The Riverine World of the Gundalow Piscataqua

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If one iconic object can represent Portsmouth over 400 years, it’s a gundalow. Every New England town boasts churches with beautiful white steeples. Every commercial port has a fleet of tugboats. Only Portsmouth has a gundalow. While centuries ago, a few gundalows operated in Boston and Casco Bay, among other places, the gundalow as a distinctive type of local vessel prevailed right here on the Piscataqua. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these flat-bottomed cargo boats carried the freight of our history. Today a replica gundalow, the Piscataqua, which sails with tourists, residents, and students, draws attention to the Piscataqua region’s unique sense of place, its maritime history and fragile estuarine ecology.

Traditional watercraft, like gundalows, evolved in light of local circumstances. The Piscataqua River’s significant tidal range means that considerable shoreline becomes exposed mudflats at low water. Here, too, numerous bridges crossed the region’s rivers. In the age before engines, local watermen needed a vessel that could “take the ground” at low tide, and whose sailing
rig could be lowered rapidly to shoot under bridges, then raised again. Gundalows, with their lateen rig, fit the bill.

From the 1600s to World War I, they connected Portsmouth’s international shipping to inland towns including Dover, Durham, South Berwick, and Exeter. Gundalows carried tea, cotton, coal and imported European goods upstream. Meanwhile, Portsmouth residents relied on gundalows to deliver the firewood that warmed them, the hay that fed their draft animals, the bricks that built their buildings, and a variety of other crucial cargos, from apples to oysters. By the early 1900s, gundalows were no longer economically important, having been replaced by trucks and trains,but they had become a nostalgic marker of the past in a place increasingly driven by heritage tourism.

In 1982, a reproduction of the last working gundalow was built in Portsmouth. Legally, however, the Captain Edward H. Adams, as she was called, could not carry passengers of students underway. Brimming with old-time charm, and always attractive to visitors, the Adams was restricted to presenting programs dockside, a serious limitation.

By 2008 the dream of building a new gundalow, equipped with an engine and certified by the U.S. Coast Guard to carry passengers on the rivers, had gained momentum. Simultaneously, prominent scientists from the University of New Hampshire were directing public attention to rapidly declining water quality in the Great Bay, Little Bay and Piscataqua River estuary. The nonprofit Gundalow Company, with its tiny staff and enthusiastic board, committed itself to fundraising and building a substantial wooden vessel on the Portsmouth waterfront to help raise awareness of changes in the riverine ecosystem. The project became a massive community effort, with hundreds of volunteers completing the job in 2011.

Operating a historically significant local vessel provides people a chance to experience, and thus care about, the rivers. As she sails with the next generation of stewards, the Piscataqua bridges the past and the future, fostering a sense of place as we confront the legacy of 400 years of settler impact on our waterways.