Shipbuilding in Durham, New Hampshire, 1756-1950

painting of ships
The waterfront at the falls of the Oyster River, Durham, New Hampshire
John Hatch, circa 1822

“Ship building,” Jeremy Belknap noted in 1790, “has always been a considerable branch of business” in New Hampshire. In the early history of the state (1623-1776), the miles of land stretching along the banks of coastal rivers like the Piscataqua, Squamscott, Oyster, and Lamprey “were covered with fine timber.”

Early settlers quickly identified lumber as a valuable commodity. They “erected saw-mills, on the branches of the river[s]; and a great trade in lumber was driven for many years.” Trees were cut and hewn by the thousand, sawn into planks and boards, and carried down river on gundalows and square-rigged ships. They helped fuel a burgeoning market in trade and supplied raw materials for the rapidly expanding coastal population.

Merchants shipped New Hampshire boards and masts abroad and traded them along the Atlantic coast. Local carpenters and furniture-makers utilized native lumber in their work, and shipbuilders learned that in their skilled hands the area’s lumber made a strong vessel.

Several New Hampshire port towns established shipbuilding industries. Coastal towns like Portsmouth, New Castle, Rye, Hampton, and Seabrook all participated in the trade as did the more inland towns that had outlets to the sea, such as Durham, Dover, Somersworth, Newmarket, and Exeter.

Durham and some of the town’s men were significant participants in the seacoast area’s shipbuilding trade, especially from 1776 to 1829. During this period workers in Durham constructed more than 78 ships under the watchful eyes of several master shipwrights, including:

  • Robert Lapish (1738?-1815) worked as a joiner and trader in Durham. He built 4 full-rigged ships and a brig, the Hannah, between 1800 and 1808.
  • Andrew Simpson (1769?-1835), the son-in-law of Robert Lapish, worked for many years as a shipbuilder in the town of Durham. He was particularly active in the first two decades of the 19th century, when he built several schooners, brigs, and single-decked vessels for merchants, as well as the privateers Harlequin (1812) and Andrew Jackson (1815) for the War of 1812.
  • Joseph Coe (1782-1852) merchant, shipbuilder, town leader, author of The True American (1841), and Durham’s largest employer in the early 19th century. Between 1818 and 1827, he built 11 full-rigged ships, 3 brigs, 1 bark, and 4 schooners.
  • Stephen Paul was an itinerant builder who found work in several local towns. He launched 6 full-rigged ships in Durham between 1800 and 1845.

Shipbuilding in Durham came to an abrupt end in 1829. After that date, the town was responsible for producing only 1 brig and 2 schooners – the last of which was the schooner Mary, built by Stephen Paul in 1845.

Shipbuilding as a local trade nearly died out in Durham. That is until one man, Edward Hamlin Adams (1860-1950) revived a centuries-old craft, and began to build gundalows in Durham.

gundalow drawing
Sketch of a Piscataqua River Basin Gundalow
Edward Hamlin Adams, n.d.


UNH maintains several manuscript collections that document Durham’s shipbuilding trade:

  • Thompson family papers (MC 1) contain materials relating to the early nineteenth century – particularly the work of shipwright Andrew Simpson (which can be found in series XIII: Durham Town Records) and accounts of seafaring merchant Ebenezer Thompson, 1762-1828 (series III).
  • Durham Town Records (MC 149) include selectmen’s accounts, receipts, writs, and other materials that document shipbuilding and those involved in the trade during the late 18th and early 19th century.
  • Adams family papers (MC 56) document the final period of shipbuilding in Durham: Edward Hamlin Adams’ construction of the two gundalows, Fanny M (1889) and The Driftwood (1950). His personal papers (series VII) provide information about the building process, blueprints, and dozens of photographs that record the various stages of construction of The Driftwood (1930 to 1950) and its launch in 1950.

Several books, available in Special Collections, also contain useful information.

  • Belknap, Jeremy. The History of New Hampshire, volume III. Boston: Belknap & Young, 1792.
  • Brighton, Ray. Port of Portsmouth Ships and the Cotton Trade, 1783-1829. Portsmouth, NH: Peter Randall, 1986.
  • Stackpole, Everett S., Lucien Thompson, and Winthrop S. Meserve. History of the Town of Durham, New Hampshire. Concord, NH: Rumford Press, 1913.
  • Winslow, Richard Elliot, III. The Piscataqua Gundalow: Workhorse for a Tidal Basin Empire. Portsmouth, NH: Peter Randall, 1983.

Exhibit created by Erik R. Tuveson.