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Portsmouth Aqueduct Company Piped Water through Logs

portsmouth Aqueduct  logHISTORY MATTERS

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.

Timber aqueduct pipe unearthed at Strawbery Banke Museum in 2016

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.




Portsmouth Aqueduct Company in Market Square / Portsmouth Athenaeum

Too big to fail

The history of the Portsmouth Aqueduct Company in the 19th century mirrors the city itself. The battered economy, the arrival of trains, the use of steam power, the rise of the thirsty breweries, the growing population, urban sprawl, new hotels, indoor plumbing, new fire pumpers--everything increased the demand for water and the resulting profit to shareholders.

In 1842 the PAC assessed a surcharge of $5 per annum for houses with two or more females.  When vandals bored holes in logs in 1867, the company offered a substantial reward for their capture. By  then, water lines tapping the newest source finally included pipes made from cement or iron.  

Two years later a new set of surcharges were added. Houses valued at over $500, for example, were assessed an additional dollar. Houses with indoor baths and water closets owed the company $2 more per year, while those with stables owed $3. Customers who wasted water or neglected to cap the flow were warned. PAC customers caught sharing water with others or were six months late on payments were unceremoniously shut off. Rather than dicker with the Aqueduct directors, tycoon Frank Jones built his own water line to serve his brewery, companies, and home.  

By 1873, while the nation was going through an economic panic, The Portsmouth Aqueduct Company had 1,500 customers. Profits were up, but so were expenses. Former NH Governor Ichabod Goodwin, then company director, authorized the purchase of 12,000 feet of “composite” pipe to tap another new water source. The company had spent funds to add cisterns, pumps, and reservoirs to its network. But they had also invested other funds shrewdly and pumped up user fees.

Portsmouth Aqueduct Company office at bottom left in Market Square / Portsmouth Athenaeum photo

Cashing it their chips

For decades locals had been critical of the city’s privately run water system, but all they could do was complain. There was not enough water pressure. The pipes occasionally ran dry. There were too few outlets to access during fires. Workers replacing ancient wooden logs were apt to find them infested with rats, frogs, or snakes. Other cities were developing sophisticated municipal water and sewer systems as the 20th century dawned.

PAC directors were often slow to react. The money was good, but the headaches were increasing. A key opponent, Marcellus Eldredge wanted a better price for the enormous flood of water he needed for his Eldredge Brewery. The process required five barrels of water to make a barrel of ale. It was the Gilded Age when politics and commerce merged in rooms thick with cigar smoke. Conflict of interest was common. Eldredge was not only a major customer, but also a stockholder in the Aqueduct company and a former city mayor. Ale tycoon Frank Jones, another former mayor and a principal in the competing Portsmouth Water Company was, at the same time, trying to buy up the aqueduct holdings. Meanwhile, 2,000 locals petitioned the city to purchase the Aqueduct  company.  

Finally in 1891 the shareholders agreed to cash in. The city purchased the Portsmouth Aqueduct Company for $150,000, equivalent to about $4 million today. City alderman Daniel Marcy complained that they had purchased “a lot of rotten logs.” But the aqueduct purchase included a complex delivery system, a wealth of paying customers, and a range of water sources, pumps, cisterns, and a reservoir. Over 94 years the $83 starting value of a single share of stock in the Portsmouth Aqueduct Company had risen to $3,057. The rich got richer.

Four years later, by 1895, the city had a working municipal water system in place and, initially, it even returned a profit.  Today the Portsmouth regional water system includes 190 miles of water pipe (not wood),  972 fire hydrants  2,840 valves  and 8,203 metered customers. We consume between 3.5 and 6.5 million gallons of water daily. But until the soaking rains return and the drought eases, please forget about watering that lawn.    

A NOTE ON SOURCES: In the mid-1950s Portsmouth Herald reporter/editor Ray Brighton published a detailed history of the Portsmouth Aqueduct Co. in a five-part front-page series. Historian Bruce Ingmire added his research to the Portsmouth Press in the 1990s. These key sources and more are available at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.   

Copyright © 2016 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of a dozen  history books on topics including  Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. He latest book is MYSTERY ON THE ISLES OF SHOALS: Closing the Case on Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873.  


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