Five Reasons to Skate at Puddle Dock Portsmouth
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 2
I have a brilliant new idea. Let's build a skating rink in the middle of Strawbery Banke Museum. What say? Someone already thought of it? And you say a few people don't approve? Hmmm. I'm not much for politics, but I can tell you why this idea makes sense, a lot of sense, from an historian's point of view. (Click headline for full article)
1. That used to be water
They don't call it Puddle Dock for nothing. Up until the early 20th century the central field inside the museum gates used to be a body of water. "The Cove" flowed in from what is now the gardens at Prescott Park and under the Liberty Bridge where the flagpole still stands on Marcy Street. That explains why the houses at Strawbery Banke are ringed around a flat space once dotted with wooden wharves.
Hard to believe, but it has been suggested that the Cove at Puddle Dock once rose enough at high tides to allow a small boat to navigate into the South Mill Pond. Tucked safely in from the swirling Piscataqua River, this tidal cove was an important feature to the original English settlers in 1630. The museum grounds form what used to be the back yard of the original plantation or "Great House" that likely stood where the Oracle House is today.
The term Puddle Dock, like the name "Strawberry Bank," apparently derives from a location in England. The Puddle Dock region of London was a muddy area used as a dumping ground for barges carrying garbage collected in the city. Initially this area was the hub of Portsmouth maritime commerce. Before the Revolution, it was home of the rich, the famous, and the politically connected. The most powerful man in the province of New Hampshire, Lieutenant Governor John Wentworth, built his home at what is now the museum parking lot in 1695 overlooking Puddle Dock. But over time, our puddle also filled in with silt and by late in the nineteenth century it gave off a rank odor and was too clogged even for travel by canoe. The Cove was filled in and the neighborhood began to attract the city's immigrant and working-class poor.
In the 1950s and 60s, Dorothy Vaughan, the first president of Strawbery Banke, wanted to dredge out the site and create a fresh water pond with small replica boats in the summer and skating in the winter. A skating rink here, reflecting the preserved, snow-covered, wooden houses would be the ideal way to visualize the way things used to be.
2. It's the neighborly thing to do.
It is sheer coincidence, but just the other day a museum staffer found the blade of an ice skate in the basement of the Yeaton House on Atkinson Street. The rusty old skate is the kind that used to attach to the bottom of a boot. It may have been hanging around since the late 19th century. That doesn't mean the blade was used to skate on a nearby pond, but it serves to remind us that Puddle Dock was a neighborhood -- with stores, and kids, and families of all shapes, colors, and backgrounds.
Puddle Dock has been called "America's oldest neighborhood," and it was continuously occupied from 1631 until urban renewal in the early 1960s. A few renters have lived on the 10-acre campus ever since, and the new Heritage House program is creating income to restore 10 old buildings through residential and office rentals.
But most of all, since it opened in 1965, the museum campus has become a place of entertainment and education for all the neighborhoods of Portsmouth and beyond. Family skating in the winter is as natural to this historic site as the annual Candlelight Stroll and other seasonal events, including the July Fourth welcoming of new American citizens.
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