Tour South Berwick Village section intro: Quamphegan Landing
Below the falls here, tidal salt water leads to the Atlantic 10 miles away. Long before English traders arrived in the 1630s, the falls were a seasonal fishing ground for Wabanakis, who called the place Quamphegan (quamp meaning scoop or dip and hegan meaning net or tool—thus “dip net,” referring to their fishing place). The falls at the head of tide also attracted Europeans trading with Natives, but the fur trading post and sawmills that became the first nucleus of the town were at first located a mile downriver, at the junction with the Great Works River. Over the next two centuries, though, the growing settlement at Quamphegan built wharves, warehouses, and stores at the bridge to New Hampshire, and became the center of the community known as South Berwick. In 1831, the Portsmouth Company built a four-story brick textile factory that became the dominant employer.
In 1650, native leader Sagamore Rowls sold the area to Thomas Spencer for five pounds, and Quamphegan then passed on to other owners eager to build mills and land cargoes. Saw mills were operated by Thomas Broughton, Thomas Wiggin, and Symon Bradstreet. As relations between whites and Indians deteriorated late in the century, Thomas Holmes maintained a garrison. On March 19, 1689, it was attacked and burned.
Unlike South Berwick's Lower Landing at the Hamilton House, where the water was deep enough to accommodate tall ships, the Upper Landing at Quamphegan was reached only by gundalows, canoes and other shallow-draft boats bringing cargoes upstream on the tide. Heading downstream, vessels laden with lumber processed by water power had a route to Portsmouth and the sea.
Among Quamphegan's mill owners of the 1700s was Archibald MacPheaedris, who also built the Warner House in Portsmouth, NH, in 1716-1718. According to sources that include historian Annie Wentworth Baer's essays and Landmarks in Ancient Dover by Mary Pickering Thompson, published by Durham Historic Association in 1965, the sawmill property MacPhaedris owned was in both present-day Rollinsford and South Berwick, just downstream from the bridge. Mills existed at the Landing in eighteenth century, including sawmills and a gristmill for grinding grain.
A small beach along the shore of the Salmon Falls River saw the transfer of large quantities of lumber as the interior forests were cleared. In the mid-1700s, Middle Street was a mast road for ox teams to round the corner to the river. What is now known as Liberty Street along the river was called Furness Road, after the seagoing Furness family, who owned a wharf. Blacksmith Robert Furness, whose house still stands on Liberty Street, made iron tools and hardware, nails and horseshoes in his blacksmith shop. Robert co-owned with James Garvin a ship, Bonnel or Bonnetta, that traded sugar products produced with slave labor on Barbados in the 1750s, according to records in the National Archives of the United Kingdom. Robert Furness and his wife Abigail had 10 children. Three of his six sons—John, Robert, and William—were teenagers when the Revolutionary War began, and when they reached manhood, all three served as soldiers or sailors in the war for independence. Each left by boat from the wharf here at the Landing and went away to sea.
A surgeon in the Revolutionary War, Ivory Hovey built a house about 1790 at Quamphegan Landing. Later moved, the house still stands nearby on Park Street. Hovey became one of the town’s wealthiest citizens and a founder of Berwick Academy. In addition to merchant ships, wharves and warehouses, the Hovey family owned gristmills at Quamphegan and Chadbourne’s Falls, a fishing boat, and two gundalows for bringing their wares up-river. The Hovey store was the focal point of the riverfront during his lifetime. Dr. Hovey’s son, Capt. Ivory Hovey, Jr. (1770-1822), became a sea captain
Another merchant was Gen. John Lord, who lived from 1765 to 1815. John Lord owned mill rights at the Quamphegan waterfall. He also built ships at Pipe Stave Landing, and was a partner of Jonathan Hamilton, shipbuilder and West Indies merchant who built the Hamilton House about 1785. Lord owned 9 acres near the Landing, and an early deed included in his property “an old mansion house, large barn, store, and dwelling house, mechanic shops and other buildings” on both sides of “the road leading over the Landing,” now Park Street.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Quamphegan or the Upper Landing, as the falls area was known, became the town center, as better roads were built to carry wagon and coach traffic between the states. Businesses clustered near the bridge.
1) The Turnpike Era (1800-1830)
Before 1800, ownership of Landing property was dominated by a few families of long tenure—Lord, Nason, and Abbott—who had emigrated from England and lived in Berwick (as South Berwick was known) for five generations, occupying large tracts of land at the head of tide.
Since at least the 1790s, a daily stagecoach service plied an inland route from Boston to Portland, crossing over the Salmon Falls bridge and stopping at one of the local taverns, which included the house of innkeeper Alexander McGeoch at the Landing. But road conditions on the “Upper Road,” as this route was called, were notoriously bad. In the fall of 1796 Reverend Timothy Dwight of New Haven, Connecticut, made a journey by carriage through the New England states to document the settlements of the young Republic. After two weeks’ travel, he and his companion arrived in Berwick and lodged here, intending to continue on to Portland. However, eight miles from the “Salmon-fall” bridge he turned back because of impassible road conditions, having abandoned his goal:
“Thursday, October 6th, we proceeded on our journey . . . and found the road so inconvenient, that after some deliberation, we concluded to return. The carts of this country are made eight inches wider, than in Massachusetts and Connecticut, for the purpose of carrying lumber. The track, or rut, formed by the wheels of these heavy-laden wains [wagons] is very deep, and becomes not only inconvenient, but dangerous to carriages of a shorter axle. We struggled with these troublesome roads for some time, before we reluctantly gave up the remainder of our proposed journey.”
To redress the deplorable road conditions, a local committee was appointed in 1805 to survey the main road through Berwick (now South Berwick) in the process of constructing a turnpike between Boston and Portland. Construction of a public highway to accommodate increased traffic required that the main road in South Berwick be widened and straightened. Workshops, stores and barns along the main road near the bridge were moved or altered, including “A boat builder’s shop occupied by Joseph Hutchins. Part of a barn of Nathaniel Nason’s. Part of a barn of Mark Lord’s. A blacksmith’s shop owned by Jordan Goodwin. And a shoemaker’s owned by Henry Ricker.” This list of compensated property owners gives a sense of the business life concentrated at the Landing by 1800.
With road improvements came commercial opportunities, and the development of properties on Main Street reflected this trend. A major land sale in 1803, for example, transferred ownership of twelve lots near the bridge from Daniel Rollins’ heirs to a host of local tradesmen. The buyers included an innkeeper, baker, hatter, two storekeepers, a cooper, blacksmith and shipwright. Some were from nearby towns—Dover and Somersworth, across the river—but most were Berwick men investing in land along a vital Northeastern transportation corridor.
Rental properties at the Landing were not uncommon, long before the factory bell called operatives to work at the cotton mill. But in the early decades of the nineteenth century, owner occupants were replacing tenants. In 1817, for example, physician Richard Hazeltine bought property on Main Street from merchant John Lord’s estate, which was “the same land where the said Richard now lives, with the buildings thereon.” In 1824, investor Samuel Hale sold a house “then rented to Benjamin Nason,” a storekeeper, to local merchant Timothy Ferguson. In 1828 lawyer John P. Lord sold a shop to baker John Plumer, adjacent to “the house now occupied by said Plumer.” The number of business owners based at the Landing expanded to include a broad range of services, from doctor and merchant to blacksmith, hatter and baker.
2) The Factory Era (1830-1860)
In the early 1800s a fulling mill was added that specialized in finishing woolen cloth, harnessing the power of a five-foot drop at Quamphegan Falls. The incentive for building textile mills on swift-flowing rivers in the Northeast increased significantly after 1814, when the first factory to use water-powered looms was established on the Merrimack River in Waltham, Massachusetts. All the elements of production were integrated at the factory site, from cleaning raw fibers to inspecting finished bolts of cloth. This method of organizing labor proved enormously successful, and the number of textile mills in New England grew exponentially over the next ten years. By the early 1820s, three mills were built upriver from South Berwick and in the adjacent watershed: a woolen mill at Salmon Falls (Rollinsford) and cotton mills at Great Falls (later Somersworth) and Dover.
Looking to invest the profits of waterborne commerce, and attracted by outstanding rates of return from early mills, local investors bought up mill privileges, wharves, and other real estate near the log dam at the Landing with a view to entering the textile trade. In March 1831, four local investors—Samuel Hale and Ichabod Rollins of Portsmouth and Timothy Ferguson and Theodore F. Jewett of South Berwick—incorporated the Portsmouth Company to manufacture cotton goods at Quamphegan Falls.
The company built a four-story brick textile factory at the Landing, where wharves, warehouses, and stores had stood. Powered by underground turbines, overhead line shafts and leather drive belts, the mill ran 7,000 spindles, twisting cotton thread to weave 2,000,000 yards of finished cotton cloth annually —mostly plain sheeting for bedding and a fabric called drilling, used for clothes. The factory building stretched along the riverbank below the falls and housed a spinning room, a card room, two weave rooms, and a cloth hall where finished goods were inspected. A bell in the central tower of the factory rang to call workers to and from their shift each day. By 1880, the company operated 216 looms and employed two hundred workers.
The factory workforce, and the nearby businesses they relied on, brought profound change to the village at the head of tide. Writing about the Landing neighborhood of the 1830s, local resident Margaret Foote gave a colorful, if somewhat hyperbolic, description of the exodus of longtime residents when the dust and noise of the factory yard overspread nearby streets:
“The old residents, tempted by ‘boom prices,’ terrified at the prospect of having their quiet lives disturbed by the noise of machinery, the clanging of the bell and the air they breathed poisoned by the dust of traffic, joyfully sold their ancestral homes and moved to the ‘Corner,’” today the intersection of Main and Portland Streets.
The cotton mill also attracted boarders who lived in company housing. On Factory Street (now Liberty Street) opposite the mill was a three-story boarding house built by the company to house workers. In an account of the Landing neighborhood written in 1900, George Washington Frosst recalled families who lived there in the 1830s: the Whidden family, the three Estes sisters, the widow Hanson and her two sons. A two-story house, the former home of innkeeper Alexander McGeoch (who emigrated from Scotland and died in South Berwick in 1824) stood at the eastern end of the factory boarding house, facing Tremont Street (now Middle Street). In the early 1830s the house was fitted out on the first floor as a dry goods store and grocery; a family named Luke, who kept boarders and worked in the mill, occupied the second floor. When the factory boarding house was expanded about 1836, the McGeoch House was replaced by a large, three-story ell to provide lodging for additional workers. The factory house was later known as the “Hash House,” a reference to the cheap but filling meals served there to generations of mill employees.
In 1834 Frosst’s father worked in the machine shop of the mill, and the family lived in the “old mill house” by the bridge, where the Counting House stands today. This house, which stood until at least 1836, was likely a vestige of the grist and saw mills that operated at Quamphegan falls before the site was purchased by the Portsmouth Company. George was seven years old when his family of seven moved to the Landing. While the Frost family occupied the mill house, four of his mother’s siblings came to board with them, as well as two young women, all of whom worked in the mill.
Families long established in the neighborhood also took in boarders. Annie Baer recalled several from the 1850s: the Prime family, in their house on Factory Street; Miriam Boston, who catered for twenty-one in the west end of the factory boarding house; Rebecca Abbott, who took in occasional boarders at 48 Main Street; Eliza Dorr, a widow, who kept boarders to support her family; and Sally Meserve, who lived on Mud Street (now Pleasant Street) and provided bed and board for nine workers, in addition to her family of four, at age sixty-five.
Growth in the Landing neighborhood during the early years of the factory was transformative. In the decade the mill was built, between 1830 and 1840, the town’s population increased by an astonishing 47 percent, and the population density of the mill neighborhood rose rapidly to accommodate a workforce of about two hundred employed at the mill. Infrastructure was added, including a cross street (later Park Street) joining the three main residential streets of the neighborhood.
Housing expanded dramatically: A three-story company boarding house was built on Factory Street, and earlier eighteenth-century houses, like the McGeoch House and the Lord House, were demolished or adapted to provide space for worker housing. Other early houses were moved to accommodate the expanding factory; for example, the “Mill House” at the bridge was moved across Main Street to provide a site for the company’s brick office building, the Counting House. And two-family houses were added or adapted from earlier stock along Main Street and elsewhere in the neighborhood.
Local businesses that served the Landing flourished in the early years of the mill.
At 48 Main Street, on the corner of Main and the “new street” (Park Street) was a rented house and stable that was owned in the Lord family for decades. In 1838, young John B. Nealley bought the property for $1,800 and evidently rented it as a tavern, called the Quamphegan House. Founded in the decade before the mill was built, Plumer’s bakery business capitalized on a location at the nexus of turnpike and river traffic; later, the bakeshop thrived because of its proximity to boarding houses, taverns, and several hundred mill employees.
3) The War Era (1860-1910)
The impact of the Civil War on the Portsmouth Company and the mill neighborhood was profound. For Landing residents, the onset of war meant the loss of men who left to serve in Union forces. Maine sent a higher percentage of its population to war than any other state in the Union. South Berwick contributed nearly 300 men to the war effort—more than 10 percent of its population at the time.
In 1860 the cotton mill had been operating for nearly 30 years and was the largest employer the town had known. The business had weathered significant setbacks in that time: The Boston and Maine railroad line to Salmon Falls, completed in 1842, gave the cotton mill upriver closer market access for a dozen years until the South Berwick station was built on a branch line, a few blocks up Main Street from the mill. A smallpox epidemic in the winter of 1848-1849 had decimated the mill workforce, who labored in close, damp conditions. In the winter of 1850-1851 the mill ceased production, one among many New England textile mills idle due to depressed prices. Then on the night of August 27, 1851, an arsonist’s fire entirely consumed the company’s storehouse of cotton bales and new machinery, along with the adjoining counting room, all uninsured.
In mid-April, 1860, as part of a strategy to deprive the Confederacy of vital income, President Lincoln declared a Federal blockade of Southern ports, which prohibited cotton exports. Textile mills in Britain and New England had stockpiled raw cotton in anticipation of armed conflict, and the Portsmouth Company may have followed suit, accumulating reserves of baled cotton in its storehouse to carry the mill through the first months of a war many expected to be brief.
But the Civil War was a long and bitter contest, and its impact on local families mounted through the war years. Casualties from the Landing neighborhood included brick maker Benjamin Doe, tinsmith Benjamin Davis, and two sons of Benjamin Nason, whose family homestead had been at 80 Main. During the decade from 1860 to 1870, the town’s population declined for the first time on record.
At length the Civil War would lead to the demise of the mill through a combination of high-interest debts and post-war industrialization in the South. The company was forced to close in June of 1894.
The devastating effects of the mill failure were widespread, but the impact on the Landing community was perhaps the hardest. Employees of the mill had not received payment for their labor in five to six weeks when the mill failed, and local businesses were left holding worthless notes. “A serious blow has been struck to the town,” a Boston paper reported. Visiting South Berwick that August, George Frosst was a mournful witness to the transformation of his boyhood home:
“Here I was, wearily sauntering along the—to me—almost deserted streets . . . The busy whirl of the wheels at the Landing mill, that in years past gave employment to hundreds, was hushed, and all about the old mill was still—as death!”
Author Sarah Orne Jewett, whose writing expressed nostalgia for earlier times in New England, wrote of Quamphegan Landing in 1881 in her essay “River Driftwood,” “I have always wished to know something more of the history of the quaint little packet storehouse which, until within a year or two, stood in the mill-yard, just below the falls. It was built of heavy timbers, as if it might some day be called upon to resist a battering-ram. The stories were very low, and the upper one projected over the water with a beam, to which was fastened a tackle and fall to hoist and lower the goods...Nobody knew how old it was; it was like a little old woman who belonged to a good family, now dead, save herself; and who could remember a great many valuable people and events which everybody else had forgotten. It was the last of the warehouses that used to stand on the river-banks, and I was sorry when it was pulled down. The old wharves have almost disappeared, too, though their timbers can still be seen here and there.”
(Posted 2-2016 – Excerpted from a 2015 South Berwick Historic District Commission Report by Nina Maurer; edited by Wendy Pirsig in 2020. Sources include research in 2020 by Sean Furness at the National Archives of the United Kingdom. Other sources: Old Berwick Historical Society archives; Nathanael Low, An Astronomical Diary or Almanack, (Boston: T. & J. Fleet, 1795), OBHS collection; Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York (New Haven, 1821), 1: 426-427. John Low, “Pursuant to a Commission from the Court,” (York, 1805), OBHS; York County Registry of Deeds; Annie Wentworth Baer, “Hale House” and “The Landing Mill and its Time,” original manuscripts at Woodman Museum; An Act to Incorporate the Portsmouth Company (Maine State Legislature, 1831), Maine State Archives; "A Comparative View of the Extent of Manufacturing," Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), November 22, 1845, 2, Genealogy Bank, http://www.genealogybank.com; Walter Wells, The Water-Power of Maine (Augusta: Sprague, Owen and Nash, Printers to the State, 1869), HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed December 12, 2015, http://hdl.handle.net; Woodford Clayton, History of York County, Maine (Philadelphia: Everts and Peck, 1880); Margaret P. Foote, "Old Houses," The Independent, May 17, 1906, 2009I.0314, OBHS; George W. Frosst, Quamphegan Landing (South Berwick: Old Berwick Historical Society, 2001), 13-14. Manuscript copy 1991I.0002.01 OBHS; original manuscript owned by descendants of Charles E. Frost, Montreal, Quebec; "South Berwick, Maine," Wikipedia, accessed December 7, 2015; “South Berwick Civil War Veterans," by Art Stansfield, Old Berwick Historical Society; The Placenames of South Berwick, Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Back Channel Press, 2007; "Fires," Boston Daily Atlas, September 4, 1851, Genealogy Bank, www.genealogybank.com)