Walking the Historic Streets of Portsmouth NH
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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Last week the online version of National Geographic magazine posted the headline: “Is Portsmouth the USA’s Greatest Small Town?” Judging by the enthusiastic review, we might be.
“Portsmouth’s a great walking town,” the travel reporter concluded during his 36-hour visit.
It was a long time coming, but the downtown surge of summer pedestrians and the resulting economic impact were predicted almost 60 years ago by the late historian Dorothy Vaughan. “The Old Town by the Sea,” Vaughan claimed, had the potential to draw thousands of tourists daily.
In 1957 the outspoken city librarian scolded the all-male Portsmouth Rotary for not preserving and promoting the city’s historic structures. Tourism, she prophesied, would someday revive the city’s sluggish economy.
History “drips off the eaves of our houses, hangs from our trees, and is in the brick sidewalks under our feet...Nowhere in America is there more of this thing,” Vaughan claimed.
“It seems to me that Portsmouth is missing the boat, and losing a lot of money,” Vaughan told Rotary members, “by not being aware of our wares--and I mean our American Heritage.”
“My talk may not have been very good, but it was effective.” Vaughan said years later, “It turned the tide.”
It was one thing for the city librarian to predict a tourist boom, but quite another to hear a similar message from “the man from Washington.” Early in 1958, the president of the National Trust, Richard Howland, told Rotarians and a packed house of locals that heritage tourism could be a “gold mine” for Portsmouth. One city councilor, after hearing Howland’s speech at the Rockingham Hotel, commented, “Why I had no idea the economic aspects of all this.”
Walking tours on the rise
The abundance of downtown walking tours is a strong indicator that Portsmouth, in Vaughan’s words, is becoming “aware of our wares.” Discover Portsmouth now offers a guided history tour seven days a week. The one-hour tour begins daily at 10 a.m. It was this tour, led by guide Jeff Thomson, that inspired National Geographic to give the city a top travel rating.
Tour manager Erika Beer has eight expert guides standing by, and recently added a 5pm walk each Friday.
“They’re all really good,” Beers enthuses over her new team of guides. “Through their longtime passion they are lovers of Portsmouth history. Many are former educators. They’ve read all the books and this is what they love.”
Beer, New Hampshire born and the mother of three, returned to the state four years ago after a decade working at nonprofit companies in Boston. In two-and-a-half years as volunteer coordinator at Discover Portsmouth, she has witnessed the rise in requests for guided tours, both by visitors and by residents.
“It definitely feels like the train has left the station,” Beer says, "and the momentum is building.".
The word is out. The little town that formerly “escaped most traveler radars,” according to one recent blog, is now showing up on lists praising the city’s cultural, scenic, shopping, and gustatory sites. It is the concentration of fascinating things to see and do within the city’s diminutive downtown that has bloggers gushing.
A review from the New York Times zoomed in on this key point in what has to be the best possible promotion for local walking tours. “Portsmouth and its pleasures are smaller scale,” a Times writer noted. “They’re also best approached on foot.”
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