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The Day the Piscataqua River Exploded

50 tons of dynamite in one big blastHISTORY MATTERS 

The explosion took only seconds. At 4:10 p.m. on the sunny Saturday afternoon of July 22, 1905, a spout of water, rocks, and wooden timbers shot 150 feet into the sky over the Piscataqua River. An estimated 30,000 spectators saw in a moment what 50 tons of carefully placed dynamite could do. A chunk of an island off the Kittery shore was shattered by the hand of man. Henderson's Point was gone and a treacherous obstruction to navigation in Portsmouth Harbor was conquered. The public cheered and then packed up their picnic baskets for the train ride home. (Continued below) 

The event was truly historic. Never before in the United States, some said in the wide world, had so much dynamite been set off at one time. But the "terrible yet beautiful spectacle," the explosion itself, was only one chapter in a complex tale of politics and engineering. It was not the beginning of the story and it was not the end.  

First comes the drydock  

Water traffic down the swift Piscatauqa River had always been especially tricky, even dangerous, around a spit of land known locally as Pull-and-Be-Damned. The point, about 550 feet long and 750 feet wide at its base, poked out from Seavey Island in Kittery, roughly across the river from modern-day Peirce Island in Portsmouth. Henderson's Point, purchased by John and William Henderson in the 1760s, was a hazard to navigation during Portsmouth's commercial hey-day in the Age of Sail. It became a bigger problem, however, for the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, established in 1800, that expanded onto a series of islands, especially Fernald's and Seaveys on the Kittery side of the river.

As early as 1826 the U.S. Congress was considering building a major navy drydock for shipbuilding and repair at Portsmouth Yard. The Piscataqua was a deep naturally-defended port that did not ice-up in the winter, but the current was very fast and there was that nasty obstacle to navigation called Henderson's Point.  While Boston, Virginia, and New York got their federal drydocks, Portsmouth would have to wait until 1852, when, instead of a permanent stone drydock, Portsmouth's was built of wood.  Attempts to rebuild the rotting wooden drydock at Portsmouth failed to gain federal funding until the rise of the Spanish American War in 1898. Assistant Secretary of the Navy and soon President Theodore Roosevelt favored expanding the American navy. Soon Portsmouth was on the list for a million dollar drydock, and this time it would be built of stone.

 Henderson's Point before the explosion on July 22, 1905

Not of commercial value

The drydock project was an engineering feat of strength. Some 166,000 cubic yards of rock had to be removed in order to install over 20,000 cubic yards of cut granite and hundreds of millions of pounds of cement. Hundreds of skilled workers were paid $3 per day while unskilled workers received $1.60 per day. Debris excavated from the drydock became landfill between the islands that would eventually turn the navy yard into a 288-acre city unto itself. But the modernized shipyard for America's "New Navy" was still threatened by Henderson's Point. Large new battleships found it difficult to navigate the dangerous point and some captains refused to enter the inner harbor, preferring to load coal and other supplies via smaller ships at the mouth of the river.

Navy department brass and the head of the Civil Engineering Corp. pushed hard for the destruction of Pull-and-Be-Damned. Unless this outcropping was removed, they threatened, the costly new Portsmouth drydock "will not be available for a large number of the most important vessels of the naval service, and the usefulness of this yard will be largely impaired."

The plan was to remove the rocky obstruction completely to a level of 35 feet below low tide, thus widening this spot of the river by 400 feet. Opponents in Congress argued that, when compared to larger Atlantic ports, Portsmouth Harbor was not worth $749,000 in taxpayer dollars for the project. Portsmouth was dead commercially, they said, and had been that way for decades. But pro-navy forces won the day, insisting that the project was critical to making Portsmouth a viable modern naval station. No one mentioned, at least openly, the ongoing research into building an experimental fleet of submarines for underwater warfare. With the demolition money coming out of naval appropriations, the destruction of  "the point" began in August 1902.


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