Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Ezekiel Straw, Manchester's essential man
On the west side of Pine Avenue in the Valley Cemetery is a granite monument with the simple letters "E.A. Straw" carved near the bottom.
Ezekiel Albert Straw's accomplishments were essential for shaping both the Amoskeag Millyard and the City of Manchester. He was born in Salisbury, New Hampshire in 1819. His family moved to Lowell, Massachusetts when he was a small boy so that his father could find work in one of the new textile mills. Ezekiel graduated from Lowell High School, and among his classmates was Gustavus V. Fox, who became Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War. A second was the future Civil War general and governor of Massachusetts, Benjamin F. Butler. In 1850 Butler was a defense attorney, along with future President Franklin Pierce, in the famous Jonas Parker murder trial in Manchester.
After high school Ezekiel studied mathematics at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. In the spring of 1838, he was hired by the Lowell and Nashua Railroad as an assistant engineer. Within a few weeks, he was asked to come to Manchester to cover for the engineer of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company who had taken ill. Ezekiel started this job on July 4, 1838, when he was 18 years old. The Amoskeag was just beginning to build its new millyard on the east bank of the Merrimack River. Ezekiel planned to return to Lowell in a few weeks, but he so impressed his managers that he was invited to stay on permanently as a civil engineer. He would remain with the company for the next 40 years and would become hugely influential in its success.
One of Ezekiel's first jobs was to draft the layout of the central part of the new center of Manchester. The Amoskeag planned to transform the sleepy town into a modern planned city. Ezekiel plotted out the plan for Elm Street, several side streets, lots for future houses and business buildings and areas for parks, including what is now Veterans Park and Victory Park. The terrain was cleared and staked out so that the first land sale could take place on October 24, 1838. This grid system design would gradually be extended over the 14,000 plus acres that the Amoskeag controlled on the east side of Manchester.
Ezekiel assisted in the building of the two water power canals in the Amoskeag's millyard. From 1837 to 1840, he also worked on the design and construction of a stone dam across the Merrimack River above Amoskeag Falls. The damming of the river created the giant millpond used to feed water into the canals.
Ezekiel became an investor and incorporator of Manchester Mills, a textile manufacturer in Hooksett. The company was interested in expanding into the millyard in Manchester where it planned to produce muslin delaines, a light woolen fabric for women's dresses. To prepare for this venture, in November 1844 the company sent Ezekiel to England and Scotland to learn about the machinery and techniques used for producing this type of textile. He returned from Europe with a wealth of useful information. In 1846 Manchester Mills contracted with the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company to construct the first of a series of factories, plus housing for its workers. The company leased water power from the Amoskeag. This enterprise would eventually shift its focus to producing printed cotton textiles, and would become known as the Manchester Print Works.
In 1851, Ezekiel was named agent of the Amoskeag's Land and Water Power Company. He was charged with overseeing the company's land and buildings, including the further development of the city landscape. He also supervised and improved the water power system. Two granite-lined canals funneled the water of the Merrimack into large pipes called penstocks that ran through the mill buildings. Water wheels and turbines transferred this power to elaborate systems of gears, shafts, pulleys and leather belts that ran the looms and other machinery.
Water power engineering was in its infancy in the United States at this time, so success was dependent upon the creative application of scientific and mechanical principles, combined with a genius for invention. Ezekiel Straw personified this approach in his endeavors as an engineer and as a manager.
Next week: A Valley Cemetery Story — Ezekiel Straw takes the helm of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company..
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org