The Piscataqua River: A description

By: Melissa M.

The Piscataqua River is a very unique place. The Piscataqua is located partly in New Hampshire and the other half is in Maine. It has been a very important region to the eastern seaboard. The river has contributed to many industries, including ship building. The Piscataqua River is known for it's powerful currents, which greatly impacts the unique animal and plant life.

The river was and is used in many ways, all of which have greatly shaped the region into a place of economic, and biological importance.

The Piscataqua River is divided down the middle between New Hampshire and Maine. With the exception of the U.S. Naval Shipyard, the Maine side to the north is primarily for residential use. The New Hampshire side to the south is heavily industrialized. The Portsmouth harbor provides the attraction of water access and scenic views. This is also a popular place for recreational boating. Along the river there is a tug boat operation, the state fish pier, the N.H. State Port Authority Cargo Terminal, two bulk cargo docks, a petroleum distribution facility, and two electrical generating facilities.

This area was rich in marine resources during the 17th and 18th centuries. The fishing industry was booming, exporting fish all over the world, from Europe and Boston. Oysters, clams and lobsters were also in great abundance. This area was also known for another one of its natural resources: lumber. It was for this reason that people began to set up saw mills, and began ship building. The majority of the trees were white pine and oak, which is ideal for masts (Short 7).

Ship building became significant because of a dramatic increase in trade and settlement in the Piscataqua region. Ship building was a major industry in this area for over 200 years. The shipbuilding industry also increased settlement and trade. It enabled the exporting of products such as furniture, and building materials such as bricks. The ships themselves that were being produced were also made for the naval stations all over the world.

While all of the great commercial work that put New Hampshire on the map was going on, the Piscataqua River was suffering tremendously, a lot of this was credited to the new and developing industries. The amount of pollutants that went directly into the river was substantial. This pollution was a result of drains, common sewers, slaughter houses, tan yards, and cotton mills. In the cotton mills, waste was discharged into the river. Dyes from the tanning yards were also released into the Piscataqua (Short 11). Traces of these pollutants were even found in the 1960's. The wells dug to obtain water were contaminated by human waste. The water power saw mills that were set up on the river did a great deal of damage to the river. For about each 1,000 feet of lumber cut, approximately 40 bushels of saw dust was tossed directly into the river(Short 12). "A merchant in 1750 noted that salmon weren't returning to the Piscataqua as much as in the past because of sawdust from the saw mills choking the water ways" (Short 12).

People started to realize the toll they were forcing on the river, and that the pollution was affecting the quality of life. The board of health was established in 1799, in response to diseases that were breaking out all over the city of Portsmouth (Short 11). These illnesses were caused by a number of sanitation problems such as sewage disposal or any "putrid substances"(Short 11). Laws were soon passed to regulate the number of fish being caught and to secure an ecological future for the river.

Pollution was a major problem because the river has many tributaries, and many towns are located on the river. The Piscataqua River forms the approach to Salmon Falls, Cocheco, Bellamy, Oyster, Lamprey, and the Squamscott Rivers. These lead to the towns of Newington, Durham, Newmarket, Exeter, and Dover. The river is also known for its extreme tides, making the river very hard to navigate. The changes in the width and depth can cause the direction of the current to change, and that can cause dangerous crosscurrents The river itself divides into three rivers, the north fork is Salmon Falls River, northwest fork is Cocheco River, and also Little Bay which leads into the Great Bay, which itself is two miles long and three miles wide.

The whole length of the river is "severely hampered by rapid tidal currents"(Coast Pilot) . The speed of the river differs at various locations because of irregularities in depth and width. The mighty currents are also caused because there is a tremendous amount of water that must move upriver in order to fill its tributaries and reach the Great Bay. The water is pushed at high speed into the river. By the time the water begins to fill these places the moon is directing the tide back out of the river. The water, while the tides are forcing the water in the opposite direction. This was the reason that the Wherry Boat was used. They had to make a boat that would cross the river quickly and efficiently, by using man power. Maximum speed occurs off of nobles island, and off of Dover Point, andAtlantic Heights. The speeds of these currents can reach over 4 knots. The current can also reach a low of only one or two knots in some places.

For the most part the dangers are all marked by buoys, nuns, gongs or cans. However it is necessary for any large or commercial ship entering the river to be escorted by at least one tug boat. The pilots know the river and all of its dangers well, and can safely guide a boat to shore. All of the commercial deep craft facilities in use are on the south bank of the Piscataqua River between the first bridge, Memorial bridge and Dover Point. The channels in all of the tributary rivers, are narrow, and unmarked. Local knowledge is necessary in order to navigate.

Microscopoic view of eel grass

The tides and many rivers of the Piscataqua affect aspects such as salinity, and temperature. The salinity of the river variesboth seasonally and with the stage of the tide. Maximum salinities occur in the summer, and the lowest in January. The salinity in the river varies greatly during the winter and spring thaws. Salinities at Portsmouth Harbor range from 25-34 ppt, at Dover Point 1-30 ppt., and at Adams Point 7-31 ppt. The fresh water dilutes the salinity of the water (Coast Pilot). So the closer to a freshwater river, the lower the salinity. Sediment samples from a variety of points have been analyzed, and the results showed relatively clean sediments. This is probably due to the current and tide washing some of the pollution and other substances out to sea. The heavy metal concentrations range mostly from low to moderate at most sites. The depths of the river vary greatly as well. In order for the river to be able to host commercial ships, it must obtain depths of thirty five feet or greater. This forces the dredging and filling of the river.

The temperature of the Piscataqua River varies seasonally. The maximum temperatures occur during mid-summer through the fall. The lowest temperatures occur from January to March. The temperatures at Portsmouth Harbor range from 1 to 19 degrees, at Dover Point -2 to 24.1 degrees, and at Adams point 1.8 to 26.5 degrees. The temperature and salinity of the river affect the animal and plant life.

There is also a phenomenal ecological system in the Piscataqua River. The main ecological support of the river is Eel grass. Eel grass can only survive under the conditions of the right salinity and temperature. Eel grass is the refuge for juvenile and small fish. Bacteria lives and feeds on the eel grass, small microscopic animals live and eat off the bacteria. Small fish feed off the microscopic animals, larger animals feed off the small fish, and humans feed off the fish. Other animals eat the fish as well. Many food chains are created.

The fish activity today includes striped bass, bluefish, salmon, eels, tom cod shad, smelt, river herring, and flounder.(Short 14).

The uses for the river today include the transportation of fuel oils, wire cables, cement, scrap metals and salt and, fishing for both lobster and fin fishes.

The Piscataqua river has been an important part of the life in this area. It was because of this access to the sea that the region was settled and industrialized. With the help of laws and restrictions the river area has prospered. The animal and plant life has shown its importance because it feeds, employs, and keeps the river alive. The industrialization and ship building furthered the river economically, benefiting the people of the area. The Piscataqua River has been an important part of the life in this region, and if we preserve it, it will continue to be.

The author presenting findings.