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Walking the Historic Streets of Portsmouth NH

walking-steepleHISTORY MATTERS

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.”

Richard Candee walking tour by J Dennis Robinson

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.”




It’s about time

Touring NH’s only seaport on foot is nothing new, of course. The city’s 1823 bicentennial included a parade that wound its way through the various downtown neighborhoods. Historian Charles Brewster catalogued the city sights, street by street, in his 19th century book Rambles About Portsmouth. Sarah Haven Foster’s historic house guidebook, published in the 1870s, was small and delicate enough to fit inside a lady’s purse. More than a dozen printed guidebooks, including one half the size of a playing card, have been published since.

The “founding father” of Portsmouth walking tours was the late Bruce Ingmire, originally of Saratoga Springs, NY. A flight attendant for TWA by trade, Ingmire moved to Portsmouth in 1977. His history walking tour kicked off the first Market Square Day in 1978 and became a Portsmouth tradition. Dressed in 18th century garb, Ingmire offered a lively, humorous, and deeply researched tour starting from the steps of the North Church.

As the city adapted, often uneasily,  from its blue collar origins to a gentrified, tourist-friendly destination, Ingmire listened as often as he lectured.  It was the interplay between those who embraced change and those who clung to “old ways” that created a community, he said.

“Oral history has not been given enough attention,” Ingmire told a local newspaper in the 1980s. “Times change, and we need those lessons.”  Ingmire died in 1993 at age 46. The annual Market Square Day walking tour is named in his honor.

Walking Strawbery Banke Museum by Ralph Morang on

Along the harbor

Joan Chawziuk has been giving the Harbour Trail tour downtown for 18 years. A former Lowell school teacher and Nashua librarian, she is a walking encyclopedia of local facts and legends. At 81, still spry, Chawziuk is as excited about the popular Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce event as the day she started. She has seen the rising interest in historic tours first hand as foot traffic in the city grows. The Harbour Trail tour, that waned and faded, is now back on Thursdays and Saturdays.

“I love being in town,” Chawziuk says. “The energy is great. I’m having fun out there, and it doesn’t take people five minutes to figure that out.”

Chawziuk, who also narrates a lot of “step-on” tours for visiting charter buses filled with tourists, sees the world discovering Portsmouth. Last week her key visitors were from Israel and Russia. Tourists from Scandinavia, Germany, England, and Japan are common. They, along with a rising tide of American tourists and “come-from-aways” recently transplanted to Portsmouth, are curious about this charming walkable city. Telling that complex story in a one-hour tour is a challenging task.

Stepping up

There are, after all, nearly 400 years of unique Portsmouth stories to tell. We began as a profitable fishing outpost and a failed English plantation. We built ships, enslaved Africans, built mansions, welcomed immigrants, and fomented a revolution. Once a prominent world trade center in the Age of Sail, the city economy crashed and burned--and so did the downtown-- in the early 1800s. Portsmouth has been struggling back to life ever since. The current real estate and building boom, the parking crisis, the bustling downtown, the enthusiastic travel blogs, all indicate that Portsmouth is back in the high life again.

Now, more than ever, it is important to tell that complex story to visitors and locals alike. At Discover Portsmouth, Erika Beer and her team of guides have been visiting local hotels, B&Bs, and tourist venues. They are spreading the word that daily walking tours are now available. Special thematic Saturday tours, led by Prof. Richard Candee, also explore the origin of the city’s architecture and neighborhoods. Guides trained by the renowned historian Valerie Cunningham offer surprising insights into Portsmouth’s African American story.  

The word is out. But Portsmouth is more than the sum of its parts--more than great bars, fine restaurants, unique shops, and cultural events. We are here, all of us, because of the fast-flowing Piscataqua River and the history that swirls around it. Without our historic house museums, without our preserved architecture and stories from the past--as Dorothy Vaughan always said--Portsmouth would be Anywhere, USA. Our flourishing future--business owners take note-- is intimately linked to our peculiar past. And the past (forgive the pun) is just two feet away in tomorrow's walking tour.

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. His latest book Mystery at the Isles of Shoals, closes the case on the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018 
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