William Gooch Cheney, one of the best documented gundalow captains of the Piscataqua, was born in Wells, Maine, on March 18, 1836. He was the son of James Cheney, Jr. and Theda Hilton.
In 1858 he married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Sargent, thought to be from the Tatnic area of South Berwick. Their first home in town is believed to have been the first Berwick Academy school building now known as the "1791 House," during the years when it was located not far from the Counting House Museum on Main Street. About 1859 they had a son named Jotham, and Elizabeth’s 19 year old sister Sarah lived with them and worked in the Portsmouth Manufacturing Company cotton mill. Cheney worked as a laborer, according to census records of 1860, and was quite poor, with a personal estate valued at $50.
At left, excerpt from South Berwick map of the 1850s showing the confluence of the Great Works River with the larger Salmon Falls River. Leigh’s Mill Pond is here today. The Counting House Museum is located near the “Tide Water” site shown on the map.
When the Civil War broke out, Cheney served in the military, but details are not known. After the war his fortunes seemed to have markedly improved. He is said to have acquired the ownership of a shingle mill at Yeaton’s Mills (at the falls also known as Leigh's Mills, at the confluence of the Great Works and Salmon Falls Rivers). Wood shingles were a product not just made by water power but also carried to market by the flat riverboats known as gundalows. Census records of 1870 valued Cheney’s estate at $1600. The family now had three children, Jotham, by then age 11, and two sisters, Sarah, nine, and Alidda, eight.
Right: Looking south from below the old mills at the confluence of the Great Works and Salmon Falls Rivers, 2004. The 1800s Yeaton Mills were on the site of the Chadbourne mills built in the 1600s. Gundalows carrying mill produce would have tied up here.
By 1880, when Gooch Cheney was 44, the census lists him as a “boatman,” and a map of 1872, below, shows him owning a house at the Upper Landing on today’s Pleasant Street. It was at this time that he is known to have become a gundalow owner and operator.
Known since early times as Quamphegan Landing, the wharf received cargoes from the seacoast and travelers from the world-- all carried by gundalows. Near where the town park is today, sheds and wharves once stood, filled with goods transported on the tides-- including cotton coming upriver to the factory, finished cloth going down, and coal for the gas plant. Since before the Civil War, the factory produced gas to light the lamps for workers during their long workday. The annual “lighting up balls” held in the Counting House ballroom are still remembered today.
Capt. Cheney was one of scores of river men who navigated the “wily waters” of the Piscataqua estuary and Great Bay throughout the 1700s and 1800s. The name of one of his gundalows was Hard Chance.
The Cheneys may have lived here on Pleasant Street
“Work on the new gondola being built at Freeman’s Point by William Fernald for Capt. Cheeney of South Berwick is progressing rapidly,” was a report in an 1881 newspaper. Freeman’s Point is just above Portsmouth.
By the 1880s, Cheney’s son Jotham, now in his 20s, had become a boatman too. He had married and with his wife Hattie lived in the Cheney household at the Landing. Sisters Sarah and Alidda were now in their teens, and Sarah worked in a shop. They were probably members of the First Baptist Church, where in 1871, when the congregation decided to raise the building up one story to make meeting rooms underneath, Gooch Cheney had been responsible for the work. Many years later, one of his grandchildren became the Baptist minister.
Local historian Bob Whitehouse tells a story about Capt. Gooch Cheney. One day, after reaching Portsmouth at the end of a gundalow voyage down the river, Capt. Gooch announced to his son and the rest of the crew, “We’ve got potatoes and salt pork for supper. Cook it up on the ship-mate stove.” So Jotham and their crewman cooked it up, but when it was time to eat, Capt. Gooch was nowhere to be seen. He came back aboard late at night, climbed into his bunk, and went to sleep. On another voyage down to Portsmouth some time later, after they had berthed their vessel, Capt. Gooch once again said, “We’ve got potatoes and salt pork for supper. Cook it up on the ship-mate stove.” But once again he wandered off toward town, leaving the two others, and came back to his bunk very late without eating. Some time later, the gundalow docked in Portsmouth again.
“We’ve got potatoes and salt pork for supper,” announced Capt. Gooch. “Cook it up on the ship-mate stove,” and then off he went, toward Market Square. This time, though, Jotham and the crewman decided to follow him. What did they see but the captain heading for one of the port’s finest restaurants, leaving the potatoes and salt pork for the others.
Left: Gundalow at the landing, late 1800s or early 1900s, with Berwick Academy’s Fogg Memorial in the background. Cheney may have owned some of the buildings in this photo, associated with his coal business. The gas-holder house, with a round roof, is next to the tree at left. The end of the cotton factory with chimney is visible at far left, behind another one of the cotton mill buildings at river’s edge.
The decline of the Portsmouth Manufacturing Company cotton mill in the late 1800s did not put Capt. Gooch Cheney out of business. He now owned a large retail coal business, supplied by river gundalows. He is also said to have owned considerable real estate in town, and thus may have been rather a wealthy man. He apparently owned several race horses. He died in 1895.
Capt William Gooch Cheney’s desk is part of the collection at the Counting House Museum in South Berwick. The Museum is open weekend afternoons from June through October from 1:00 to 4:00, and by appointment. Call (207)384-0000.
Research: Wendy Pirsig, Moira Smith, Robert Whitehouse, Clyde Whitehouse, Norma Keim, Richard E. Winslow III. This page revised February 2010. Sources:
Archives of the Old Berwick Historical Society
Vital Records of the Town of Wells, Maine, transcribed from the original by Lester M. Bragdon, 1943, pp. 12 & 280. Additional information: Cheney’s parents: James Cheney, Jr. and Theda Hilton, both of Wells entered marriage intentions 5 January 1833.
1850 Census, Wells, York Co., ME Cheney’s siblings: Ira, b. 14 February 1834; Clarissa, b. 23 November 1838; Nancy, b 1841; Hiram, b. 1844; James, b. 1847; Albion, b. 1849. - Dates of birth calculated from reported ages.
Vital Records of Berwick, South Berwick, and North Berwick, Maine. Frost, J.E. & J.C. Anderson (eds). Camden, ME: Picton Press, 1993, p. 383. Cheney’s recorded marriage intentions 29 January 1858. Married 17 February 1858.
Federal Census for South Berwick, York Co., ME: 1860 William G. Chaney, age 23, laborer, value of personal estate $50 Listed with wife Elizabeth, age 22, and son Jotham L., age 1. Third person living with them is Sarah A. Sargent, age 19, operator in a mill. (This is undoubtedly Elizabeth's sister.) NB: The ages of William and Elizabeth are not clearly written on the census, so this is best guess of records.) - 1870 William G. Chaney, age 32, works in a mill, value of real estate $1200 and value of personal estate $400. Listed with wife Lizzie, age 30, son Jotham L., age 11, daughter Sarah W., age 9, and daughter Alidda E., age 8. - 1880 William Cheney, age 44, a boatman- Listed with wife Lizzie, age 42, daughter whose name is illegible but must be Sarah, age 19, who works in a shop, and daughter Alidda, age 18. Living in the same household are son Jotham Cheney, age 21, a boatman and his wife Hattie, age 23.
Maine Cemetery Inscriptions, York County, Maine, Vol. 3. Camden, ME: Picton Press, 1995, p. 2042: Portland Street Cemetery, South Berwick -- Cheney, William G. 1836 - 1895; Cheney, Lizzie 1838 - 1915; Cheney, Florence L. 1870 - 1870 (possibly a daughter of William and Lizzie); Cheney, Willie G., son of J.L. and H.M. Cheney 1891 - 1893; Cheney, Florence E., daughter of J.L. and H.M. Cheney 1883 - 1904
Piscataqua Gundalow Log of Newspaper Clippings, Collected by Richard E. Winslow III and Robert A. Whitehouse.
150th Anniversary of the First Baptist Church 1823-1973 by Amanda M. Kenniston.