Hampton, New Hampshire
by Lt. Col. Wilbar M. Hoxie
reprinted with permission from Towpath Topics, April 1970
From the earliest settlement of the Town of Hampton, New Hampshire, in 1638, the first settlers were accustomed to the sea and its connecting waterways. Their homes were located convenient to the marshes from which the grass was mowed for rowen, and for ready access by the tidal creeks to the sea. Fishing was carried on the year round, using wherries in winter and whale boats the summer and fall. These boats were commended in early navigation reports of the U. S. Government: "They will boat up Boston Bay in a winter nor'wester, when a ship cannot."
The whale boats were 19 feet long, seven feet wide, and three feet deep, pointed at either end, and built of ½ inch boards of pine laid in lap strake. Frames were set six inches apart, of bent oak one inch square. The ceiling (Lining) was also of half-inch pine. Such boats were sailed with two fore-and-aft sails of around 200 square feet each. The wherry was similar, but only sixteen feet long, five feet wide, and two feet deep, intended for rowing but having a single sail to use in a fair wind.
Mills were a neighborhood necessity before roads or vehicles existed. Richard Knight had the first mill grant in town, April 4, 1640, one hundred acres near the Landing: on September 8, 1642 the town granted another, to Henry Sayward for a windmill on the upland. Hampton's first sawmill was on Taylor's River. During the Revolutionary War, Britain's control of the seacoast prevented coastal shipping, except as small craft with their shallow draft were able to carry on limited fishing and trading by dodging among the creeks and marshes.
In 1791, though, according to Dr. Jeremy Belknap, an inland navigation channel was cut from the Blackwater River mouth, through Salisbury about eight miles to Merrimack River. Enlargement and connections of such canals was the substance of Albert Gallatin's 1808 proposal for a protected inland waterway extending from Piscataqua to Savannah. Lack of such a system subjected the coast again to blockade and attack by the British in the War of 1812. This Canal was used by small craft up to the Civil War. Winter fishermen frequently rowed their whaleboats through, inside of Plum Island, down to Ipswich River, where four good men could dig in two low tides seventy of one hundred bushels of clams for bait. By the XXth century the Canal, no longer used, silted in and was overgrown. "The route was surveyed as a part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway before WWII, but was not economically justified, and now it can scarcely be traced.
In the years of peace following the Treaty of Ghent, shipping prospered. Hampton built ships in its own yards, small but sturdy vessels for fishing and trading. The Landing, near Knight's Mill, was at a bend in Taylor's River where it was nearest the Town. A straight cut of about half a mile would save about 2½ crooked miles down river to the confluence with Brown's River. David Nudd incorporated in 1823 "The Proprietors of Hampton Canal" to make such a channel, in which he held the controlling interest.
The surface of matted marsh grass was removed by spading. A "dredge" – a cylinder with double set of protruding spokes – was dragged along to loosen the silt which was shoveled out. As the water was let in, the action of the tide deepened the cut. Legend attributes the cost for the project at a hogshead of rum.
Nudd's Canal was wide and deep enough in a fair wind for any sloop or schooner using Hampton River, and was invaluable to the marsh owners bringing marsh hay from their scattered staddles to the Landing in gundalows. Some of this hay, prized for bedding, was shipped by the Eastern Railroad train for use of the Fire Department horses in Newburyport and Boston. Near the Landing was good clam digging at low tide, and generations of Hampton boys jogged for eels in the water on dark nights, and like the Shaw's, rowed this way to sea to gun for waterfowl. Now silting and pollution have closed the water to all such uses. The last storehouse and pilings at the Landing stood until about forty years ago; a road still leads from the expressway to within a few rods of the Landing, which lies on private property.
History of the Town of Hampton, N. H. – from its settlement in 1638 to the autumn of 1892. Joseph Dow; 1893. Salem, Mass. The Salem Press Publishing and Printing Co.