South Berwick Maritime History
"Not a creek but ships are building in it;
not a river’s mouth so small, but merchants’ companies are there in possession of ships; no situation where a mill could stand on, on which there has not been a mill erected."
-- written by a French visitor to the Maine coast and Berwick in the 1790s
For almost 150 years before the construction of the Hamilton House, Salmon Falls River sawmills processed timber for the English merchant ships and navy. One byproduct of the mast production was large quantities of material for making wooden barrels. “Pipe staves,” as these wooden barrel components were called, became one of the major exports of the South Berwick area and the whole Piscataqua. They were the most common containers of their day, used for liquids, for commodities like flour and sugar, and for the wine and rum of Europe and the West Indies.
Low tide at Pipe Stave Landing, with Hamilton House through the bare trees at right. Where the evergreens are reflected is likely the spot where tall ships were launched in the 1700s and 1800s
Mills and ships
Between 1783 and 1839, an average of 1.5 ships per year were built in present-day South Berwick and Rollinsford, with 4 built in 1800.
“Shipbuilding was centered on rivers with strong currents or where water could be caught in pools to create tide mills. The sawmills existed to cut raw timber... so it was logical and convenient to build ships at or near the same mills that produced their cargoes..”
-- Lincoln P. Paine, Down East, A Maritime History of Maine
The maps below show the area in blue on the map left.
How big were our ships?
1825 - Olive & Eliza - 386 tons; length, 111.7 feet; beam, 27.7; depth, 13.9 feet. William Hanscom, builder, South Berwick. Ferguson & Jewett and I. D. Parsons, owners. Theodore F. Jewett, Sarah Orne Jewett’s grandfather, was master on first voyage, the Atlantic triangle trade route and Liverpool. Later sailed throughout the Atlantic and to the Far East. Grounded 1846 in Dry Tortugas, with 118,431 barrel staves. Read a letterwritten by Capt. Jewett on an 1825 voyage of the Olive & Eliza to New Orleans and Liverpool.
Compare the Olive & Eliza to these two famous vessels:
The Mayflower of 1620: 180 tons, 100 feet long
The clipper ship Nightingale, launched in south Eliot in 1851: 1066 tons, 185’ long.
One important early merchant whose vessels loaded up with pipe staves before the Revolutionary War was David Moore. His mansion occupied the site of the later Hamilton House, and was said to be as fine. Moore owned a warehouse, a shipyard, a beach for cleaning the bottom of vessels, and 266 feet of wharves. He died in 1777 and his house burned soon after.
The Hamilton House, owned by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (Historic New England), is located at historic Pipe Stave Landing
Some of the wharf timbers are massive, even after all these years submerged in the Salmon Falls River. Here, Herbie looks at a support member that seems to be a boulder. It is really a huge log.
“In 1695, about five years after the French and Indian attack at Salmon Falls, Captain James Hobbs built a ship yard on the westerly bank of the Newichawannock (Salmon Falls) River at Rollinsford. This ship yard was located on the New Hampshire side of the river about a half a mile south of Quamphegan or lower falls of the salt tide waters. Above the river bank and directly overlooking the ship yard, Captain James Hobbs built his home. For nearly one hundred years thereafter ships were built at the Sligo district in Rollinsford... Custom House records at Portsmouth (show) that there were some 43 vessels built at this ship yard after the Revolutionary War. They consisted of 19 brigs, 17 ships, and 7 schooners varying in tonnage from nine to 494 tons.” -- Alfred Catalfo, History of Rollinsford
Looking upstream at “Hobbs’ Hole,” deep water north of the Hamilton House into which the early shipbuilders launched their vessels. The Rollinsford, New Hampshire, shore where James Hobbs once built his ships is in the background at left.
William Hanscom (1783-1859 ) came by his love of shipbuilding naturally. His ancestor, Thomas Hanscom, was here in 1683, a shipwright by trade, in a time when, between 1673 and 1714, Kittery and York ". . . turned out forty-seven vessels of 30 tons burden or more." William learned the trade in local shipyards, and about 1820, took full responsibility for the building of two vessels at Durham.
Hanscom’s association with the Pipe Stave Landing shipyard followed that of Jonathan Hamilton. In the1820s and 1830s he built ships for the merchant Theodore F. Jewett, Sarah Orne Jewett’s grandfather, and his partners, brother Thomas Jewett and Timothy Ferguson. Hanscom built the schooner Olive & Eliza, the bark Pactolus, and the Berwick, a ship of 500 tons.
Hanscom built ships at other shipyards in the area, and eventually began his own yard in Kittery (today the site of the Bahai Retreat in Eliot). His sons would become famous shipbuilders.
Jonathan Hamilton - Merchant of South Berwick
Hamilton House, late 1800s, decades after the construction of the last ship -- photo from the Counting House Museum archives
Read more about Jonathan Hamilton:
- Jonathan Hamilton (1745-1802)
- "Jonathan Hamilton: Citizen, Merchant, Community Leader" by Margaret Kugelman Hofer
During the 1780s and 1790s, over half the ship tonnage produced in South Berwick were generated by one man. Jonathan Hamilton was born in 1745 in the Pine Hill section of present-day Berwick. Although “Hamilton sprang from humble beginnings and had little formal education,” in the words of local historian Marie Donahue, “he had a shrewd business head and an eye for a sharp deal.” Starting out as a trader in salt fish in the 1760s, soon he owned forests in Lebanon, then bought part of the century-old Chadbourne mill operation on the Great Works River and the shipyard and store at Pipe Stave Landing. He produced masts, spars, planks, and shingles, built ships to carry them, and exported them along with lumber, fish, beef, and farm products all over the world. His Berwick store and warehouse were well stocked with tea, sugar, coffee, molasses, rum, timber and shipbuilding tools. In 1785, he started building the finest house in the area. The Hamilton House today is owned by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.
Though Hamilton apparently never went to sea himself, he was very closely involved with the management of his vessels. In the 1780s he bought a riverfront lot in Portsmouth on Merchants Row on Fore Street, now Market Street. It had a wharf and warehouse in the busiest section of the port, with access for his ships. His store, Long & Hamilton, was the ship chandlery and also stocked molasses, rum, wine, tea, other liquors.
Customs records show 104 arrivals of Hamilton vessels in the port of Portsmouth, over half from the West Indies. Hamilton’s Polly sailed to the Orient in 1789. His Two Sisters in 1801 went to St. Petersburg. Others sailed for other ports in Europe, Newfoundland, and South America. Of Hamilton’s 12 ships, two were lost at sea, and three were captured and never returned. In 1794 a brig of Hamilton’s was captured by Algerian pirates.
West Indies Trader
In 1763, Great Britain established a colonial administration on the island of Tobago, and within two decades 10,000 African slaves were imported to establish the island's sugar, cotton and indigo plantations. Between 1789 and 1801, Jonathan Hamilton's ships sailed with rum, molasses and sugar from the Caribbean island. In the year of His death, 1802, he imported into Portsmouth 2800 gallons molasses, 6900 pounds sugar, 5500 gallons rum, 18,000 pounds coffee, 7400 bushels salt, 11,500 gallons wine, and sail cloth. At the time he owned 6 vessels.
Privateer of the Quasi-War
During 1790-1801, the young United States was almost at war with France. Over 1000 merchantmen were commissioned to carry a small crew and light armament to protect American trade. One of them was built here in South Berwick in 1790 and owned by Jonathan Hamilton. The Cato was his first ship, and was the first full-rigged, post-Revolutionary War ship built here. She mounted six carriage guns with a crew of ten.
Leaving Tobago late August 1798, the Cato was chased by the French privateer Monsieur Dolittle. Cato’s captain swung his ship around with such bravado that the French ship retreated. Upon the Cato’s return to Portsmouth she saluted the town with guns as citizens lined the wharves and cheered.
In 1800 Cato was captured by a French privateer enroute to Europe. Captain John Parker wrote to Hamilton: “I have the misfortune to inform you, that I have been captured by a French privateer of 14 guns and 75 men, on the 26th Nov...They came under my lee quarter and jumped on board like so many pirates; broke open my chest and trunk, took all my papers and cloaths from me, not leaving me a shoe to my foot; they threw me head foremost down the gangway, and told me she was a fine prize; they took us all out of the ship except three; they put on a prizemaster and 15 men, & ordered her for L’Orient [France], where the privateer belonged. 15 days we lived upon six ounces of mouldy bread and a little raw beef, for 24 hours; but thank God, on the 29th Dec. we fell in with his Britannic Majesty’s ship Amethy. Capt Cook who captured and ordered us for Plymouth, and said he would take care of those Frenchmen, for the treatment we had received from them; he likewise informed me he had recaptured the Cato, and sent her into Cork. We arrived in Plymouth the 7th Jan. and have got to this place [Bristol, England] by land, to take the packet for Cork, which sails tomorrow, to join my ship. Mr. Evans my mate is with me.”
The Jewett Shipyard
Read more about the Jewetts:
Another family prominent in the history of Pipe Stave Landing was that of Capt. Theodore F. Jewett and his brother, Thomas Jewett, who were ship builders, ship owners and merchants for half a century, beginning in the 1810s. Theodore and Thomas built ships at Pipe Stave Landing near the Hamilton House and invested in shipping, becoming the wealthiest citizens of South Berwick. The wharf remains still visible at low tide above Pipe Stave Landing are likely remnants of docks where they brought in their cargoes. The old Jewett store that once sold West Indies goods still stands in the center of South Berwick Village, across from Capt. Jewett's home, now best known for his daughter, author Sarah Orne Jewett, who later lived there.
Sarah Orne Jewett’s Generation Looks Back
“The last day of October in 1777, Colonel Jonathan Hamilton came out of his high house on the river bank with a handsome, impatient company of guests, all Berwick gentlemen. They stood on the flagstones, watching a coming boat that was just within sight under the shadow of the pines of the farther shore, and eagerly passed from hand to hand a spyglass covered with worn red morocco leather. The sun had just gone down; the quick-gathering dusk of the short day was already veiling the sky before they could see the steady lift and dip of long oars, and make sure of the boat's company. ...
Nate and Norma stand at what might have been the remains of the dock where John Paul Jones would have come ashore in The Tory Lover to visit Jonathan Hamilton during the Revolution -- which he never did.
“The new flag of the Congress with its unfamiliar stripes was trailing at the boat's stern; the officer bore himself with dignity, and made his salutations with much politeness. All the gentlemen on the terrace came down together to the water's edge, without haste, but with exact deference and timeliness; the officer rose quickly in the boat, and stepped ashore with ready foot and no undignified loss of balance. He wore the pleased look of a willing guest, and was gayly dressed in a bright new uniform of blue coat and breeches, with red lapels and a red waistcoat trimmed with lace. There was a noisy cheering, and the spectators fell back on either hand and made way for this very elegant company to turn again and go their ways up the river shore.
“Captain Paul Jones of the Ranger bowed as a well-practiced sovereign might as he walked along, a little stiffly at first, being often vexed by boat-cramp, as he now explained cheerfully to his host. There was an eager restless look in his clear-cut sailor's face, with quick eyes that seemed not to observe things that were near by, but to look often and hopefully toward the horizon. He was a small man, but already bent in the shoulders from living between decks; his sword was long for his height and touched the ground as he walked, dragging along a gathered handful of fallen poplar leaves with its scabbard tip...”
-- Sarah Orne Jewett, The Tory Lover, 1901.
Sarah Orne Jewett’s fictional description of South Berwick during the Revolution makes up in poetic detail what it lacks in accuracy. Hamilton House, built in 1788, did not even exist during the Revolution. John Paul Jones, said in the book to have dined there, is not known to have ever come up the river. When Jewett wrote The Tory Lover in 1901, few traces remained of the shipyards where Hamilton had built his vessels in the late 1700s or even of those of the author’s grandfather a generation later. Yet in her words, the scenes of shipbuilding and commerce at Pipe Stave Landing live for us still.
This article was revised in June 2011.