The seeds of our material world were sewn here. In a century New England turned from rural farms to machinery-driven factories. The Seacoast fell on hard times, then revived under the thumb of its first "robber baron".
Like young fiddler crabs in old shells, we still inhabit the remnants of 19th century Seacoast, New Hampshire. Scarcely a town in the region is without its red brick factories; Somersworth, Dover, Exeter, Rollinsford, Newmarket, Rochester, the Berwicks and towns westward are defined by them. The fabric, shoe, furniture and leatherboard mills have turned to trendy condos, offices and restaurants. Even where the factory complex has crumbled, at Wadleigh Falls in Lee or Wiswall Dam in Durham, the evidence of their energy remains. As rabid consumers, tied now to computer workstations instead of looms, we owe much of our identity to the early Industrial Age.
By 1800 the abundant fish, timber and fur that had drawn the early European settlers were gone. The British govenor had been driven out, so had the Native Americans who had lived softly on the land for 12,0000 years.
Portsmouth Harbor was booming as the century dawned. The new federal navy yard was open. Wealthy families kept domestic black servants and slaves and grew richer in the "triangle trade" with Europe and the West Indies or through privateering. The old State House, a symbol of a liberated United States, still stood in the middle of a bustling Market Square.
It was this cosmopolitan atmosphere that drew a young Daniel Webster to settle his new law practice in Portsmouth in 1806. But the prosperity was short-lived.
Humiliated by the American Revolution, the British struck back. The War of 1812 and the resulting embargoes on trade hammered the seafaring economy. A series of three devastating downtown Portsmouth fires flattened hundreds of wooden buildings, and in their places, the rebuilt downtown took on its current mantle. Discouraged by dismal prospects, Webster and many young residents like him left the region for greener pastures.
The economy was not dead, of course, only sleeping. Farms sprung up to the west. The maritime industry in Portsmouth continued. Some of the finest clipper ships in the world would come from Piscataqua yards. For the first half of the 1800s, 10 ships were produced per year on average, down from 25 annually in the past. But these ships were larger, requiring nearly equal hours of labor.
As America looked Westward, so did New Hampshire. The encroaching railroads moved from Boston to the new manufacturing capitals popping up at Nashua, then Manchester, to Dover and then Portland by 1845. Farm families, even independent young women, flocked to New Hampshire towns, creating a very new social order.
Slowly, the infrastructure of the industrial revolution was assembled cog by cog. New banks were chartered. Roads and bridges were constructed. The old wooden Portsmouth business district was replaced by brick and granite structures. Social organizations, women's clubs, library guilds, schools, insurance companies, medical services, fire stations all evolved to serve a changing population.
By the middle of the century, New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce was President of the not-so-United States. The whole country, it seemed, was in transition, and no leader could hold together a nation that was doubling in size and divided against itself. Hoping to salvage the country, Abraham Lincoln campaigned in Dover and visited his son at Phillips Exeter Acadeny. The "gentle giant" won and the carnage began.
War, as it would often do in the 20th century, pumped new life into the region’s economy, even as it drained the lifeblood of its young men. Among many warships, the navy yard built the famous USS Kearsage; half-sailing ship, half-steamship, Kearsage was the perfect image of the 19th century as it metamorphosed into the machine age.
Flat-bottomed gundalows carried more and more bricks upriver, as factories replaced sawmills at every dam along the five finger rivers of the Piscataqua region. In Portsmouth, meanwhile, two entrepreneurs, Thomas Laighton and Frank Jones launched careers that would flesh out the shape of things to come.
An investor in the failed Portsmouth Whaling Company, Laighton decided to build a hotel in the most unlikely of places -- 10 miles out to sea on the Isles of Shoals. Thanks in part to his daughter, island poet Celia Thaxter, the Appledore Hotel became a Mecca for the Boston literati. Artists like Childe Hassam and writers like Hawthorne, Whittier and Emerson embossed the Seacoast region onto early sight-seeing maps. Sarah Foster, a local painter and writer, seized the opportunity to produce the first pocket-sized guidebook of Portsmouth's historic houses in 1864. The dawn of a flourishing new tourist industry was born.
At the same time, a poor farm boy from Barrington had found his way to the big city of Portsmouth. Before the century ended, he would own much of it. Frank Jones tried his hand at nearly every venture that might make money. While the rest of the region focused on textile factories, Jones decided that the expanding underclass of factory workers needed beer, lots of beer. Tapping the flow of immigrant labor, Jones' huge brick factories soon made him "King of the Alemakers."
Jones used that fortune to buy a small piece of railroad. Constructing the region's largest span bridge of its time, Jones finally brought the railroad to Portsmouth, linking it to the west at last. In the style of a true "robber baron," he became president of the Boston and Maine Railroad. His fortune led him to own hotels, banks, insurance companies, race horses. His political career as Portsmouth mayor and a U.S. Congressman were marked by controversy. He died in 1902, but the empire he owned, including the stately Wentworth and Rockingham hotels, is still a part of the historic region today.
By the end of the 19th century, the Age of Sail was all but dead. Poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich describes the rotting wharfs jutting out into the harbor at what is now Prescott Park. Along Water Street there, a dozen houses of "ill-repute" catered to a rough seafaring crowd. The Seacoast had fallen into another of its many economic ebbs.
Three tragic events serve to slam the door on the 1800s. First, in 1896, the Cocheco River flooded, tearing a hole in the center of Dover and filling the river with silt and debris. River traffic that has seen 100 ships a year trading goods from Dover to Europe was ended. One year later, a Boston politician arranged to have "Old Ironsides" towed quietly out of Portsmouth Harbor where it had been a local curiosity and source of pride for 15 years.
Then in 1900, an elderly Sarah Foster, author of the nostalgic guide to "old" Portsmouth became the first person in New Hampshire struck and killed by an electric-powered trolley car. Times were changing; the pace we know so well was revving up. The 20th century had arrived.
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