(Above: Mid-19th century view of a Cape Cod saltworks wind-driven pump, which supplied sea water to the evaporation vats. The Hampton windpump owned by David Nudd would have been similar. Library of Congress.)
In 1840 the Eastern Railroad was built through Hampton, New Hampshire, bringing a new era of commerce to the area. As it turned out, the first persons to ride the rails over the Hampton marshes on those early steam locomotives were also the last to see the local salt making industry in operation. Easy to spot, the saltworks were located just east of the tracks on a winding bank of the estuarine Taylor’s River. Owned and operated by local entrepreneur David Nudd, for 13 years the saltworks had annually produced some 1,200 bushels (approximately 48 tons) of salt crystals for Nudd’s fishing operations. Now, however, with cheaper salt from places like New York State supplying the market, the saltworks had outlived its usefulness and was shut down.
It was nothing new. Commercial salt making had never been a steady industry in the coastal environs between and around the Piscataqua and Merrimac Rivers. In the 1620s, men of the Laconia Company made salt at Odiorne’s Point to support their fishing operations, and when they left, so did the salt. In later times saltworks were built and eventually shuttered in Rye, Smuttynose Island, Kittery, and Salisbury. Local salt seemed like a good idea, but the reality was that without protective tariffs, it could never truly compete with the quantity and quality of salt from places like Liverpool, England and Turks Island in the Caribbean. Besides, foreign salt was a valuable trade item, as it provided a return cargo for Yankee ships carrying lumber and salt fish to the West Indies.
Nudd and his saltworks
“Liberty is power,” declared President John Quincy Adams in his First Annual Message to Congress in 1825. And the “tenure of power by man is, in the moral purposes of his Creator,” to improve economic and social conditions, not only for himself, but for his fellow men. Men who followed this creed were, in the 19th century, called “improvers,” and they took their responsibilities seriously.
Like Adams, David Nudd was an improver (he even named his son, born just eight days after Adams’s inauguration, in honor of the new president). While his sphere of influence was limited to a small geographical area, his commercial interests were large, extending to trade, shipping, fishing, a river canal, and several beach hotels. When he saw that he could make salt more cheaply than he could buy it, he literally tested the waters with his new idea.
As the tests showed that the salinity of Taylor’s River was higher than the waters nearer the seashore, Nudd laid out his saltworks on a two-acre tract adjacent to his wharf and warehouses. He modeled it on those operating on Cape Cod, where the salt making industry had begun in earnest when British embargoes during the Revolution had caused shortages of every kind of good, and it continued to grow until peaking at nearly 700 individual saltworks in the 1830s. Writing in the early 1930s, nonagenarian James Warren Perkins recalled Nudd’s works as a series of wooden vats (or “rooms” as they were called), each measuring fifteen feet square and 3 inches deep, standing 3 feet above the ground, and protected from the rain by a moveable roof. A windpump, “located about one hundred yards down river,” supplied salt water to the vats.
The salt making process consumed 350-400 gallons of seawater for every bushel of salt crystals produced, and, depending upon the amount of available sunshine, took anywhere from three to six weeks to complete. With a yearly output in the neighborhood of 48 tons, Nudd’s saltworks would have supplied a little over half the salt needed for the approximately 300,000 pounds of dried and pickled fish produced by the entire Hampton fisheries (1840 data).
Remnants and Revivals
With the shuttering of the saltworks, Nudd salvaged its timbers and used them to build the Granite House Hotel on Boar’s Head (later renamed the New Boar’s Head, this hotel was destroyed by fire in 1908). Remnants of the saltworks could still be seen in the early 20th century, languishing alongside the riverbank near the old Landing place.
Reinvented by the artisanal foods movement, salt has become the new beer. Cape Cod Saltworks, 1830 Sea Salt, and Wellfleet Sea Salt, small companies which provide specialty cooking salts to consumers, have revived the salt making tradition on Cape Cod. Who knows, beer came to Hampton, and someday salt might, too.
Originally published in the Hampton Union, November 30, 2018.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. “Hampton History Matters,” a collection of new and previously published essays, is available at amazon.com, Tuck Museum, and Marelli’s Market. Contact Cheryl at firstname.lastname@example.org or lassitergang.com.