Lake History

Great East Lake, originally known to the local indigenous people as Newichawannock, has a long and storied history. And there’s no better place to learn about the lake’s history than from Newichawannock Reflections – Memories of Great East Lake. Published in 1998 and again in 2007, it’s available from numerous local convenience stores.

Below is an excerpt.

Excerpt from Newichawannock Reflections

The Industrialists: Great Falls Manufacturing Company

At the turn of the nineteenth century, an early industrialist from Dover, New Hampshire, ventured north along the Salmon Falls River, in search of “white coal” – water power. What he found had an impact for the next century on the fortunes of Great East Lake, the river’s source miles to the north, as well as the economic development 25 or more miles downstream.

Just one of hundreds of farsighted entrepreneurs in the young American nation, 35-year old Isaac Wendell, a Quaker from Dover, saw more than beauty in the water rushing over the ledges into the ravine between Saw Mill Hill and the Somersworth shore. He saw both water power and economic power.

Great East Lake, in what was then a remote, sparsely settled area surrounded by forests and dotted with small farms, is the headwater of the Salmon Falls River and its falls. This river, which runs almost due south, became the early boundary between the provincial grants that eventually became the states of New Hampshire and Maine. Downstream, the river flows into the Piscataqua River, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, then through the Gulf of Maine, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

When Wendell visited this semi-wilderness, dozens of small dams had been built along the river to power mills for sawing lumber, carding wool and grinding grain.

Records indicate that Wendell and his son, Isaac P. Wendell, came to the falls in what is now Somersworth in 1822, just a year after the senior Wendell had founded the Cocheco Manufacturing Company in Dover.

According to a 1942 Dartmouth College thesis on the company, written by James B. Malley, Wendell Jr. recorded this about his father’s reaction to the falls: “My father, with his quick perception, at once realized its value as water power for manufacturing purposes.”

At this time, the young nation was in the midst of an economic heyday. An embargo of British goods from 1807 to 1815 had created the need to establish manufacturing centers on this side of the Atlantic, and the country was beginning its evolution from an agrarian society to an industrial power.

In 1800, just 300 manufacturing firms were incorporated in the nation. By 1817, five years before Wendell trekked north to investigate the potential for water power, there were 2,000. And by 1830, 1,900 firms were incorporated in New England alone. A third of these were in manufacturing and mining.

It’s not clear why Wendell engaged an agent to buy the land he needed to secure the water rights. In his thesis, Malley wonders whether Wendell was unpopular with the farmers, just too busy at Cocheco, or hiding his enterprise from that company.

But for more than a year, through May of 1823, a man named George Varney negotiated land and water rights with the goal of securing them on “both sides of the Salmon Falls River from the New Dam Level back to the source of the river at Great East Pond.”

He also bought a mill owned by Gershom Horn and others. He spent a total of $22,815 for land and water rights south of the lake.

In the next three months, these parcels changed hands two more times, from Varney to Wendell in May, and from Wendell to the newly chartered Great Falls Manufacturing Company on July 5, 1823.

The firm, created by an act of the New Hampshire legislature on June 11, 1823, was less than a month old.

Because setting up a manufacturing operation was usually beyond the resources of an individual, groups of investors began forming the first formal business corporations. These early corporations, in which the group shared the risk and the profits, had to be chartered by state legislatures.

Because much of the land and water rights were in Maine, the company was also chartered in that state on February 24, 1825.

In this enterprise, Wendell and two relatives, Abraham W. and Jacob W., were 20 percent owners. The majority stockholders were investors from Boston, and by 1828, the Wendells were out of the picture.

Their venture came as textile manufacturing in the United States was about 30 years old. The first mill was built in 1790 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and by the early 1800s, Boston and Lowell were centers of textile commerce.

As Wendell’s operation got underway, mills were cropping up beyond these centers, wherever there was a ready source of power.

The firm manufactured wool, carpets, then cotton, in a large mill established on the shores of the Salmon Falls River in Somersworth (previously called Great Falls), New Hampshire.

Portions of the oldest mills, and mill buildings constructed up through the 1920s, still dominate Somerworth’s riverfront and have housed manufacturing operations over the decades.

Once the company was incorporated and held rights to the water in the river, it expanded its hold on the source of the water – Great East Lake…

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