This is Clipper Country

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Published in A History of Portsmouth in 101 Objects, Kathleen Soldati, Editor and Stephanie Seacord, Project Director, 2022

Portsmouth’s economy was built on shipbuilding, almost from the start. John Paul Jones’ Continental Navy ship Ranger was built in John Langdon’s Yard, near Samuel Badger’s Yard that was incorporated into the Portsmouth Navy Yard and gave Badger’s Island its name.

Known for the output of submarines during World War II, Portsmouth gained the reputation her “Clipped Country” school sports teams now salute when clipper ships were built a century earlier in the U.S. Customs District of Portsmouth. The District included Portsmouth, towns in southern New Hampshire (except Hampton and Seabrook) and towns in Maine bordering the Piscataqua River, including Kittery and Eliot.

Between 1840 and 1860, 169 vessels were built in the District – including 115 large, three-masted sailing ships, twenty-eight of which were the sleek, fast clipper ships built in thirteen local shipyards.

The clippers were distinguished by a “lengthening of the bow above the water and a sharpening of the forward part” as well as an extensive sail plan that gave them their speed. The most prominent of the District shipyards were owned by George Raynes & Son, Samuel Badger, Fernald & Petigrew and Tobey & Littlefield. These Portsmouth yards built such champions as Typhoon (Portsmouth to Liverpool in 13 days, 10 hours in 1851), Witchofthe Wave (Calcutta to Boston in 81 days in 1853) and Tinqua (New York to the Equator in 13 days in 1852).

They competed on the highly profitable runs drom Boston and New York, “round Cape Horn” to San Francisco where the Gold Rush boomed, on to China to fill their holds with tea, and to Liverpool and London, where the freshest tea fetched the highest prices. They completed their round-the-world voyages in New York.

Naval architect William Armstrong Fairburn wrote in his six-volume Merchant Sailthat, “Some of the fastest clippers in the world were built at Portsmouth.” The clippers were not just freight transports, however. They were fitted with luxurious accommodations for paying passengers. The Witch ofthe Wave boasted a library of 100 volumes and an apothecary shop. The “luxurious staterooms finished in rosewood, bird’s-eye maple, satinwood and zebra wood, along with gilded cornices and molding, commanded the admiration of all.”

On Peirce Island, Elbridge Peirce, and his son, from Farmingdale, Maine, operated the shipyard that crafted what one Boston newspaper called “the best and most costly merchant ship of her size ever built in the United States.” That clipper, Charger, was built for the trading firm of Henry Hastings Company in Boston. She was 190 feet long, 38 feet wide, 23 feet, 4 inches deep and weighed 1,136 tons. Launched on October 25, 1856, she made a total of nine trips to California: in 1857, 1858 and 1859 and six more in the 1860s. On December 14, 1873, Charger foundered on a reef ten miles from Cebu in the Philippines and started to break up within a week. She was sold “as she lies” for $7,595, thus ending the 17-year career that began on Peirce Island, and the Clipper Era in Portsmouth.

StephanieSeacord, PresidentoftheAssociationof HistoricalSocieties ofNH, was Director ofMarketing forStrawberyBanke Museumforten years,isaformermemberofthePortsmouth HistoricalSociety Board ofTrustees andisaPortsmouthAthenaeum Proprietor andProjectManagerfor101Objects. She is currently the City of Portsmouth’s Information Officer.