Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Gundalows of New Coastal New Hampshire and Maine

The Gundalow Company, photo from Trip Advisor


There was a time, in New Hampshire and Maine, when the quickest way to transport goods and people was by water. The main impediment, though, to this mode of travel was the tidal nature of the many rivers that flowed into and out of the Great Bay. The waters of the Lamprey, Scamscott, Winnicut, Salmon Falls, Cocheco, Bellamy and Oyster Rivers, eventually flow into the Piscataqua and into the Atlantic Ocean. The Great Bay is a tidal estuary; at low tide more than 50% is exposed

One of the most successful vessels to navigate these waters was a boat known as a Gundalow. More a barge than a boat, the gundalow was introduced in the mid-1600s, reached its heyday in the 1700s-1800s and was gradually replaced by more modern transportation systems, most notably the railroad. More than 2000 of these workhorses were built and the growth of the region depended on these sturdy boats. 

It's been suggested that the name Gundalow comes from the Venetian Gondola. The boats operated only on smooth inter-coastal waters in good weather. The flat bottoms were perfect for the tidal rivers and the boatmen could move the boats with their long poles through narrow channels. The boat was designed to harness the power of the tides. Moving inland with the incoming water and floating downstream with the outgoing tide.  When conditions were right, in deeper water, the sailor could employ the triangular sail attached to its stubby mast.

Goods flowed into the Portsmouth harbor from Europe and other American cities. Loaded onto gundalows, the cargo was moved upstream to smaller towns of Dover, Exeter and Durham. Bricks, lumber, produce and other local products moved around the region via these boats. 

The Gundalow, also called the salt-marsh gundalow was used to move hay from its watery marsh straddle to the farmer's barn. Benedict Arnold had nine gundalow in his fleet in his 1776 Battle of Valcour Island, a significant inland naval fight against a superior British fleet. 

Today, the Gundalow Company operates a new vessel, built in 2011, out of Portsmouth, NH. It was designed to take passengers and students sailing. It's on my bucket list of things I'd like to do. 


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