PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Heading towards the harbour’s entrance aboard a replica river sailing barge was a great way to learn how this picturesque small city developed over almost 400 years.

A small seaport city that prospered from shipbuilding, fishing, lumbering, trading and slavery, it’s name is a tribute to founder John Mason, formerly captain of the port of Portsmouth, England.

The ‘Piscataqua,’ a 19.5-metre replica of a shallow-bottom gundalow cargo-hauler, first passed the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Established 219 years ago on Seavey’s Island in Kittery, Maine, across the Piscataqua River from downtown Portsmouth, 6,000 workers at the U.S. Navy’s oldest continuously operating shipyard overhaul, repair and modernize submarines.

The initial U.S. Navy submarines were built there during the First World War, with up to 25,000 civilians employed during the Second World War.

Its last submarine was launched in 1969, but we spotted a current one undergoing repairs.


Modern U.S. Navy submarine undergoes repairs and maintenance at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on Seavey’s Island, Kittery, Maine, across harbour from Portsmouth, N.H. (Ian Robertson)

The nearby Portsmouth Naval Prison, which housed up to 3,088 U.S. Navy and Marine inmates from 1908 until declared obsolete in 1974, also had crews captured from German U-Boats that attacked ships along the Atlantic Coast during the Second World War. Nicknamed “Alcatraz East” after San Francisco’s famous island prison, it is now partly used for storage.

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“We see occasional seals and I once saw a whale,” Matt Glenn, the Piscataqua’s captain, explained.

He then pointed out several other military installations, including harbour defence works established in the late 1600s and fortified during the Civil War, plus the century-old Wood Island Lifesaving Station where major renovations are underway.

“It can get very stormy … a couple of times a year,” said Andy Goodell, operations manager of the Gundalow Company, which provides ‘floating classroom’ school and corporate tours aboard the 2011 wooden replica of an 1886, 19-metre gundalow. Locals started building the shallow-draft cargo barges in 1650 to transport up to 50 tons of lumber, salt marsh hay, oysters, raw cotton, spices, bricks, pipe staves, locally-made bricks, plus quarried granite, cordwood and coal on shallow rivers which large schooners avoided.

WALKABLE CITY

Beside the harbour, one of Portsmouth’s major claims to fame was its destination for Paul Revere, who rode here in 1774 before his more famous warning mission in Massachusetts the following year, when he proclaimed “the British are coming.” A house where he boarded became a National Historic Landmark and home to the Portsmouth Historical Society Museum, which is due to reopen on Memorial Day, May 27.

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Heeding Revere’s warning, officials moved inland, preventing an enemy bombardment during the American Revolution.

Many homes and office buildings remain as fine examples of colonial architecture.

Anyone keen on history will enjoy the four-hectare Strawberry Banke outdoor museum.


Dining room in Chase House, one of the grandest Georgian style homes in 10-acre Strawberry Banke Museum’s living history village near Portsmouth, N.H. waterfront. Built in 1762, bought in 1799 by merchant and long-time resident Stephen Chase, his family lived in the house until 1881. Family documents described furniture and objects found in each room. (Ian Robertson)

Its 38 restored homes and buildings dating from 1695 to 1955 were saved from urban renewal, media representative Stephanie Secord told me.

In addition to displays of clothes and furniture, including excavated artifacts, 25 costumed interpreters portray “ordinary people and families” based on diaries, research and photos, she said. With demonstrations of weaving, open hearth cooking, barrel-making, plus inter-active gardens, “bringing all of those houses to life is a key” to the attractions, including encouraging children to talk with staff, dress up and play old-style games.

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Playing solitaire, re-enactor Katie Raynes portrays Margaret Davis, second daughter of John Stavers, owner of a tavern in Strawberry Banke Museum’s living history village near the Portsmouth, N.H. waterfront. (Ian Robertson)

Bustling in the summers, tourists are attracted to cafes, numerous restaurants and shops in the Market Square area, micro-breweries, nine museum houses, local live theatres, the African Burying Ground and Memorial Park, plus the annual Prescott Park Arts Festival. Artists and photographers are also keen on a lighthouse on the southeastern shore, nearby marshlands, a tall lift bridge that links the city to Maine, plus several waterfront sculptures.


Crane operators at work outside the front entrance of elegant Victorian-era Wentworth by the Sea, a Marriott Hotel & Spa in New Castle, beside Portsmouth, N.H., where delegates stayed during negotiations in 1905 that resulted in the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War. (Ian Robertson)

Lastly, at nearby New Castle, sprawling Wentworth by the Sea, a Marriott Hotel & Spa — the last from the late 1800’s ‘Golden Age’ of stately inns beside the Atlantic Ocean — offers a mix of elegance and history with an international twist.

In 1905, delegates negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard signed it at the hotel, where they stayed, thereby ending the Russo-Japanese War. Closed in 1982, the Wentworth reopened in 2003, after US$31 million in renovations.

TIPS

The USS Albacore, a unique diesel-powered research submarine launched in 1953 after construction at the local shipyard, was towed back to Portsmouth in 1984 and opened to the public two years later at 600 Market St.

I had a great clam chowder and baked cod dinner in the Row 54 downtown restaurant at Portwalk Place and Hanover St. Fellow patrons were enjoying fresh oysters and other seafood.


Oysters on ice as staff fill drink orders in Row 54, a restaurant and bar, 5 Portwalk Place at Hanover St. (Ian Robertson)

GETTING THERE

Direct Porter Airlines flights from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport to Boston Logan International Airport. From there, Portsmouth is about a one-hour drive north on I-93, then east on I-95.

Pull into port in picturesque Portsmouth, N.H.

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