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50@50 Portsmouth, NH

  |   Blog, Exploring

I love attending music festivals – especially composer centric events where one can listen to 30-40 radically diverse new pieces from emerging and seasoned composers!  This year’s breadth of music was inspiring, motivating and also affirmed my creative work.  Crossing the continent to Portsmouth New Hampshire, I was eager to hear great music and to explore the landscape and culture of northern New England’s coast. Three concerts were performed in the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Built in 1807, the natural acoustics of the concave shell over the sacristy surprised some of the performers but provided a great sound for the audience.  Who needs microphones, anyway!  The last concert was performed in the Music Hall, built in 1878, one of the oldest in the country.

Archeological evidence places people along the shore of New Hampshire and southern Maine about 11,000 years ago. We’ll never know for sure because until about 6,000 years ago, the shore was up to nine miles further out than it is today.[1] Linguistically Algonquian like most northeast Native American tribes, the Penacook, whose name loosely means “at the bottom of the hill,” occupied the coastline as several distinct bands. They are closely related to the Abenaki, whose tribes occupied the hills further north, and aligned with them as the English encroached. Today their historic presence lives on in the place names of rivers, villages and other geographical sites.[2]

Located on the Piscataqua River’s estuary, Portsmouth natural harbor proved ideal for trade. With upstream industries providing raw products, Portsmouth became part of the triangle trade.[3] However, Portsmouth’s claim to fame, along with Kittery across the river, was the designing and building of ships. Old growth hardwood forests provided the finest hulls in the colonies, tall eastern white pine made for strong masts, thus the British began building Royal Navy ships here in 1690 with the completion of the Falkland. During the Revolution, three American warships were constructed here.

In deciding where to build the first federal Shipyard, the Secretary of the Navy looked for a protected harbor with an abundance of excellent lumber, access to related materials, and year round access. With the swift tidal current preventing the waterway from freezing, Seavey’s Island in the Piscataqua River was selected. As protection New Hampshire gave the government Fort William and Mary, initially constructed by the British at the time of settlement. Renamed Fort Constitution, it was rebuilt to protect

United States Navy Yard at Portsmouth NH

the naval yard and eastern seaboard. Established in June of 1800, the Portsmouth Naval Yard the oldest continuously operating shipyard in the United States. Famous as the site of the Treaty of Portsmouth which ended the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the culture of shipbuilding and the Navy is indelible.


A twist of history on how landscape shapes culture:  In 1740, King George II deemed boundaries as the center of a navigational channel. In a 1977 New Hampshire sued Maine over the boundary for lobster fishing. Going all the way to the Supreme court, the jury supported the 1740 decree clarifying that the boundary lies at the deepest valley of the channel, usually but often not in the middle. In 2001, New Hampshire claimed “taxation without representation” – that Maine had no right to tax New Hampshire residents for working on Seavey’s Island. The island, situated a bit closer to Maine, is very close to the center of the channel, and besides, it is named the Portsmouth Naval Yard. The US Supreme court again supported the physical landscape. So after 200 years, the Naval Yard is now in Maine.

The best way to explore this landscape and its history is by way of the Harbour Trail.  Totaling only 2 ½ miles it begins in Market Square exploring downtown, the waterfront, the south end and State Street. I meandered off the trail and onto Court Street around historic Strawberry Banke and southeast into the neighborhoods where 17th and 18th century houses predominate. Just for fun, we also walked across the bridge into Kittery for a more holistic experience of the shipbuilding history. For a more nature centered hike, Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge lies about seven miles northwest of Portsmouth. Two short trails offer the opportunity to explore the grassy shoreline and to bird watch. Urban noise interferes, but otherwise it’s hard to believe one is so close to a city.

Though the hands of ancient Americans, settlers and governments have managed and greatly altered the landscape of coastal New Hampshire, the inherent elements of the environment shaped its course and development over time. Music brought me here, but it is always wonderful to see how the landscape, the rugged coastline and the river’s estuary and nearby woodlands led to a way of life and continues to inspire artists.


[1]           http://des.nh.gov/organization/divisions/water/wmb/coastal/restoration/projects/documents/sea_level_rise_report.pdf

[2]           The Armouchiquois tribe, Abnaki for “Land of the little dogs”, of southern Maine are an extinct people whose allegedly ferocious history has reached mythical proportions. Shrouded in mystery and folklore, they lived south of the Saco River in Maine. They disappeared around 1631 due to disease and attacks from neighboring tribes- friendliness was not one of their virtues. What makes them fascinating are reports of their wonderful singing which could be heard from afar.

[3]               In a dark, largely suppressed chapter of history Portsmouth, along with Boston and Rhode Island, began importing slaves in the 1640s. While outlawed in Massachusetts in 1783, Portsmouth continued to import slaves until 1807. Slavery slowly and quietly disappeared; by 1830 only four slaves were recorded in the state.