable entrepreneurial ventures desperately needed affordable space.29

Revitalization: Renewed Creative Power

Beginning in the early 2000s, an increasing number of technology startups found new life in the millyard. For example, internet performance company Dyn moved to the facility in the mid-2000s with 15 employees; its offices now house over 350 employees.30 Firms like Dyn initiated a domino effect that made the millyard increasingly popular as a prospective home for other tech firms. In addition to millyard-born-and-bred firms like Dyn, established tech industry players like Autodesk have also occupied the space. The space that once provided the livelihood for over 15,000 textile workers is now home to over 30 tech firms’ headquarters and satellite offices.31 Beyond the tech industry, the US military has since invested a $300 million investment effort in the millyard to create a regenerative medicine laboratory headed by Dean Kamen.32

The Dyn Offices
The interior of the Dyn offices shows how the once decrepit mills have been transformed into attractive workspaces. Image Credit: *Politico*

These companies have also fostered a great deal of secondary economy activity. Museums, restaurants, and educational institutions have moved to Manchester to take advantage of a growing information economy. For example, UNH has moved a number of STEM educational programs to the millyard to expose its students to the tech world, as well as provide them with internship and entry-level job opportunities. In a more commercial space, Hilton has announced a 106-room hotel that will be completed in 2018.33

The View of the Millyard today from the Merrimack. Image Credit: *Politico*

In the millyard’s recent history of revitalization, location has once again played a key role in determining the city’s fate. According to an October 2017 exposé in the New York Times, both Kamen and tech firms acknowledge the centrality of the site in relation to major research institutions like Dartmouth, Harvard, and MIT, in making it more attractive than other locales.34 For example, in 2016, Retrieve Technologies CEO Dave Arnold argued that the millyard’s appeal lies in the fact that “It’s close enough to the 128 Belt to bring people up, and close enough to Boston to do things we need to do there.”35 A number of tech industry employees further cite the proximity to New England natural resources like the White Mountains as a significant draw to prospective employment in Manchester.36

The reintroduction of a modern economic engine to the City of Manchester has been paying dividends, particularly in how outsiders view the city. For example, in 2017, Conde Nast named Manchester to its top 10 “underrated cities for millennials”; the Wall Street Journal has dubbed Manchester a new wave “silicon city”, and Manchester has been garnering substantial press in the travel publications.37 While most still do not know of the dynamic changes in Manchester, the owner of Manchester’s Dancing Lion Chocolatiers provided the apt assessment: “It’s definitely changing. A lot of people don’t really understand this city. They think it’s mainly blue collar, but it’s a lot more than that.”38

Conclusion

The history of Manchester’s Amoskeag Millyard has been characterized by dramatic highs and lows. Since its construction, however, several themes have remained constant. By virtue of the millyard’s location, it was able to attract capital to build the world’s largest textile mill. Almost a century later, its location again would aid in attracting economic activity. By virtue of a combination of geography and economic activity, the space that is the Amoskeag Millyard has consistently possesed power – albeit in evolving forms. Before the mill was constructed, the place constituted a repository of sheer natural power as a result of the river’s descending flow. During the boom years of the mill, the space had the power to give life to an entire city. As manufacturing moved elsewhere, the mill had the power to drain the life of the city. Decades later, after the American economy reoriented toward new industries, the symbolic value the mill possessed was able to draw the attention of entrepreneurs. The power exerted upon the imagination of entrepreneurs like Dean Kamen created a chain reaction of investment that once again instilled the mill with the power to give life to Manchester.


  1. Tamara K. Hareven & Randolph Lagenbach, Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory-City (New York: Pantheon Books: 1978), 15.  

  2. Hareven & Lagenbach, 10.  

  3. Aurore Eaton, The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company: A History of Enterprise on the Merrimack River (Charleston: The History Press, 2015), 15. 

  4. Eaton, The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company…, 23, 30.  

  5. Eaton, The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company…, 31.  

  6. Colin Woodard, “How a 19th Century Town Became a New Millenium Marvel,” Politico, February 18, 2016, Accessed October 3, 2017, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/02/what-works-manchester-new-hampshire-renaissance-213639

  7. Eaton, The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company…, 32-40.  

  8. Betty Lessard & Holly Babin, Picturing Manchester: A Selection of Images from the Manchester Historic Association (Manchester: Manchester Historic Association, 1997), 70. 

  9. Eaton, The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company…, 59.  

  10. Eaton, The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company…, 42, 129.  

  11. Eaton, The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company…, 116.  

  12. Hareven & Lagenbach, 162-163.  

  13. Woodard, “How a 19th Century Town…”. 

  14. Hareven & Lagenbach, 302.  

  15. Eaton, The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company…, 144.  

  16. Eaton, The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company…, 145.  

  17. Woodard, “How a 19th Century Town…”. 

  18. Aurore Eaton, “CITY STORIES: Amoskeag mills makes a return from the depths of 1930s depression,” The Union Leader, October 25, 2011, B2.  

  19. Eaton, “CITY STORIES…” 

  20. Eaton, “CITY STORIES…”  

  21. Woodard, “How a 19th Century Town…”. 

  22. Woodard, “How a 19th Century Town…”. 

  23. Woodard, “How a 19th Century Town…”. 

  24. The Amoskeag Manufacturing Co. of Manchester, New Hampshire, a History, ed. George Waldo Browne (Manchester: Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, 1915), 158-162. 

  25. Eaton, The Amoskeag Manufacturing Company…, 131-133.  

  26. Woodard, “How a 19th Century Town…”. 

  27. Woodard, “How a 19th Century Town…”. 

  28. Woodard, “How a 19th Century Town…”. 

  29. Woodard, “How a 19th Century Town…”. 

  30. Lisa Prevost, “A Millyard Transitions from Textiles to Tech,” New York Times, March 14, 2017, Accessed October 3, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/realestate/commercial/commercial-real-estate-manchester-millyard.html

  31. Prevost, “A Millyard Transitions from Textiles to Tech”.  

  32. Joe McQuaid, “PUBLISHER’S NOTEBOOK: Manchester’s Millyard is born anew,” The Union Leader, December 26, 2016, A1.  

  33. Prevost, “A Millyard Transitions from Textiles to Tech”. 

  34. Prevost, “A Millyard Transitions from Textiles to Tech”. 

  35. Woodard, “How a 19th Century Town…”. 

  36. Woodard, “How a 19th Century Town…”. 

  37. Diane Bair & Pamela Wright, “With jobs, diversity, and renovations galore, Manchester, N.H., should not be ignored,” Boston Globe, September 29, 2017, Accessed October 20, 2017, https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/travel/2017/09/28/manchester-rising-with-jobs-diversity-and-renovations-galore-this-city-should-not-ignored/URy7tREfunlzV80QCGSCLK/story.html.  

  38. Bair & Wright, “With jobs, diversity, and renovations galore, Manchester, N.H., should not be ignored.”