The Changing Faces of Peirce Island
by Caren Hanssmann (2008)

Peirce Island has seen many changes since its first colonial inhabitants arrived circa the 1630's. From early settler homesteads, to a shipbuilding site, and a military fortification known as Fort Washington, its land use has changed with the times. A city-owned island since 1923, it is now home to a commercial fishing pier, waste treatment plant, snow dumping ground and several recreational facilities including outdoor pool, playground, boat launch, and walking trails.


How the Island Got Its Name

According to Placenames of Portsmouth, this 27 acre island was known by several different names prior to the city's purchase. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the island was inhabited by different families and the whole island or eastern and western portions of it, were named after the families living there. The first known settler of the island was Dr. Fernald in 1631, and the island's first name was Doctor's Island. In 1688, it became Waterhouse Island. In the 1700's, the western point was known as Mendum's Island, then Janvrin's Island. The eastern end was associated with Partridge, then Peirce family names.


Portsmouth Harbor Defense - Fort Washington

Major-General John Sullivan, etching from Thomas C. Amory’s The Military Services and Public Life of Major-General John Sullivan (1869)

In 1775, under orders of Major General John Sullivan, Fort Washington was built in order to guard against "piratical ships-of-war which now infest this coast". Captain Titus Salter, a well-known privateer and New Hampshire Patriot, commanded a garrison of 180 men here from 1775-1778 (Wealth and Honour).

The Fort's men saw action on September 30th, 1775, when the British ship Prince George, headed for Boston, mistakenly entered the Portsmouth Harbor after a gale. The ship came under fire from the Fort's gun batteries and Salter's men were dispatched into small boats to seize the vessel. Its cargo of flour, beer and cheese (scarce due to the British blockades) were divided up amongst Washington's army in Cambridge, MA and Portsmouth town residents.

From 1812 - 1815, with British warships once again blockading the coast, the Fort was repaired and re-garrisoned. A British lieutenant on HBM Nymphe, anchored in Portsmouth Harbor in 1814, noted in his journal as follows: "Sunday, 29 May ... there is besides these, another fort which commands the harbour on Pearce's Island, lately put into repair. The people in a great fright and all the militia concentrated there expecting an attack ..." (Wealth and Honour)


National Guard Encampment on Peirce Island. 1910. Thomas C. Wilson Photograph Collection. Courtesy of the Portsmouth Athenaeum


By 1850 the Fort lay in ruins. It was last used for military service in 1941 when a tent camp for 500 men was established as an Army Recreation Center for coastal artillery troops from Portsmouth to Boston. In 1963-64 the land face and sally port of the Fort ruins were bulldozed to make way for the Portsmouth Wastewater Treatment Facility. The remaining overgrown ruins and a historical marker can now be seen at the top of the East End Walking Trail.


An 1850's shipbuilding site

Wooden Floating Dry Dock constructed at Peirce Island opposite the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in July 1852. Courtesy of the Portsmouth Athenaeum


From 1850-52, carpenters at the island built a large floating dry dock for the Naval shipyard, which was subsequently towed across the river. Later in the 1850's a shipbuilding operation was established. On March 20, 1856, the Portsmouth Chronicle noted that:

"E.G. Pierce, late of Farmingdale, Maine, has leased Pierce Island for a shipyard and commenced operations preparatory to laying the keel of a ship 1,110 tons for Henry Hastings of Boston. Col. Pierce has permission to build a bridge near the Gardner Estate to the island."

His son, Elbridge Jr. joined the venture and they subsequently built 2 ships here - the Charger and the Henry Hastings. The Charger was launched on October 25, 1856. Her arrival in Boston December 9th was heralded in the Boston Journal:

"The beautiful clipper ship Charger arrived in Boston Thursday from Portsmouth, NH. She is 1,400 tons and was built by E.G. Pierce for Henry Hastings et al of Boston. She is said to be the best and most costly merchant ship of her size ever built in the United States...She is to be commanded by Capt. Luther Hurd of New Orleans, who is part owner..."

The Pierces closed down operations in 1858 after completion of the Henry Hastings. It wasn't known if these Pierces were of any relation to the family who owned the island (Clippers of the Port of Portsmouth).


City Takes Ownership

On August 9, 1923, Portsmouth purchased Pierce Island for $11,000 and later built a wooden bridge to connect the island to the mainland. The bridge was upgraded to steel in 1958. The outdoor pool was constructed in 1937 and the current Wastewater Treatment Facility was established in 1963-64. A causeway connecting Four Tree Island to Peirce Island was completed in 1976. The ownership of the fishing pier at the island was later transferred from the city to the state and managed under the Department of Resources and Economic Development until 2001 when it was taken over by the Pease Development Authority (PDA). The Portsmouth Fisherman's Co-op leased this pier from 1979 up until late 2007 when it closed down. The PDA continues to provide essential services such as fuel, ice and fish storage facilities at the pier. A restriction in the deed that transferred ownership from the city to the state determines that if the pier is used for anything other than a fish pier, its ownership will revert to the city.

Courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum: Peirce Island Bridge (1940), Unloading Fish Near Peirce Island Bridge (1951), Peirce Island and Pool (1967-8), Boat Launch (1965-70) . Photos by Douglas Armsden



A Great Place to Walk With the new walking trails now established, local residents can enjoy picturesque views of the Piscataqua River activities and South End historic district. Public usage of the island has increased, particularly in the summer months, as many families enjoy the pool, playground, boat launch and picnic areas. In late September the past 5 years, it has been a hub of Fairy House building activity as part of the Annual Fairy House Tour. It has also become a popular place for dogs and their owners to walk year round. And yes, after much debate, dogs are permitted off-leash at the eastern end of the island past the pool parking lot. A sign denotes the beginning of the off-leash area.



Clippers of the Port of Portsmouth and the Men who built Them, Ray Brighton, The Portsmouth Marine Society Publication Five, Peter E. Randall Publisher, 1985.

Placenames of Portsmouth, Nancy W. Grossman, Placenames Press, 2005.

"Wealth and Honour": Portsmouth During the Golden Age of Privateering, 1775-1815, Richard E. Winslow III, The Portsmouth Marine Society, Publication Twelve, Peter E. Randall Publisher, 1988.

"Hearing set for Peirce Island" by Jenn Vento, Portmsouth Herald, August 12, 1998.

"Cool 'new' pool opens on Peirce Island", by Nancy Cicco, Portsmouth Herald, Tuesday, July 22, 2003

"Rotary Club celebrates Peirce Island", by Jesse J. DeConto, Portsmouth Herald, Friday July 11, 2003.

"Pooch rules for Peirce Island?" by Chris Outcalt, Portsmouth Herald, January 29, 2007.

"Plea: Fill Co-op's shoes, Closed Fisherman's alliance asks Pease board for help", by Shir Haberman,, December 9, 2007.

History of Fort Washington,