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Merrimac Town


Merrimac Town Hall is located at 2 School Street, Merrimac, MA 01860; phone: 978-346-8013.

A small Merrimack Valley community in the state's northernmost corner, Merrimac [1] is bounded by Amesbury on the east, Haverhill on the west, the Merrimack River to the south and the New Hampshire border to the north. Its 8.6 square mile area includes serene views of the Merrimack River, more than 900 acres of farmland and a classic 19th century industrial village, Merrimac Square. Despite the imposing presence of I-495 and modern subdivisions scattered about the town, Merrimac retains a rural, small-town ambiance that is very important to residents.

Along with Salisbury and Amesbury, Merrimac was originally part of the Merrimack Plantation, a large colonial land grant that also included portions of New Hampshire. From Amesbury's incorporation in 1668 until 1876, Merrimac was part of Amesbury and by 1726, it had become known as West Amesbury or the West Parish. Throughout Merrimac's earliest years, it was predominately an agricultural settlement with an economy based on subsistence farming and cottage industries. To the east, Amesbury proper cultivated an increasingly diverse economy that included shipbuilding, fishing, hat making shops, an iron works and fulling mills.

The distribution of land uses and the structure of Amesbury's colonial economy played an important part in shaping Merrimac's future. While an industrial and commercial center took hold along the banks of the Powow River, rural Merrimac lay considerably west, accessible to its parent town by a limited road system and the Merrimack River. The roadways that defined the West Parish's pastoral identity occupied the valleys between Bear Hill, Brush Hill and Long Hill, and Brandy Brow Hill in neighboring Haverhill. These north-south routes, extending from the Merrimack River into Newton, New Hampshire, forged economic and social connections between West Amesbury and its northern neighbor. They form the basis for the rural character of northern Merrimac today.

West Amesbury was transformed by the Merrimack River Valley's role as the epicenter of the American Industrial Revolution. In the early 1800s, Amesbury and West Amesbury capitalized on their respective opportunities and took somewhat different industrial directions—Amesbury replaced its sawmills and shipbuilding center with textile mills on the Powow River, and West Amesbury's crossroads supplied the setting for an emerging industry of horse-drawn carriage shops. By mid-century, carriage assembly and spin-off industries had restructured West Amesbury's economy, triggered population growth and changed the character of the land. Moreover, industrialization supplied some of the impetus for secession. Expanding West Amesbury's carriage trade (which also existed in Amesbury proper) depended in part on building a rail connection to the Boston and Maine Railroad in Newton Junction, New Hampshire. The rail leg was built in 1872 and today, it serves as the Jay McLaren Trail.

In 1876, West Amesbury divided from Amesbury and was incorporated as the Town of Merrimac at a point in Massachusetts history when the rapid emergence of new population centers spawned a wave of incorporations across the Commonwealth. Merrimac appropriated nearly half of Amesbury's land base and two-thirds of its population, and within a decade, 29 local carriage shops employed about 500 of Merrimac's 2,000 residents. Like many communities born of the same era, Merrimac was a one-industry town. When the automobile signaled the end of horse-drawn carriages, it also posed new challenges to Merrimac's industrial base.

During the early 20th century, the community that had gained fame for its fine carriages produced custom automobile bodies for Cadillac and Packard. Nonetheless, the narrow composition of Merrimac's industrial economy proved fatal; the assembly line eclipsed demand for custom manufacturing, and ultimately the Great Depression disrupted industrial activity everywhere. Merrimac's unemployed left to find jobs elsewhere, causing a slight population decline between 1930-1940. Still, the legacy of Merrimac's industrial moment is a major ingredient in the current land use pattern. Carriage manufacturing and the auto body industry were focused along Route 110 and Merrimac Square. This concentrated industrial activity produced not only a formal town center with prominent commercial and institutional buildings, but also a residential enclave that housed much of the town's population. It also brought freight rail service into the heart of town, and facilitated Merrimac's enduring rural-economic character: a compact village nestled above a colonial riverfront settlement, leaving most of the town's remaining land to agriculture.

  1. Town of Merrimac, MA, Merrimac Master Plan, 2002, www.merrimac01860.info, accessed September, 2017.
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