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Portsmouth Aqueduct Company Piped Water through Logs


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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