Tour South Berwick Village section intro: Quamphegan Hotel Area
From the 1790s, when the waterfall at Quamphegan was crowded with mills and wharves and called “the Great Landing Place,” through the 1840s, when commerce shifted away to the present downtown location, the center of South Berwick was here.
The section of South Berwick’s Main Street (Route 4) between the state line at the Salmon Falls River bridge and the road to the coast (Route 236) has been a transportation hub for almost four centuries. After the American Revolution, the Upper Landing, as the falls area was also known, expanded when roads were built to carry wagon and coach traffic between the states of Maine and New Hampshire.
The Boston to Portland “turnpike” brought stage coaches that stopped at the taverns such as the Quamphegan Hotel, a house still standing at 48 Main Street, on the corner of Park Street.
After 1830, the Portsmouth Company, a towering brick textile factory on the river, dominated the Landing neighborhood. This economic dynamo for the waterside community boosted the local population and the businesses that clustered along its main road.
The neighborhood that became known as the Landing developed roughly in three stages, marked by pivotal events in the region: the coming of the turnpike, the building of the factory, and the intervention of the Civil War.
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 known until 1814) for five generations, occupying large tracts of land at the head of tide.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, landholdings were subdivided by the next generation, who inherited property, often with substantial houses and outbuildings. For example, in 1814 John Perkins Lord, eldest son of John Lord, inherited land that encompassed three properties still standing on Main Street. His father had owned the whole eastern side of the street from the “mansion house” of Bartholomew Nason (where 80 Main is today) to the “New Cross Road” he laid out, later called Park Street, down to the Lord family homestead by the waterfront—nine acres in all. By 1840 all of the Lord holdings were sold out of the family.
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.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, 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. There were both rental properties and owner occupants. 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.”
Five years later, in 1833, John P. Lord sold the balance of his land along Main Street. In many respects, Lord’s land sale of 1833 represents a watershed in the history of the Landing and the town. It was a substantial property for the neighborhood—nine acres—and sold for $3,200, a large sum, indicating the extent of the holdings. The property included “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, which was part of the sale. With this transaction, Lord divested not only the house and stables on the corner lot at 48 Main, but also his father’s homestead and store, located near the corner of Factory (now Liberty) and Pleasant streets. For six generations the Lord family had staked their fortunes in maritime trade from this tidewater village. By the time a new map of the Landing was drawn in 1853, the Lord name was erased from the neighborhood.
Other properties at the Landing remained in the hands of wealthy merchants. The large lot at 80 Main Street (now new apartments) was purchased in 1822 by Timothy Ferguson, a prominent merchant and investor of South Berwick and a founder of the Portsmouth Company textile mill. He paid $2,450 for the two-acre lot, which was the homestead of merchant Bartholomew Nason, including his three-story mansion, store and outbuildings. Nason’s family had lived here for five generations, although Bartholomew married in Boston and was a shopkeeper there before he returned to South Berwick sometime after 1798. His heirs sold the property just three months after their father died.
Evidently Ferguson exchanged homes with the Nasons, since he sold his own home on Portland Street to Benjamin Nason and his brother Bartholomew within three weeks of this purchase. Benjamin operated a store at corner of Main and Portland Streets, where inland traders congregated, whereas Ferguson owned a wharf at the Landing and had been a storekeeper there since at least 1816. Ferguson’s ties were personal, too, since he was married to Eliza Goodwin, the local blacksmith’s daughter. Two years after he bought the Nason homestead, he acquired the two-story house and barn at 89 Main Street, across from his home. Ferguson’s decision to move to the Landing a decade before the cotton mill was built reflects the growing concentration of his business interests in the neighborhood—as well as the economic upheaval about to occur in town.
Portsmouth Company cotton mill. View of South Berwick, ME, from Rollinsford, NH.
2) The Factory Era (1830-1860)
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 . 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 200 workers.
Between 1830 and 1860, factory expansion engulfed the houses along Main Street. Many were owned or rented by mill employees. The factory workforce, and the nearby businesses they relied on, brought profound change. 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’.”
The factory drew workers from outlying farms, especially young women, who walked in for the 5:00 a.m. bell in summer, bringing a dinner pail, and walked back at 7:00 p.m. when their shift ended. Local historian Annie Baer recounted the workers’ hours and the results their efforts bore in preserving ownership of family farms. One such example was Deborah Brock, a mill operative who lived on a 45-acre farm a mile and a half from the mill, where Routes 236 and 91 intersect today. She was twenty-three when the mill opened, and she worked there most of her life, using her savings to support her widowed mother and four siblings.
Hardships were not unknown. George Frost, son and brother of millworkers, wrote about the dangers of contracting consumption in the damp conditions of the local mills in the 1840s. Consumption is the name given tuberculosis, which caused chronic coughing and weight loss in patients. At age 16 George started work at the woolen mill on the Great Works River, and later wrote, “During the winter months I suffered much from exposure, as my work was in the dye house and fulling and wash-room. My health became quite bad, and I left during the winter of 1844-5 [one year later].”
George also commented on conditions at the Landing mill:
“I could have had a situation in the Portsmouth Company’s machine shop, but my people objected, considering it an unhealthy occupation, as my two brothers who had worked there [William, age 19, and Charles, age 22] and several other young men had died of that terrible disease consumption.”
The Frost family was living at 79 Main Street at the time his brothers died in 1844. The following year they moved to Pleasant Street, where George’s only sister, Everline, died at age 15. Three years later his father, Nathaniel, succumbed to the same disease—consumption.
The cotton mill attracted boarders who lived in company housing. 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 21 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 65.
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 200 employed at the mill. Infrastructure was added, including a cross street (Park Street) joining the three main residential streets of the neighborhood. Housing expanded dramatically: 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” 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.
In the decades before the Civil War, long-established families like the Lords and Nasons moved away from the Landing toward the town center established at the crossroads of Main and Portland streets. In their wake, industrious newcomers like the Nealleys bought up property along Main Street near the bridge. The Nealleys arrived in South Berwick from Nottingham, New Hampshire, in the late 1830s. By 1853 the six brothers owned at least nine properties at the Landing, many of which were related to the mills. John B. Nealley bought the house at 48 Main that served as a tavern, which he later sold to his older brother Eben, the blacksmith. Their brother Charles was an overseer in the cloth hall, Andrew owned a store on Main Street, and George was a merchant at the Landing. John and his younger brother Benjamin, an overseer in the card room, shared ownership of the double house at 72-74 Main. And across the street at 89 Main, John owned the two-story house and barn that the Gordons operated as a boarding house. Within a decade after the mill began operation, John B. Nealley bought three properties. By midcentury, the young man who began as a manufacturer and storekeeper had become a lawyer and landlord, whose family name dominated the Landing neighborhood. And the riverbank itself was transformed. A towering brick edifice with a retinue of offices, boarding rooms, and businesses serving a factory workforce supplanted the cluster of wharves and shops at the head of tide. The landing place had become a mill village.
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. Men from the neighborhood who served in the war included brothers John and Bowen Abbott, Benjamin Davis, brothers Benjamin and Joseph Doe, John B. Foote, George W. Goodwin, Albert D. Mason, George Muzzey, brothers Dudley and Augustus Nason, Charles E. Nealley, and Henry Wentworth. 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 thirty 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 Rollinsford, NH, cotton mill 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 workforcewho 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. But a steep rise in cotton prices during the 1850s spurred the textile industry, and a huge Southern cotton crop in 1858 swelled production and the profits of New England mills. By 1859 the Portsmouth Company could declare an annual dividend to its stockholders amounting to 7 percent.
When six Southern states met to form the Confederate States of America in February 1861, 35-year-old Francis Hale had recently assumed management of the Portsmouth Company from his father, founder Samuel Hale, who had served as mill agent for two decades. The company evidently had plans to expand its share of the robust cotton market, because later that year Frank presided over construction of a new, substantially larger dam, 275 feet in length, with a head of 19 feet—10 feet higher than the dam built when the mill opened. When the new dam was completed that fall, it increased the capacity of the mill by an additional 20,000 spindles—enough power to drive a factory three times the size of the existing mill.
Before the massive dam was done, however, hostilities erupted in South Carolina, and the “War of the Rebellion” had begun. In mid-April, 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.
The war’s impact on the Landing mill was far-reaching, and at length it would lead to the demise of the mill through a combination of high-interest debts and post-war industrialization in the South.
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 Frost 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!”
The mill ran for the last time in late December 1894 to mid-January 1895 to use material on hand, and employees were paid 60 percent of the wages owed. The mill assets, including the factory, counting house, electric light plant, and over twenty tenement houses, were sold at auction on April 30, 1895. In 1901 the factory was bought by White Mountain Paper Company, and hopes may have revived that the town would host a paper mill. But the mill was never developed here. The factory remained vacant until the buildings, except for the company’s counting house, were torn down about 1916.
In the aftermath of war and economic decline, property ownership and tenure at the Landing changed as well. In 1860, much of the property along Main Street from the bridge to School Street (now Sewall Road) was consolidated in the hands of three families, the Nealleys, Nasons, and Plumers. The men who headed these families—lawyer John B. Nealley, merchant Benjamin Nason, and baker John Plumer—all began as storekeepers or skilled tradesman living in the neighborhood. When their generation died in the 1870s and 1880s, ownership passed to family members who were women, often widows, and to laborers no longer associated with the cotton mill. The assurance of steady employment at the mill eroded, and with it the social fabric of the neighborhood.
In the 1890s when the factory turbines ceased and the power looms were silent, the vitality of the neighborhood ebbed, as local business ownership declined and sources of employment moved away from the Landing.
(Posted 2-2016 – Excerpted from a 2015 Historic District Commission Report by Nina Maurer; edited by Wendy Pirsig. Sources: Old Berwick Historical Society archives; York County Registry of Probate (YCRP); York County Registry of Deeds (YCRD); Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York (New Haven, 1821); Maine State Archives; Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), November 22, 1845, Genealogy Bank http://www.genealogybank.com; History of York County, Maine (Philadelphia: Everts and Peck, 1880); Margaret P. Foote, "Old Houses," The Independent, May 17, 1906; "South Berwick, Maine," Wikipedia, accessed December 7, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Berwick,_Maine; The New Hampshire Journal of Agriculture, February 5, 1851, Genealogy Bank http://www.genealogybank.com; Boston Daily Atlas, September 4, 1851, Genealogy Bank http://www.genealogybank.com; Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, February 2, 1861, Genealogy Bank http://www.genealogybank.com.)