Portsmouth Aqueduct Company Piped Water through Logs
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 2
A quick overview of the private company that, beginning in 1797, delivered water to New Hampshire's only seaport through an elaborate network of hollow logs. Remnants of the wooden pipes from the Portsmouth Aqueduct Company are still being unearthed to this day. (Click title to read more)
It’s officially historic. Southeastern New Hampshire’s “severe-extreme” drought conditions are off the charts. Portsmouth city water restrictions are increasing. Weather forecasts are grim.
Historians, however, look backwards for relief. Last week, as if to remind us of tougher times, workers at Strawbery Banke Museum unearthed a chunk of the city’s early water delivery system. The hollowed wooden log once carried water to Puddle Dock via the Portsmouth Aqueduct Company. Such artifacts are not rare and can be seen at local museums and at the Department of Public Works. They reveal a strange and often forgotten chapter of an evolving seaport. This private enterprise, launched in 1797, profited for almost a century and, trust me, we’re better off today.
Water, water anywhere
Our first European settlers were afraid of water. The water in England had been polluted, so, at first, they eschewed bathing and preferred drinking beer, wine, and rum to the fresh clear streams of the New World.
Eventually they tapped springs and dug wells. But as the city expanded, access to water became a serious problem in the “compact area” downtown. Wells blocked streets, went dry, or were dug next to stinking privies. Fifty South-enders died of dysentery in a single year while 50 North-enders died of yellow fever.
During the city’s first economic boom, roughly 1790 to 810, local entrepreneurs were creating private solutions to public issues. A corporation owned by wealthy investors built the 2,362-foot Piscataqua Bridge to Kittery (with no federal or state funds). Venture capitalists built the 340-foot commercial Portsmouth Pier. They built banks, insurance companies, an indoor marketplace, even a public bath--all for profit and the public good.
Launched in 1797, the Portsmouth Aqueduct Company promised to bring fresh water to the city center within five years. It was flowing in two. The names of the original shareholders are familiar--Sherburne, Brackett, Ladd, Sheafe, Whipple, Peirce, Haven, Melcher, and more. Following a process used in Europe, the directors opted to build a water system made from trees.
The underground forest
Erase the bold architecture of towering Roman aqueducts from your mind. By definition, an “aqueduct” refers to any man-made channel for conveying water. Wooden logs were plentiful and cheap, as were the original aqueduct investors.
Hundreds of cedar logs, 10 to 14 feet long, were “docked” or stripped of their bark, then hollowed out. Skilled workers, employed by an Exeter contractor, drilled the two-inch diameter holes dead center (five inches diameter at the head of the network) using a an iron auger. One end of each log was shaved into a cone that was then fitted into the scooped-out end of the next log. The connections were sealed with pitch and “stapled” together with metal hooks. Pipes that branched off the main artery were made from softer pine.
Then, as now, water ran downhill. The underground system was gravity fed. The water came from bubbling springs to the west. The first “fountainhead” of the aqueduct was located along the Newington border, from the modern C&J Bus Terminal region and ran along the modern Portsmouth Traffic Circle. The drained wetlands produced more valuable real estate for urban growth. From a peak elevation of roughly 90 feet, three miles of linked logs, meticulously engineered, carried water towards the city center. The “trunk” line eventually reached to Bartlett and along Islington streets to the site of The Academy, today Discover Portsmouth. PAC director (and a well known privateer) Eliphalet Ladd lived directly across the street.
By 1801 the network served 214 homes and aqueduct investors earned $5.48 dividend (about $100 today) per share. Customers, or “takers” as they were called, paid $4 per year for a family of five, $5 for up to 10 members, and $6 for more. Customers paid 25 cents per foot for lead pipes that ran into the basement of each home. Water likely dripped into a wooden cistern that could then be hand-pumped or hand-carried upstairs, primarily for washing, cooking, and cleaning. Commercial vendors had to bargain for their rate based on use.
As the city expanded, so did the network of pipes. Water pressure was low, too low to be of help during the three devastating downtown fires of the early 1800s.
Wooden pipes clogged, froze, leaked, shifted, and had to be continually replaced. Vandals drilled holes. Roads were paved, lots subdivided, streets added. New sources of fresh water, most still used today, were added to the expanding aqueduct network. Although always profitable, an internal investigation in 1820 revealed that the company was losing money due to sloppy billing and poor administration. A new director tightened up the business and opened offices at 4 Market Square.
CONTINUE PORTSMOUTH AQUEDUCT COMPANY
Please visit these SeacoastNH.com ad partners.