MANCHESTER, N.H. -- A river runs through the heart of Manchester, and its ripple effect extends to the halls of the city's cultural treasures. Whether in a painting found on the wall of an art museum or under a renovated mill that houses a roaring robotic dinosaur, the Merrimack River -- the very reason for the city's existence -- provides the beginning of a romp through culture, history, and heritage.
The Amoskeag Fishways Learning and Visitors Center on the banks of the Merrimack is a spring draw, with its fish ladder, a series of 24 pools, each a foot higher than the previous one to help fish like shad, lamprey, and herring get to the top of Amoskeag Falls and around a hydro dam.
In winter, the ladder is dormant, but it's still possible to see area wildlife like eagles, mink, squirrels, and most certainly plump chickadees at the center. The downstairs, with its window to the underwater world, also houses such displays as a short video showing the incredible journey of Atlantic salmon and interactive exhibits that teach the parts of the fish.
A splendid wildlife mural in the stairway links the two floors. Upstairs, indigenous fish share a tank, while a green frog blends in with its surroundings. An Eastern painted turtle watches and waits. Think back to the days of Colorforms when you pin skins, spears, and pouches on the figures of the Native Americans who first inhabited the area.
Head downriver to Amoskeag Mill No. 3, built in 1844, where a visit is guaranteed to not only make your hair stand on end but plunge you deep beneath Queen City.
Two museums are located at the 200 Bedford St. complex: the SEE-Science Center on the fourth floor and Manchester Historic Association's Millyard Museum on the first. Like a kid on a sugar high, shoot up the enclosed glass tower staircase (not the original circular wooden ones from the mill days, which have been cordoned off) to the science center.
Opened in 1986, the hands-on museum lets visitors make some noise while learning a thing or two. At the forefront: the physical sciences, with exhibits including such disciplines as electricity, sound, magnetism, momentum, and optics. Future Leonardo da Vincis, Marie Curies, or even Dean Kamens could be spinning in the momentum chair or arm wrestling a machine during a visit. (Kamen, the Manchester inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, donated the space for the center.)
Learn how airplanes fly by shooting balls in the sky with the Bernoulli Blower. If you're 80 pounds or under, bounce on the moon during a simulated moonwalk. Ride the energy bike and turn on lights. In the optics room, rub the plasma generator for eerie light trails. The Van de Graff generator makes hair -- or what's left of it -- stand straight.
For natural science lovers, a couple of huge caged iguanas hang out at a mountain in the middle of the center. Younger children have their own area, where they can step into a plane, use building blocks, and go on a simulated archeological dig in the kernels of corn.
Through Feb. 29, the entire third floor becomes a mini-set for "Jurassic Park" with the exhibit "Dinosaurs!," a museum fund-raiser. With a separate admission, visitors can see robotic replicas of dinosaurs, complete with moving limbs, eyelids, and heads. The five scenes show dinosaur behaviors from birth to a fatal hunt. The dinosaurs have a tough plastic and rubber skin, which visitors can touch; they can also pilot a skeletal metal dino-robot.
After science, ride the elevator to the first floor for a trip through the city's history at the Millyard Museum. A self-guided tour leads visitors through a look at the area when it was first inhabited 11,000 years ago, then over a bridge to the textile industry, which put Manchester on the map. Follow that with a stroll down a miniature version of early 1900s Elm Street, the only main street in a US city that dead-ends at both ends.
At the museum, see the evolution of the city, from its Abenaki and Penacook inhabitants, who used the river for sustenance (Amoskeag means "place with many fish") and travel to the European settlers of the 1700s, who used it for irrigation and later started to channel the water's fierce power for early gristmills for flour and sawmills for cutting lumber.
Construction of the mills began in the 1830s, and soon the tremendous waters powered thousands of machines in the textile industry. The complexity of the river, canal, penstock (huge pipes through brick walls), and turbines demonstrates that mill work wasn't easy. One industrial accident killed three people in 1891.
On Thursday, which was payday, the shops stayed open late on Elm Street. Peer into the windows of yesterday's stores, when a ham sandwich was a nickel, and bacon and eggs 30 cents. A replica of the Moxie Bottle House, which once stood at Pine Island Park, a Manchester amusement park, begins the Elm Street stroll.
The mill attracted all sorts of immigrants, and the French influence is still felt today. For a sampling, head to the downtown Franco-American Centre on Concord Street. Built in 1910, it was once home to the Jolliet Club, which had several bowling lanes for its members. Now the three-story stone and marble structure contains art and historical exhibitions plus a research library dedicated to French-Canadian and Franco-American culture, heritage, and education.
The art gallery is a warm retreat from the winter's snow. Colors from the paintings of the juried artists glow under an ornate ceiling.
The library and museum upstairs, meanwhile, are crammed with 30,000 artifacts, such as books, paintings, and sculptures. Two hundred years of faces stare from the walls next to the sculptures and busts, mostly created by Canadian artist Alfred Laliberte.
Rare manuscripts, books, and genealogies, plus the record collection of New Hampshire French radio legend Joe Maltais, are housed in adjoining rooms. Much of the library was once the private collection of Canadian folklorist Adelard Lambert, who sold it to the Association Canado-Amricaine, now ACA Assurance, which bought the building in 1929.
The art collection at the city's cultural jewel, the Currier Museum of Art, near the city's north end, gives visitors an intimate look at the works of such European masters as Picasso, Monet, and Matisse. Modern American art is represented by such artists as Georgia O'Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth, whose first solo museum exhibit was in the Currier.
The museum is celebrating 75 years, and holds the 56th annual New Hampshire Art Association exhibition Feb. 13 to March 14.
The Currier's strength is in its devotion to such New England artists as Wyeth, who lived in Maine, and impressionist Edmund Tarbell, who retired to his summer home in New Castle, N.H. Manchester's mills grace a Charles Sheeler oil of the Amoskeag Canal painted in 1948.
Furniture and glassware has its place, too, from Colonial cabinets to intricate glass paperweights. Housed in a residential neighborhood on the site of a home once owned by New Hampshire Governor Moody Currier and his wife, Hannah, the museum opened in 1929. The second floor provides a wonderful spot to gaze down upon the zodiac mosaic in the airy court.
Another home-turned-museum is the fledgling America's Credit Union Museum on the city's west side. The three-story home looks out on the mills whose workers gave rise to a movement that has more than 80 million members nationwide.
Local pastor Monsignor Pierre Hevey, whose parishioners needed a safe way to save money and get credit, sought aid in the early 1900s from Alphonse Desjardins, Canada's credit union movement leader. With the help of Joseph Boivin, a lawyer whose home houses the museum, the first credit union in the country was established on the banks of the Merrimack in 1908.
A short video gives a rundown of the movement's history and the familiar Boston area names that were part of it. Edward Filene, whose father started Filene's, and Roy Bergengren, a Harvard-educated lawyer, were tireless supporters of the movement.
Heavy on text, the museum, which opened in October 2002, takes a somewhat dry topic and gives it life, much like the nearby Merrimack River did for Manchester.
Marty Basch is a New Hampshire-based writer.