The Nashua River, just downstream from the Mohawk Tannery


 

I grew up in southern New Hampshire, in a town called Nashua. The town got its name from the river that runs through it. The river runs from northern Massachusetts, thru to the Merrimack River, and ultimately the ocean. Back in the 19th century the town was one a handful of mill cities along the Merrimack River, such as Manchester, NH and Lowell, MA.

Nashua was also the home to the Mohawk Tannery. For those who don’t know what a tannery is, let’s just say that that’s where animal hides are processed into leather. To borrow a description from Wikipedia “Historically, this process was considered a noxious or odoriferous trade and relegated to the outskirts of town, amongst the poor.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

When I was younger, I played on a football team, and we practiced a few miles downwind from the tannery. When the wind was just right the smell would be so bad that the players would get stopped in their tracks while running laps as they tried to catch their breath in between retching. It brought more than a few kids to their knees, vomiting in the bushes. Having grown up in New Hampshire I can tell you I would take the smell of a pig farm, chicken coops, or even a paper mill, over a tannery. If you don’t know what any of those things smell like, just go hang out behind your local Denny’s dumpster on a hot summer day.  It’s not the same, but you’ll get my point.

Back in the mid 20th century, when the tannery was running full tilt, and when there was little to no environmental regulations to speak of, there was an interesting game the workers at the local mills would play. When they came into work each morning they would punch in, and then grab a colored chip off the wall, and make their wager. Betting on what, you ask?

Well, what they were betting on was what color the river was going to turn that day when the tannery dumped its colorful toxic waste of chemicals and dyes. The picture at the top of this post is of the Nashua River on one such day. Yes, really.

We are actually at a point in our history when a large portion of our population has no idea that only 50 years ago this kind of thing was so common that seeing a clean river running through an industrial town was nothing more than a fairy tale.

I could go on about the Trump Administration and its reckless dismantling of regulations, or the need for the EPA and The Clean Water Act. I could tell you about how the Mohawk Tannery was one of the first Super Fund sites in the United States it was so bad. I could even try to pull on your heart strings by talking about kids swimming in raw sewerage, or dead wildlife. But I’m not going to do any of those things. Instead, I’m going to end this post right here, and ask you to stop and just look at this  picture of the Nashua River for a little while.

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