Portsmouth was settled in 1630 and claims to be the country’s third oldest city. Portsmouth quickly grew into a significant trade port due to its strategic location at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. The city declined in the early 1800s during the industrial revolution, which saw wealth and growth move inland to the milltowns. In response, foundries, machine shops, textile mills and breweries sprung up in the city.
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The Naval Shipyard, founded in 1800 by Congress, became the area’s largest employer, and eventually expanded to meet 20th-century wartime needs. Portsmouth again fell on hard times in the mid-20th century, when it was threatened by federal slum-clearance programs. Local groups rallied in response and began turning the city into the thriving cultural and tourist center it is today.
Located on the southern bank of the Piscataqua River, which forms the border between Maine and New Hampshire, Portsmouth today is packed with restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, brewpubs and historic sites. Across the river is Kittery, Maine, which also teems with shops, restaurants and boating facilities.
For boaters, the city offers quick access to the open ocean, great fishing and a river filled with wonderful places to explore in a skiff, canoe or kayak (Little Harbor and Great Bay being 2 of them). Portsmouth is also a great jumping-off spot for daytrips to the Isles of Shoals, just 6 miles off the coast, or other ports in southern Maine and New Hampshire. Portsmouth has over 4 marinas and an equal number of yacht clubs, plus a great municipal dock at Prescott Park that offers 26 transient slips for stays of up to 3 nights. There are also some good spots to anchor inside the river, as long as you take into account the strong current.
It should be noted that the river and harbor are extremely busy, filled with every conceivable type of vessel, from huge tankers to ferry boats to classic gundalows and the occasional submarine heading for the Naval Shipyard on Seavey Island. All this activity, plus the river’s considerable current (3 to 5 knots average and up to 10 knots in some spots on peak tides), demand a watchful eye. If new to the area, consider timing your arrival around slack tide.
The mouth of Portsmouth Harbor is guarded by 48-foot-tall Portsmouth Light, which was built in 1877 and sits on the northeast tip of New Castle Island. The light is located next to Fort Constitution (1 of 7 forts built to protect Portsmouth Harbor) and a Coast Guard Station.
Boaters who wish to venture farther upriver all the way to Great Bay must pass below 4 bridges. The first is the Memorial Bridge (Rte. 1), a lift bridge that was rebuilt in 2012. The second bridge is the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge (Rt. 1 Bypass), another lift bridge with a closed vertical clearance of 8 feet. The third bridge is the Piscataqua River Bridge (Interstate 95), which has a vertical clearance of 134 feet. The fourth bridge is the General Sullivan Bridge, which has a vertical clearance of 45 feet.