MANY years ago I read, in some old chronicle of the early history of New England, a paragraph which has ever since haunted my memory, calling up romantic associations of wild Nature and wilder man:–
“The Sachem Wonolanset, who lived by the Groat Falls of Patucket, on the Merrimac.”
It was with this passage in my mind that I visited for the first time the Rapids of the Merrimac, above Lowell.
Passing up the street by the Hospital, a large and elegant mansion surrounded by trees and shrubbery and climbing vines, I found myself, after walking a few rods farther, in full view of the Merrimac. A deep and rocky channel stretched between me and the Dracut shore, along which rushed the shallow water,–a feeble, broken, and tortuous current, winding its way among splintered rocks, rising sharp and jagged in all directions. Drained above the falls by the canal, it resembled some mountain streamlet of old Spain, or some Arabian wady, exhausted by a year’s drought. Higher up, the arches of the bridge spanned the quick, troubled water; and, higher still, the dam, so irregular in its outline as to seem less a work of Art than of Nature, crossed the bed of the river, a lakelike placidity above contrasting with the foam and murmur of the falls below. And this was all which modern improvements had left of “the great Patucket Falls” of the olden time. The wild river had been tamed; the spirit of the falls, whose hoarse voice the Indian once heard in the dashing of the great water down the rocks, had become the slave of the arch conjurer, Art; and, like a shorn and blinded giant, was grinding in the prison-house of his taskmaster.
One would like to know how this spot must have seemed to the “twenty goodlie persons from Concord and Woburn” who first visited it in 1652, as, worn with fatigue, and wet from the passage of the sluggish Concord, “where ford there was none,” they wound their slow way through the forest, following the growing murmur of the falls, until at length the broad, swift river stretched before them, its white spray flashing in the sun. What cared these sturdy old Puritans for the wild beauty of the landscape thus revealed before them? I think I see them standing there in the golden light of a closing October day, with their sombre brown doublets and slouched hats, and their heavy matchlocks,–such men as Ireton fronted death with on the battle-field of Naseby, or those who stalked with Cromwell over the broken wall of Drogheda, smiting, “in the name of the Lord,” old and young, “both maid, and little children.” Methinks I see the sunset light flooding the river valley, the western hills stretching to the horizon, overhung with trees gorgeous and glowing with the tints of autumn,–a mighty flower-garden, blossoming under the spell of the enchanter, Frost; the rushing river, with its graceful water-curves and white foam; and a steady murmur, low, deep voices of water, the softest, sweetest sound of Nature, blends with the sigh of the south wind in the pine-tops. But these hard-featured saints of the New Canaan “care for none of these things.” The stout hearts which beat under their leathern doublets are proof against the sweet influences of Nature. They see only “a great and howling wilderness, where be many Indians, but where fish may be taken, and where be meadows for ye subsistence of cattle,” and which, on the whole, “is a comfortable place to accommodate a company of God’s people upon, who may, with God’s blessing, do good in that place for both church and state.” (Vide petition to the General Court, 1653.)
In reading the journals and narratives of the early settlers of New England nothing is more remarkable than the entire silence of the worthy writers in respect to the natural beauty or grandeur of the scenery amid which their lot was cast. They designated the grand and glorious forest, broken by lakes and crossed by great rivers, intersected by a thousand streams more beautiful than those which the Old World has given to song and romance, as “a desert and frightful wilderness.” The wildly picturesque Indian, darting his birch canoe down the Falls of the Amoskeag or gliding in the deer-track of the forest, was, in their view, nothing but a “dirty tawnie,” a “salvage heathen,” and “devil’s imp.” Many of them were well educated,–men of varied and profound erudition, and familiar with the best specimens of Greek and Roman literature; yet they seem to have been utterly devoid of that poetic feeling or fancy whose subtle alchemy detects the beautiful in the familiar. Their very hymns and spiritual songs seem to have been expressly calculated, like “the music-grinders” of Holmes,–