The Tidal Marshes
HAMPTON: A CENTURY OF TOWN AND BEACH, 1888-1988
Back to previous chapter -- Forward to next chapter -- Return to Table of Contents
Hay, Mosquitoes, Development, and Conservation
"The marshes are now the scene of great activity. Farmers have fairly begun to harvest their stores of salt hay, the yield being much above the average of a scant ton to the acre. This year crops of two tons to the acre will not be uncommon, and well over one is the rule. The quality is excellent. Hampton’s area of salt marsh is fully 1800 acres, of which considerable is owned in Kensington, Stratham, North Hampton and other towns. The cattle of the early settlers here found almost their entire sustenance, and until quite recentiy "going in the marshes" was almost as necessary and important labor as any in the farmer’s yearly round. Their crop is still valuable, worth about half as much as upland hay."
This description by the Exeter News-Letter’s Hampton correspondent in August 1894 at once explains the value of the salt marshes and hints at the changes then affecting the centuries-old activity there. For many people, the marshes were only valuable for the production of salt hay. When farming declined and agricultural advances made harvesting salt hay less advantageous to the remaining farmers, the marshes were viewed as wastelands, fit only to be filled in for commercial or residential development. The ways in which Hampton has viewed, used, and abused its tidal marshes are an indication of the changes and economic pressures that have affected the town in the last hundred years.
A primary reason as to why settlers first came to Hampton was the river and its salt marshes. In the 1630s, the river provided the only convenient transportation route between New Hampshire towns and the communities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The land itself was heavily wooded, and much clearing was requlred before the early settlers could plant crops to feed themselves and their livestock. Winnacunnet (later Hampton) River and its tributaries furnished fin and shellfish, while the marsh provided abundant salt hay for the cattle. In winter the cattle could be induced to eat the coarse field hay if it was mixed with the salt hay, but the latter gave milk a distinctive taste. When he was away from home, the Reverend Roland Sawyer would write to his father asking him to start feeding salt hay to the cow because he would be home soon and savored the unique flavor of the salt-hay milk. About 1885, when local milk began to be picked up by large dairies in Boston suburbs, many of the customers complained of the salt-flavored milk and Sawyer said that at about that time the local farmers began to cut less and less marsh hay. In later years, the marsh hay was also used for mulch and for banking around house foundations as insulation in winter.
So valuable did the earliest settlers consider the marsh that when the first land grants were made in 1639, and described further in January 1640, each landowner was given a portion of his grant in salt marsh. In 1641 the Town voted to set off as common land "to the world’s end" the so-called Great Ox Common. This was primarily an area of marsh behind Great Boar’s Head, bounded by the ocean and Hampton River and the upland adjacent to what is now Winnacunnet Road and the Expressway. To be used solely to pasture cattle, this land was owned in common by the landowners of the town, who were entitled to the "sweepage" or hay cut from the marsh.
Hampton marshes were formed perhaps 5,000 years ago, but their origin dates back another 5,000 years -- to when the Ice Age ended. Following the melting of the great continental glaciers, the land began to rise, along with the level of the oceans, and small river valleys were flooded. As the tides rose and fell, unusual plants that could tolerate regular covering by salt water began to grow in these valleys, forming marshes. The most abundant plants are Spartina alterniflora, a tall plant that grows along the creeks above the midtide level, and Spartina patens, a finer plant that grows on the higher marsh and was cut by farmers for salt hay.
As the ocean continued to rise, the marsh grew also with Spartina patens flourishing on the peat formed by dead and decaying plants. The marsh spread over low-lying uplands. Often sandy barrier islands formed at the mouths of the estuaries protecting the marshes behind from the direct force of the ocean. Hampton marshes are part of a 20-square-mile area protected by the barrier islands of Hampton, Seabrook, and Salisbury beaches and Plum Island. A visit to Plum Island will provide the answer to the question of what Hampton Beach was like before development.
As the tides flood over the marshes, the decaying plant material washes into the water, becoming a source of nutrients for the lowest level of a life cycle that is responsible for most of our commercial shell and fin fish. Fish that do not begin their lives as immature creatures in an estuary often feed on the fish that do begin life there. Clams, mussels, crabs, worms, and a wide variety of birds are all part of, and dependent on, the complex system of life that is easily upset by pollution or destruction of marsh by filling and dredging. The public has become aware of the value and importance of the marshes only since the 1960s, and even today conservationists and scientists must be continually watchful for development schemes and other proposals that would destroy marshes.
Although our early settlers had no idea of the ecology of the marshes, those farmers knew that the hay was free, grew with no help from man, and sustained their animals. Over the years, marsh haying developed into an important annual event, usually beginning in August when the high tides are lowest and do not flood away the mowed hay before it can be stacked.
The marsh has few discernible boundaries except for creeks, but the farmers knew which acres belonged to whom. Marsh deeds often read only as "two acres of spring marsh," indicating the marsh behind Boar’s Head, but which two acres were they? The farmers often placed rocks to mark their boundaries. Since farmers worked the land annually, and usually in conjunction with other farmers, ownership was unquestioned. Today when marsh is acquired, it is often transferred by quitclaim deed, since no one remembers the old boundaries.
Backcountry farmers often left their barns about 2 A.M. to reach the marsh when the tide was right. The harvest was a festive time because farmers from many surrounding towns came to work together, sharing gossip along with the labor. They also took time to fish, clam, and swim in the warm tidal creeks. Unless a farmer’s marsh was adjacent to the upland, he would go to a landing and travel out to his land by gundalow, a flat-bottomed bargelike boat that was also used to transport the cut hay to the mainland. The hay was cut by hand with scythes, by mowing machines pulled by horses and oxen, and later by tractors. To keep from sinking into the marsh, the animals wore bog shoes, blocks of wood attached to each hoof by leather straps. A good haying horse was one that wore the cumbersome bog shoes without attempting to kick them off.
Spartina alterniflora was cut from the edges of the tidal creeks and brought daily to spreading grounds, where it was left to dry. Spartina patens, from the higher marsh, needed to cure before it could be used; so it was raked into stacks with long wooden loafer rakes, then carried by two men with poles to the staddles, groups of wooden stakes driven into the marsh. The thicker alterniflora was often used to form the base of the hay stacks that were built on the staddles. One man stood on top of the stack, packing the hay some 12 feet high. That man often got off the stack by going headfirst down one of the long hay poles, then, at the halfway point, turning around and landing on his feet. The Reverend Sawyer recalled, "I think it was in the 1886 season that Capt. Joe Brown, age 87, stacked eleven stacks and slid down on the pole, turning a somersault to strike the land on his feet. It was such a windy day none of his men wanted to get up there. and do the stacking."
The finished stacks were held in place with crisscrossed tarred ropes tied to sticks driven into the marsh. The haying season lasted from a few days to a week or so and the farmers left the stacks to cure, returning in the winter to haul off the hay with sleds. Sometimes they returned for a second cutting.
The marsh gundalows were heavily built craft, about 30 feet long and 14 feet wide, and capable of carrying up to 5 tons of salt hay. The boat was rowed with long oars by two men standing just back from the bow. On the wider part of the river, a third man at the rear steered with another oar. Sometimes men on the creek banks would assist by hauling the gundalow with ropes, but this process required another man with a dory to row the rope-pullers across the wider creeks. Reverend Sawyer recalled as many as 10 gundalows at a time at the Hampton, Hampton Falls, and Seabrook landings.
Although the harvesting season was festive, the winter removal of the hay was often hazardous, as men and animals could and did fall through the ice. Occasionally men would get trapped on the winter marsh overnight, and some died, frozen to death or drowned. In 1888, the Portsmouth Chronicle described the difficulty of winter on the marsh: "Last week hay was being hauled from the marsh in great quantities; this morning very early teams were en route for more hay, in spite of the cold. Last week several men were unable to reach home without calling at houses on the way to warm themselves and some got so chilled they were wrapped up and carried home." Between 1849 and 1917, Sawyer recorded the marsh deaths of 12 Kensington, Seabrook, and Hampton Falls men.
It is unclear how much hay was cut on the marshes, but, in January 1887, the Portsmouth Chronicle reported, "A thousand loads of salt hay were hauled from the marsh last week. We did not count them but the well-lined roads exhibited an animated and unprecedented appearance in haying time." The News-Letter reported in September 1889, "The stacks of hay stretching into the distance as far as the eye can see are a pleasant sight just now on Hampton’s famous salt meadows." In 1902, the Union reported, "Hundreds of acres of salt marsh are being cut this week. The hay is of good quality and of heavy growth." That heavy growth was stimulated by burning the marsh in the spring. In April 1903, the Union said, "Burning grass from the marshes filled the village with dense smoke on Thursday." In August 1903, other changes on the marsh were reported: "Mowing machines are to be used cutting hay on many parcels but horse power still in use also. Marsh from Hampton to Salisbury is being cut this week."
In his Hampton Union column, Sawyer often extolled the excitement and the beauty of the marshes, especially during the haying season. The following comments are taken from his columns of March 31, 1955, February 26, 1959, and September 17, 1959. Sawyer often confused his historical facts, but his memories were clear. (Some comments are edited slightly.)
It was really a treat to watch the almanac, pick out the marsh season when the tides would run low, get the gang together, grind the scythes, and at 2:30 or 3 A.M. start for the marsh.
Before daylight the scythes would be hung in and the men would swing down while the heavy dew made the grass cut easy -- swish, swish, swish, swish the keen blades of the scythes would saw through the grass. Now and then the mowers would stop to whet up, exchange a few remarks, and be off again till the whole was laid back into the windrows.
The salt water crusts the grass and to be cut easy and well it requires that it be cut while it is wet with dew. After the sun rises and dries the dew, to swing a scythe requires almost as much muscle as to swing an axe to cut an oak tree and the man mowing soon tires.
Then to pile into the big boxes of lunch. And what an appetite as the men sat on a pile of new mown hay piled at the staddle, and there with back to the staddle, [they] sat down to dinner and rest before raking the creeks and starting home.
If the day had not been too hard, the men would often dig a mess of clams before we started home. Many of the hired men would not go for the work unless the owner would furnish plenty of cider and perhaps a little Caldwell’s rum.
Any good day in marsh season was busy with gangs of men that came from fifty or sixty farms in the surrounding areas. And those of us who are old enough to have, as boys and lads, gone to the marshes to fish, shoot sandpipers, dig clams while our elders worked, to us this season and the weeks just closing, have brought back many memories of some of the sweetest joys of our early days.
There is a tang in the salt air, something in the sweep of the ocean waters rolling in or out through creeks and rivers, in breezes coming in from the ocean, that exhilarates a human being and it exhilarated us in those days long gone, and we cannot stand on shore and breathe deeply but very happy memories come to us and our spirits rise.
These activities described by Sawyer continued unchanged until the beginning of this century, when haying declined, although some farmers continued the practice until the 1930s. The News-Letter’s Hampton correspondent detected the changes in October 1888, writing,
Many acres will not be harvested. In fact it is difficult to get mowers for these salt meadows. Hampton juniors do not like to swing the scythe the way their seniors did in good old days when the somewhat eccentric but wise and philosophic Dr. [Ebenezer] Lawrence gave the epigrammatic anniversary toast, with an after dinner speech -- "Old Hampton salt hay and clams forever!" Now not only is salt hay a drug on many owners’ hands, while the marsh, in marshing time has lost its active life and merrymaking by crowds of stalwart men with mower’s brawny arms, and boys and girls too, with raking glee, but the ancient clam flats, once full of abundant richness are now deserted both by clams and diggers. So that two of the normal industries of "ye olden Hampton times," are quietly but surely passing into myth and forgetfulness of history.
Apparently the industry made a slight recovery in 1910, because the newspaper said, "Frank Sanborn says that the cost of marsh hay is high this year for the first time in a dozen years and it is being used for mulch cows." But just a few years later, in 1914, "Farmers say there will be a slight crop of marsh hay this year. One old timer says it is because the ice covered the marsh the whole winter and with cold water under the ice, water killed much of the marsh grass. Not as big a problem these days since so few are haying now. Farmers no longer use scythes, now use mowing machines in small areas and large areas are left uncut. The old timer says when he was a boy everything was cut except for long grass along the creeks which was left for the fishermen to hid their boats in."
Among the last Hampton men to gather marsh hay were Harold Perkins, Homer Johnson, Samuel Towle, Eugene Leavitt, Stillman Hobbs, Leston Perkins, and Wilfred Cunningham. The Johnsons, who harvested about 12 to 14 stacks a year as cattle feed, stopped cutting about 1930, leaving only Leavitt, who cut salt hay for mulch in his nursery business. While Homer Johnson didn’t care for marsh haying, his father "thought more of the marsh than he did high ground .... he like marshing, as they called it." In 1984, sponsored by the Hampton Conservation Commission with funding from the New Hampshire Coastal Program, three hay stacks, using old staddles, were built in the marsh beside Route 1 under the direction of biologist Ellen Goethal, who was assisted by Tom Woodward and John Markey.
Although groups of staddles are still visible out on the marsh, another aspect of the haying is best seen from an airplane. Farmers learned that cutting ditches in the marsh drained off the tidal water more quickly and a better quality of hay was produced. The farmers used old scythes and broken shovel handles to make ditching tools. The ditches were not cut too deep and often closed up near the surface, but they were kept open by tidal action at the bottom. The removed sod was hauled by horse-drawn drags to salt ponds and low places, where it was tamped flat. Old ditches were usually cleaned out to keep the water flowing. Often these ditches became hazards and horses fell in, sometimes breaking their legs.
Between 1820 and 1870, the state Department of Agriculture estimated that some 500 miles of ditches were cut in the Hampton River marshes. Beneficial though the ditches were to the farmers, they have had another impact on the rest of us. Hampton Falls farmer John Fogg wrote, "We would always be bothered by mosquitos on the way down the paths to the marshes but never on the edge or out on the marsh." Many types of mosquitoes breed in the salt marshes, and their immature forms require still or standing water for survival. As the haying declined, and ditches were no longer maintained, chunks of peat fell into the ditches, cuffing off the tidal flow, creating dams, and leaving still water perfect for mosquito hatching. The construction of the railroad across the marsh and the extensions of highways cut off other ditches and tidal creeks and creating even more mosquito habitat.
With Hampton Beach becoming an important resort, the mosquito problem was serious, but little could be done to control the insects. During the 1930s, Works Progress Administration crews were hired to open up the ditches, mainly in Portsmouth and Rye, allowing the tides to wash out the mosquito larvae and also to enable mosquito-eating minnows to travel more easily throughout the marsh.
One of the nonmilitary results of World War II was the development of various chemicals to combat insects, including mosquitoes, which in some areas of the world cause malaria and other illnesses. A major regional effort to control mosquitoes began in 1946, sponsored by various civic organizations. In July 1947, the Precinct commissioners began a spraying program using DDT, and the Union informed its readers, "It is said to be completely harmless to pets, animals, plants, vegetables, etc. It is claimed it may even be sprayed through open windows, and on houses leaving no unsightly residue." After one spraying by Ralston Tree Service, with two more planned, Commissioner James W. Tucker, Jr., said the impact on the mosquitoes was already noticeable. By 1949, the Precinct was spending $730 a year for spraying. Following a petition from the Hampton Monday Club, the 1951 town meeting appropriated $500 for spraying, but the Town did not spend the money. No additional funds were raised by the Town until 1975, although the Precinct continued to spray. As James Tucker, Sr., proclaimed in 1951, "Our town will launch its biggest drive on insect pests this summer .... We who live at the beach can readily attest to the fact that all sorts of insects and in particular, flies and mosquitos, have been much less bothersome during the past three or four summers ...."
As we were to learn beginning in the late 1950s, the spraying was too effective. From the writings of Rachel Carson in 1962, among others, the world was told that the wondrous DDT was killing more than insects. It was a persistent chemical, and, once placed in the environment, it remained. Birds and fish were affected as well as insects. The discovery of the adverse effects of DDT coincided with a general awakening of environmental concern, especially locally as it related to the salt marshes. By 1959, the Precinct stopped spraying, but interest in mosquito control continued, spurred on by Ruth Stimson, a resident of Hampton and a Rockingham County Extension home economist. Stimson, with support from Dr. James G. Conklin, an entomologist at the University of New Hampshire, pushed for legislation to create mosquito control districts. Stimson, who had moved to Hampton in 1950, says, "Ye gods, I never saw so many mosquitoes in my life as there were here." With support from the Hampton Garden Club, Stimson set out to solve the problem.
A regional approach was necessary, since the two prime salt-marsh mosquitoes, Aedes sollicitans and Aedes cantator, travel great distances. If, for example, Hampton attempted to control the insects, but the neighboring towns made no effort, then Hampton’s work would be wasted, because the adult mosquitoes could travel to Hampton from Seabrook, Hampton Falls, or North Hampton marshes. In the early 1960s, several surveys in Hampton indicated that "the major causative factors are the blockages of major drainage by road construction, sub-division development, the deterioration of existing ditches and the lack of ditches into the edges of the marshes."
Primarily because of Stimson’s efforts, the state law creating mosquito control districts was passed in 1965, but Hampton failed to take further action on the insects until a 1973 outbreak of eastern equine encephalitis hit Rockingham County, resulting in some 70 horse deaths and the destruction in Brentwood of the State’s flock of pheasants, the latter believed to have been an interim host between the insects and the horses. Heartworm disease in dogs is also a mosquito-spread illness, and, together with the horse problem, helped to create public interest in fighting mosquitoes.
After a June 1974 town meeting approved an article (later shown to have been improperly worded so that the Town had to vote again in 1975) creating a mosquito control district, Stimson was named to head the ad-hoc Mosquito Control Committee. On the recommendation of this committee, two articles were passed at the 1975 town meeting. One article created an ordinance banning the storage of old automobile tires, which become potential breeding sites when filled with water. The other article created Hampton’s mosquito control district, with a $10,000 budget, under the direction of a commission originally composed of Stimson, Doris Masten, and Kenneth Malcolm. Ten other Rockingham County towns also created mosquito control districts at 1975 town meetings, and Stimson’s long-hoped-for regional effort was begun.
During the summer of 1975, a survey indicated more than 189 freshwater mosquito breeding sites in Hampton, and, through a public relations effort, the commission told members of the public how to eliminate stagnant-water areas on their own property. The public was clamoring for more spraying, however, and more than 3,000 people signed a petition to the selectmen asking for relief from the insects. Helicopter and roadside spraying were reluctantly approved by the selectmen.
Eventually the commission hired its own licensed mosquito control workers and settled on a plan of larviciding to kill the immature mosquitoes and roadside spraying for the adult mosquitoes. New chemicals, which are not supposed to have the serious side effects of DDT, are now used against the mosquitoes. Since 1975, the annual budget has risen to some $25,000, and most residents seem satisfied with the control efforts.
Farmers were not the only people to use the marshes, and haying was not the only activity there. The Reverend Sawyer wrote often about his visits to The Willows, once called Sargeant’s Island and now the collection of cottages next to the river at the end of Island Path. As an historical site, there are few places in Hampton to match this spot. It is here that Goody Cole lived and had her well, and where, if you believe the Whittier poem, she cast her spell on the unfortunates who died in the wreck of the Rivermouth. Sargeant’s Island, the first high ground upriver from the ocean, was set aside by the Town, in January 1656, for use by fishermen for building stages and drying fish, with the condition that it would revert to Town ownership if no longer needed by the fishermen. It remained a fishing center until about 1855, but it continued to be used by marsh-hay harvesters, who cut grass by day and spent their nights tenting there.
In 1891, 17-year-old Sawyer and his father spent a few days there in company with friends, relatives, and a local character, Tuny Gove of Seabrook. The Sawyers rented a dory for 25 cents a day at Hampton Falls depot, where the river meets the marsh, and floated down to The Willows, catching flounder and a few lobsters or shooting yellowlegs and hawks, the latter worth a 25-cent bounty. They could dig a bushel of clams in half an hour. As Sawyer wrote, "... for three summers we camped there and cut the marsh, and gunned and clammed to our heart’s content for ten days each summer." According to Sawyer, the point of land was still owned by the Town. In 1890, Ashton Lee of Lawrence, unable to find a way to buy the place, bought an adjacent piece of marsh, where he constructed a small camp and installed Tuny Gove as caretaker. Lee and his friends came for the weekends, and often church and civic groups picnicked there.
Gove, as Sawyer described him, "never worked, as far as I know never went to church .... Tuny was ever hunting, shooting, doing no work but his brother Skip, who was temperate and religious, would each day dig five and six bushels of clams on a tide and wheel them over to the beach" to sell to the hotels at 75 cents to a dollar per bushel. Tuny showed young Sawyer the ways of the marsh: how to catch lobsters high up in the eelgrass; how to skin, instead of picking, sandpipers for a stew; and how to scull a thatch-covered sneak float close to a flock of birds. Gove also showed Sawyer the remains of David Nudd’s saltworks, built near the Landing in 1827 and operated until 1840.
Years later, Sawyer also remembered, "Tuny Gove robbed our lobster and eel pot, but he paid us back by giving us sandpeeps for a stew Never has food tasted so good to me as it did those days when appetite was whetted by the tang of the salty air. And never has my imagination quite so run away with me as when those nights I lay and heard the roar of the waves at the beach and on Rivermouth rocks."
Gundalows, when not used for haying, often were rented by picnickers, who traveled downriver for the day. The gundalow would be beached on the flats and used as the headquarters for the group. The picnickers, according to Sawyer, brought lunch baskets, fishing tackle, lobster hooks, and clam diggers. About these adventures Sawyer wrote,
We would lie in its [the gundalow’s] shade, eat our lunch there, and nearby put up a crude rock fireplace where we boiled lobsters, had the clambake, with sweet corn if it was in season, and make a chowder. If it were a party mainly of mostly men, we would take along the guns, and shoot peep, ring necks and summer yellow legs, and have a delicious bit of food, a bird chowder. If no guns were there it was a fish chowder made from flounders, skulpintails or little cunners. We were always hungry and how good it tasted. Then there was swimming -- females getting on their suits on one side of the gundalow, the men using the other. And coming up the river, after the tide had floated us, with the sun setting, and a merry though tired party aboard -- that was a happy time.
Sawyer’s experiences and Tuny Gove’ s activities were probably not unique, but this idyllic time was to end and attitudes about the marsh were to change as haying declined and recreational development expanded. Sawyer said that before the turn of the century, an acre of salt marsh was worth $200 to $300, but the resale value dropped to almost nothing when haying ceased, unless the land could be filled in and built upon. The barrier island that is Hampton Beach was soon overdeveloped, and during the early days of the twentieth century, promoters and dreamers began to envision the "reclamation" of the Hampton marshes.
Among the early advocates of this scheme was Charles Francis Adams, founder of the Hampton Union and a longtime state representative. In the early years of this century, marsh development was tied into erosion control of the seashore (a subject detailed elsewhere), and Adams was quick to use the pages of the Union to push along the project. In the November 21, 1902, edition, Adams reprinted "the following article [on reclaiming marsh] ... as the Hampton marshes are the largest in the world and some day will be reclaimed." In July 1927, with the support of Hampton Beach businesspeople, the Legislature passed the Adams bill, which authorized the governor to appoint a committee to investigate the feasibility of developing the marshes and to seek federal aid to prevent the erosion of White Rocks Island, which was slowly washing away. Adams believed that a simple jetty extending south from Boar’s Head would solve the erosion problem, but his ideas for the marsh were more elaborate.
According to the January 21, 1927, Portsmouth Herald, Adams wanted to reclaim and beautify the marsh by dredging a broad channel from the mouth of the river across the Hampton marsh to Lafayette Road. The dredging spoils were to be dumped beside the channel to create two highways landscaped with rows of trees. A lock at the mouth of the river would create a freshwater bay for boating, swimming, and other recreational activities. Adams also urged the creation of an airport on the marsh, believing that it could be the major East Coast terminal for transatiantic flights. Appointed by the governor to the erosion-marsh committee were United States Senator George Moses as chairman; Adams; George Ashworth, a member of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association; and E. G. Cole.
In July 1928, the Union headlined, "Hampton Marshlands To Be Developed," and proclaimed, "Probably nothing since the laying of the first street railway to Hampton Beach has carried with it the potential possibilities of future development that is in this present movement." The following March, in announcing that the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association would hold its annual meeting at Hampton Beach, the Development Committee released its recommendations, suggesting that by first controlling the coastal erosion, work could begin on the marsh. At the June annual meeting, a New Jersey engineer outlined a proposal for marsh development calling for the canal, boulevards, an airport, and a ship haven -- all to be constructed over a 20-year period.
Erosion-control efforts began quickly, but marsh development remained mostly a dream. In September 1932, the newly formed Hampton Beach Development Committee, made up primarily of cottage owners and Beach businesspeople, met with the selectmen and, among other concerns, asked for a road across the marsh. In October, this committee released plans to beautify the Beach by landscaping roadsides and laying out parks, bridal paths, and routes for boats and canoes. They asked for a road beginning near the old Landing and extending to Glade Path, and urged filling the "waste" lands to create canals and house lots.
The architect for this grandiose scheme was the Warren Manning Company of Boston. In November 1932, Manning presented his ideas to the Development Committee, predicting "nothing in the way of making our present and improved waste lands a typical Atlantic City ...." Manning proposed the creation of 1,200 house lots via jetties at 'White Rocks Island, a new breakwater with a 20-foot-wide sidewalk, a new street parallel to Ashworth Avenue bounded by a canal to Winnacunnet Road, and a new road across the marsh from Lafayette Road past the old Landing to the Beach, "where there is the opportunity for the building of some fine estates." (Other details of the Manning Plan were discussed earlier.)
Unhappily for the potential developers, the marsh part of the plan remained on paper -- partly because of the Depression, but mainly because the shore erosion problems were increasing and the question of how to fund new breakwaters evolved into a conflict between the Town and the State. The dispute was resolved only when the State acquired the beachfront.
At the 1940 town meeting, an article sponsored by Adams -- calling for the municipal development of the marshes to include a large parking lot and the appointment of a committee to begin planning -- was indefinitely postponed after James W. Tucker called the idea "a wet baby being tossed into the laps of the townspeople." Tucker, a leader of the Chamber of Commerce, said the million-dollar idea would never repay the investment to the Town. Instead, he offered a resolution, which was passed, chastising Adams for making "derogatory" remarks to the press about the Precinct, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Development Council. Tucker’s motion expressed the support of the town meeting for the "... healthy conditions of Hampton Beach as one of the best vacation centers in New England..." and offered "sincere appreciation" to the Precinct and the Chamber of Commerce "for their efforts in behalf of the recreational welfare of our town." Adams, who as the founder of the Union was a major booster of the community, was devastated by the town meeting rebuke and his later defeat for reelection as a state representative in the September 1940 primary election.
Before any other marsh development schemes could be revived, World War II intruded, curtailing most private building as well as anything resembling the marsh project. Another plan, a waterway from Hampton River to the Merrimack River, also died with the start of the war. The marsh development supporters remained, however, and Manning’s large rendering of the developed marsh hung for many years in the meeting room of the Beach fire station. In 1944, Adams wrote a lengthy article for the Union advocating his plans for development and an airfield.
During the 1950s, the marsh development scheme was revived, this time with a new cast of characters. In June 1955, Hampton attorney Russell H. McGuirk, representing unnamed clients, requested that the selectmen release for private sale some marshland near the Beach that had been taken by the Town for nonpayment of property taxes. The selectmen opposed the request because they felt that if a road were to be built through the marsh, it would be best if the land were owned by the Town.
McGuirk’s request stimulated the marsh developers again. In January 1954, the Union editorialized: "The time is now" to develop the marshes. The paper suggested a Town authority be established to build a new toll road across the marsh to alleviate the traffic congestion and create a 10,000-car parking lot. "With proper drainage and development, the now dormant marsh area could become a Mecca for boating enthusiasts and motels catering to this fast growing fad."
The Union’s editorial also mentioned a conversation with State Highway Commissioner Frank Merrill, who said Hampton would have to build its own marsh road because the State already had more miles of highway in this area than it wanted to maintain. Apparently the selectmen had already begun to plan their own road, because newly appointed Town Manager John True said in the summer of 1954 he had asked a surveyor to investigate the ownership of the marsh along a prospective route and to draw up preliminary building plans. The first phase of this plan was to connect Glade Path and Island Path with a 775-foot marsh road, for which the 1955 town meeting voted $8,500 to be placed in a marsh highway fund.
James Tucker, who had opposed Adams’s town meeting article in 1940, now began to use his column to push for development. In February 1956, he wrote, "At Hampton Beach there is only one direction in which the recreational 'plant’ may be expanded. That direction is westward into the marshes. And the expansion in that direction will not be possible unless the marshes are reclaimed by filling them to a point several feet above sea level. This project is simple enough from an engineering standpoint. Its financial aspects will require much careful study."
Tucker’s column apparently was in support of a 1956 town meeting article that authorized the selectmen to appoint a Marsh Reclamation Committee, with a budget of $500. The original members named to the committee were Alfred Janvrin (chairman), Alton Tobey, John Perkins, Douglass Hunter, Norman Royal, Howard Page, Jr., and Selectman Donald Ring. Also approved was $7,500 for extending the marsh highway from Dustin Avenue to Island Path.
The 1957 town meeting voted to acquire by eminent domain another marsh strip from Glade Path to Tide Mill Creek to further the marsh highway. The Town moved the Beach dump from Island Path to Glade Path, near the river, planning to experiment with building the new highway with garbage. The same meeting also authorized $2,000 to survey the marsh south of Island Path for the purpose of laying out roads and lots. Perhaps not coincidentally, voters changed the name of Marsh Avenue to Ashworth Avenue. In May 1957, the Town signed a $6,600 contract with Homer Johnson to build a bridge across Tide Mill Creek that would connect the Beach to the upland part of town. In late August, a few days after the bridge girders had been placed, the eastern abutment fell into the river and the bridge collapsed. The Town canceled its contract with Johnson, and, with a new plan drawn by State highway engineers, continued building the bridge and using sanitary-landfill methods to extend the road west from the Beach.
Meanwhile, the Marsh Reclamation Committee was moving ahead on development plans by hiring Anderson-Nichols engineers to map the area between the Beach and the river and to provide an estimate for a complete marsh project. As a result of this proposal, the 1958 town meeting voted $10,000 for the Marsh Reclamation Committee for further planning. In May, committee members went to Concord for a hearing on a proposed Hampton marsh airport. In the fall of 1958, the committee, in a series of newspaper articles, outlined its plans for canals and house lots to be created in the filled-in marsh and a sailing bay in the river. They recommended a development authority as the best way to carry out the project. A bill was filed in the 1959 session of the Legislature to create the Hampton Marsh Reclamation Authority (later changed to the Hampton Municipal Development Authority), and the 1959 town meeting voted $11,500 for the group to continue its planning.
At that 1959 meeting, Ruth Stimson—who had already been involved with the marsh as part of her efforts to control mosquitoes—asked whether any thought had been given to creating a wildlife preserve as part of the project. Her question, as noted in the town report, was just the first mention of a movement that raised the conservation consciousness of Hampton residents and, with financial factors, ultimately doomed the Development Authority, although the latter had barely started work and would continue its planning for another decade. Stimson explained her interest in the marsh: "I was brought up in the Girl Scout move...., and we always lived on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in the summer time; so I was interested in the natural environment and its conservation ...."
Late in the summer of 1959, the bill creating the Development Authority finally passed the Legislature and was signed by Governor Wesley Powell. A powerful piece of legislation, the bill created a five-member authority appointed by the Hampton selectmen to staggered five-year terms. The authority was given jurisdiction over all of the marshiands of Hampton, with the right of eminent domain over any private lands and any public lands acquired by the Town through tax sales prior to 1955. The authority was given five years to dredge, fill, and develop the marshes as a nonprofit operation that would sell the newly created house lots "at cost" to private individuals. Previous owners would receive the first option to purchase.
In February 1960, 30 "bird watchers" and representatives of state, federal, and private wildlife, conservation, and sportsmen’s organizations met with authority chairman Carl Lougee, asking for some portion of the proposed project area to be reserved for wildlife. Later, at the 1960 town meeting, residents voted to sell all Town-owned marsh to the authority for one dollar on future approval of a final plan for what was called Project One, the area located just behind the beach and bounded by the river and the route of the new marsh highway (the present Expressway). The authority was also given control over the level of any fill to be placed in Project One by any private individuals, and the zoning ordinance was changed to require a 7,500-square-foot minimum lot size in the areas under the jurisdiction of the authority. In answer to a question, Ruth Stimson was told that the first section to be developed was not suitable as a wildlife preserve.
In 1961, the authority’s legislation was amended to meet the suggestions of bond counsel. The 34-page amendment eliminated the requirement to resell to former owners of a particular lot, provided for the sale of lots at the highest marketable price instead of at cost, allowed the project area to be sold to one developer, extended the life of the authority for twenty-five years, and required a two-thirds’ majority vote at town meeting to guarantee the bonds issued by the authority for the project.
At a hearing in Hampton held before the legislation passed, the tone for support of, and opposition to, the authority was set. On one side were many Town and Beach businesspeople, the Chamber of Commerce, state representatives, and selectmen who supported the project. So anxious were some people to back the proposal that the town Democrats, then making a resurgence in local politics, protested that only Republicans had been appointed to the authority.
Opposition at the hearing came from many seasonal Beach cottage owners, who were told that their cottages would have to be taken so the authority could carry out its plans. Eventually, Surfside Park and 30 acres of existing developed land adjacent to Island Path and Glade Path were eliminated from the Project One area. Also opposed, and probably expressing the sentiments of many longtime residents, was 0. Raymond Garland, who said his family had owned marsh for some 200 years and he wondered what an owner of marsh was going to get in return "for giving up his land for beach business." Eventually, the opposition came to be led by members of the garden clubs and owners of marsh who had no interest in giving up their land for Hampton Beach development.
The authority announced that the 318-acre Project One would require $1.9 million, but just before the 1962 town meeting, the authority was informed that federal funds were not available to prepare a final plan, "unless the property involved is owned by the applicant, or unless the property is under option, or condemnation proceedings have been started they [the federal Housing and Home Finance Agency] cannot participate." Although the authority had been given some $30,000 in Town funds, it needed some $84,000 to complete a final plan for presentation to town meeting. Without a final plan, the town meeting could not transfer public lands to the authority, nor could the authority take private lands by eminent domain. No further money was given to the authority by the Town; no final plan was completed; and, although the members continued to meet, plan, and spend some $19,000 remaining from the $30,000 voted to it by the Town, the authority was dead.
Conservation, however, was coming alive. Led by Stimson and the members of the Hampton Garden Club, the Town voted in 1962 to acquire by gift or as a result of purchases by state or federal agencies 350 or more acres of marsh east of Route 1 for conservation purposes and to establish a seven-member Marsh Conservation Committee to study the preservation situation. Lending support to the local effort was the annual conference of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the state’s largest conservation organization, which met at the Ashworth with tidal wetlands the major theme. Eventually, many acres of marsh in Hampton as well as in Hampton Falls, Seabrook, and throughout the coastal area were given for conservation purposes to both the forest society and the Audubon Society of New Hampshire.
"These business people certainly didn’t have much interest in [conservation]," Stimson explained, "and it seemed like someone should arouse the concern that shouldn’t a portion of our 1,500 acres be salvaged from their plans to appropriate the entire marsh for development purposes. The original plan was to see if we could conserve up to 350 acres of the 1,500 Hampton could claim as its share of the estuary."
At the 1963 town meeting, the Development Authority -- although believing that "the reclamation of at least part of our marsh area is the obvious answer for the future economic prosperity" of Hampton -- again said it could acquire no funds to complete the final plan for Project One. Ruth Stimson made her first report as chairman of the Marsh Conservation Committee, saying that 82 acres had already been donated for conservation purposes. Two articles -- one to rescind the 1960 vote to sell Town marsh to the authority for one dollar, and the other to set aside all Town-owned marsh west of the Project One area for wildiife and conservation purposes -- were postponed for one year so that the committee and the authority could work out an agreement. The first marsh donors were Mr. and Mrs. Donald Munsey, Adeline Marston, and Charles Greenman, along with Mr. and Mrs. Howard Ellis, the first nonresident donors. As part of the Town’s 325th anniversary celebration, a large boulder was placed near the marsh beside Tide Mill Creek with a plaque memorializing the preservation of the salt marsh and listing the names of donors. (Recently, the Conservation Commission has placed in the Tuck Museum a framed list of many more names of marsh donors.)
Town meeting voted in 1964 to set aside the 40 acres of Town- owned marsh between Nudd’s Canal and Route 1-95 for conservation purposes. Some 95 percent of the land in this area was privately owned, but the committee had been given 143 acres. The 1965 Legislature, with the agreement of the authority, removed the area west of Nudd’s Canal from the authority’s jurisdiction. The Hampton Conservation Commission, enabled by state statute in 1963 in response to statewide conservation concern, was established with seven members at the 1965 town meeting, and Seaside Park, located at North Beach adjacent to the remaining fish houses, was renamed in honor of Ruth Stimson, in recognition for her many civic efforts on behalf of the Town and the park. Stimson also received a conservation award from the National Council of State Garden Clubs. Members of the first Hampton Conservation Commission were Stimson (chair), Harold Pierson, Mima Waters, Samuel A. Towle, Stiliman Hobbs, Margaret Lawrence, and Ednapearl Parr.
Although the Hampton Municipal Development Authority had been unable to accomplish its plans, the destruction of marsh by filling was increasing rapidly at Hampton Beach in the area west of Ashworth Avenue. The passage of the Tidal Waters Law by the Legislature in 1967, changed and amended many times since, first slowed and has now stopped development in all of the state’s tidal wetlands except for cases of illegal fill. Some of these have reached court and resulted in fines and, more recently, the removal of the illegally placed fill. In many cases involving requests to fill, the State has argued that the preservation of the marshes is vital to the interests of the State, justifying what some development-minded marsh owners consider to be unfair taking of their land without compensation. In 1968, the selectmen sought unsuccessfully in court to exempt the Development Authority from the provisions of State wetlands laws Finally, in 1973, with most of its original supporters deceased, and with little accomplished except the expenditure of some $40,000 in Town funds, the Legislature abolished the authority.
In 1985, the town meeting voted to establish a wetlands ordinance in an effort to further protect both fresh and saltwater areas in the community. This ordinance, although sponsored by the Planning Board, received its impetus from an 1984 ordinance, sponsored by the Conservation Commission, which voters approved, but which later was declared unconstitutional since it did not detail any permitted uses of wetlands. Community support for the commission remains strong. The commission has responsibility for overseeing wise use of all natural resources in the town, not just the salt marshes. The commission has no police or enforcement powers, but its recommendations are required by State agencies as part of the application process for dredge-and-fill permits in Town wetlands. Unlike other Town departments, the commission is permitted to carry over money from one year to the next in an accumulation fund (approximately $250,000 at the end of 1989) that can be used for specified commission purposes, such as land purchase. In 1967, the Town voted $100 for the commission’s budget, but over the years, with expenditures required for various studies and mapping projects, more funds have been appropriated. The 1987, 1988, and 1989 town meetings each appropriated $75,000 for the fund. At the 1986 meeting, voters authorized a Conservation Land Bank Committee to study the feasibility of the Town acquiring vacant land by gift, purchase, or easement. The following year, voters approved the commission’s recommendation to establish a Conservation Commission Accumulation Fund, appropriating $75,000; authorized the Conservation Commission to manage town forests, although there are none at present; and designated Twelve Shares and Timber Swamp as critical conservation areas, parts of Hampton that should receive permanent protection. At the 1988 town meeting, voters acted to replace the Accumulation Fund with a Land Acquisition Capital Reserve Fund. Late in 1988, however, when town officials attempted to use money from the fund, they could not use the money in the fund without a vote at town meeting; so the Capital Reserve Fund was abolished and the former Accumulation Fund was reinstated at the 1989 town meeting.
Through the efforts of many individuals, as well as private, town, state, and federal agencies and organizations, the case has been made for the preservation of Hampton’s salt marshes. The only part of Hampton that still resembles the wild land first settled 350 years ago is the tidal marsh, and, with continued vigilance, it appears that these productive lands will continue unchanged into the future. But vigilance is still necessary. Ruth Stimson warns, "I don’t think we are fully protected except by conscientious people who believe in conservation and really stand their ground, because there is pressure."
Sources for this chapter:
Fogg, Forrest F. Salt Marshes of New Hampshire, its Past, Present and Future. New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, Concord, 1964.
Fogg, John D. Recollections of a Salt Marsh Farmer. Historical Society of Seabrook, 1983.
Teal, John and Mildred. Life and Death of the Salt Marsh. Atlantic-Little, Brown, Boston, 1969.