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Rivers Bringing Us Together

New Hampshire - The Mother of Rivers

Posted on February 13, 2023

The flow of history in many ways is tied to the rivers that flow through our wonderful communities. Ever take a look at a map and notice how many towns and cities are located on rivers? Or even more interesting, how many communities are located at the intersection where two rivers meet? Or even three rivers, like Pittsburgh? Fascinating. And makes so much sense – given the importance of waterways for transportation and commerce in earlier days. Then, of course, cities and towns grew up around the rivers. And today, the rivers are deeply intertwined with our communities and the lives of the people who live there.

In my hometown of Newport, New Hampshire, the Sugar River flows right down through the middle of town and eventually makes its way to the Connecticut River 15 miles away. As you go through Newport, as well as the neighboring community of Claremont on the way to the Connecticut River, you can spot the old mills – the old brick buildings – former textile mills – that today are going through a rebirth and revitalization. Some are functioning as office space, others as beautiful apartments, overlooking the river, and some even as restaurants or hotels. But, in all cases, the river continues to be an integral part of the community experience.

What is true in Newport, has its roots in history. Back in 1804, two explorers by the name of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were given instructions by then President Thomas Jefferson that would change the course of our nation’s history forever. “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River and its streams and find the most direct route across this continent for the purposes of commerce.”

So, Lewis and Clark, along with their Corps of Discovery which included 40 men trained in skills from map making to fur trapping, blacksmithing to carpentry, set out on a journey along the longest river in the United States, the Missouri River. Some days they would travel as little as 5 miles, other days they’d do 20. Along the way they would discover over 178 plant species, 122 animal species, 50 Native American tribes, 24 of which hadn’t ever seen a white person before, and most importantly, a pathway to the Pacific Ocean that would eventually become part of the United States of America. When writing about the expedition, Lewis would go on to say, “It seemed those scenes of visionary enchantment would never end.”

Throughout the world, rivers are the lifeline of so many communities and countries. Iconic names like the Thames in the UK, the Seine in France, the Nile in Egypt, the Amazon in Brazil, and the Mississippi in the U.S. symbolize not just bodies of water, but vast watersheds that connect people, places, and other forms of life, inspiring and sustaining diverse cultural beliefs, values, and ways of life. Rivers are a vitally important lifeline to our communities and our way of life. They provide us with not only food, water, and recreation, but they also have incredible social, cultural, scientific, and economic benefits as well.

In the United States alone, there are over 3.5 million miles of rivers. They’re often referred to as the lifeblood of our society because the natural value they bring to our communities far exceeds the value of man-made infrastructure. They’re essential to our histories and cultures, blending their way through our heritage, as we see right here in the State of New Hampshire where many of the mills that once thrived here achieved their place in history thanks to the abundance of rivers and streams throughout the state. Yet the incredible value of rivers tends to lack recognition as we’ve become more urban. Beyond the sheer economic value, rivers connect communities and people to one another in ways that even lakes or oceans cannot, and for this reason alone they should be defended and championed. And even more so, we celebrate the unifying qualities of the rivers that give our communities energy and life.

New Hampshire is known as the Granite State, but it also has several different nicknames that suit the state, one such being the ‘Mother of Rivers.’ This is due to the fact that many New England rivers find their origin in New Hampshire with some of the more well-known ones being the Connecticut, Pemigewasset, Merrimack, Androscoggin and Saco Rivers. Moreover – ‘fun fact’ – did you know that even though New Hampshire is a relatively small state – there are nearly 11,000 miles of rivers in the Granite State?

And, there is so much history related to our rivers. In fact, it was because of the rivers that many colonists named towns and cities from other locations. For example, of the 26 towns that line the Connecticut River, many of them can trace their roots to towns down the river in the State of Connecticut. Rivers have played important roles in these regions, as it was the rivers which attracted industries such as milling to tourism to our iconic covered bridges.

The Connecticut River is the longest river in New Hampshire outlining most of the 255 miles of the state’s western border while flowing from Canada to the Massachusetts line. Its overall length is 401 miles – the longest river in New England flowing through four states and finally discharging into Long Island Sound. It is also one of the most extensively dammed rivers in the nation with several of these dams being used for power generation.

The Merrimack is the fourth largest river basin in New England, and out of its watershed come the Contoocook, Winnipesaukee, Nashua and Pemigewasset Rivers. The Merrimack famously is the river that, from the 1800’s to recent times, has formed much of the geographical line that has split the state’s first and second congressional districts.

While a river may be a reason to be divided geographically, Granite Staters have found a way to use it to unite communities – especially as we see an increasing number of riverwalks, and other fun ways to use our waterways – as described throughout this edition of the Sunshine Report.

The Rochester Riverwalk Story – Revitalizing a Great City

Today, the Sunshine Initiative is deeply involved supporting the development of a Riverwalk in Rochester, New Hampshire. There is leadership and inspiration from Mayor Paul Callaghan, along with a highly engaged committee of volunteers. All united in a vision – knowing that a Riverwalk – running along the banks of the Cocheco River and paralleling the main street – will dramatically impact the ‘connectedness and lifeblood’ of the community.

However, while all this positive energy and momentum is happening right now, our story begins about 18,000 years ago as the last glacier slowly moved across our state carving a new landscape and creating the Cocheco River watershed. The Cocheco River (meaning swift, foaming river) is only a little over 38 miles in length but has had great influence on the region. It begins in northern Strafford County and runs southeastward, through the town of Farmington and the cities of Rochester and Dover, where it provides hydroelectric power. Below the center of Dover, the river is tidal and joins the Salmon Falls River at the Maine border to form the Piscataqua.

It took another 10,000 years before the first aboriginal populations came into the area to fish and hunt. And then another big leap in time for the first European settlement to be established in 1640 which became known as Dover. The river played an important role in the Industrial Revolution as it powered many of the great mills, some which can still be seen today. Fast forward just a couple of hundred years and you’ll find the City of Rochester, and just like the Cocheco River which has gone through many changes over the years and as its waters rise and fall during the seasons, so did the fortunes of the city. Today the Cocheco River is recognized as an important natural, cultural, and historic community resource which is why the Rochester Riverwalk was formed to help bring the river back not just to its original glory but enhanced in a way to bring new life to the entire city by creating a destination point that seamlessly weaves the river in with the fortunes of the city!

Last year the Sunshine Initiative was invited to participate on the Riverwalk Committee. We’ve been helping to raise money with the creation of the “Let it Flow” Grant Sub-committee to support the many needs identified in the Master Plan. We worked with the Strafford Regional Planning Commission to get listed on CEDS (Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy) which opens us up to major sources of federal funds. We’ve identified some smaller grants including one for the arts that would involve the Rochester Museum of Fine Arts in developing an arts-themed event by the river. We’ve also reached out to Waypoint and will be talking with other organizations and businesses in the city on how to develop more collaboration.

And speaking of Waypoint, we’ve met with Paul Staller and others on their team and are in the process of creating our own team to help raise money for Waypoint’s Annual Sleepout while at the same time raising awareness of the Rochester Riverwalk. We want to support the splendid work Waypoint does especially with the opening of their new youth resource center in Rochester. We also need more people to become interested and involved with our efforts to bring the Rochester Riverwalk fully to life. We envision more than just a riverwalk by the river – we want to engage the rest of the city and provide artistic performances and other events in addition to kayaking and other water activities. We see ourselves teaming up with Rochester Main Street and possibly hosting a WaterFire event such as other river cities are sponsoring. The possibilities are endless, and all will benefit the great city of Rochester. So please come join us to raise money for our good friends at Waypoint for a great and worthy cause! Rochester Riverwalk Committee Waypoint Team – Annual Sleepout


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