Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Great Portsmouth Fire of 1813

Sunday, December 22, 2013 is the bicentennial anniversary of the worse disaster to ever strike Portsmouth. Two hundred years ago, around seven o’clock on the evening of December 22, 1813, a blaze was discovered in a barn owned by the widow of Colonel Moses Woodward. 

Stone Church (South Church)
What would become known as The Great Portsmouth Fire began on the northwest corner of Church and Court Streets, where the Stone Church is located today. The burning barn quickly spread flames to the neighboring buildings. As townspeople struggled to limit the damage, swirling winds began lofting flaming material into the air over the heart of Portsmouth.

Conditions were perfect for a firestorm, and soon sparks carried by the wind began randomly setting fire to buildings on State Street and the surrounding areas. The town’s firefighting efforts, consisting of water-bucket brigades and hand-pumped engines, were quickly overwhelmed as blazes burned out of control in various locations and continued to spread. Flames from burning buildings on both sides of State Street, which was much narrower than it is today, joined above the roadway and created an arch of fire over the road. Many volunteers dashed into burning houses to rescue furniture and other belongings. Household objects were stacked in the street.  Looting occurred during and after the fire, and at least one person fighting the fires had his pocket picked. The inferno grew and grew until light from the fires could be seen as far away as Boston, Massachusetts; Windsor, Vermont; and Providence, Rhode Island.

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
People from neighboring towns, including Exeter, Dover, and Durham, helped fight the flames. Citizens from as far away as Berwick, ME and Newburyport, MA arrived. Hand-pumpers from Exeter and Dover helped save the South End. Commodore Isaac Hull, commander of the Portsmouth Naval Yard, and the crews of Navy ships in port pitched in. 

The inferno raged for six hours, until about 1 o’clock on the morning of December 23, before the firefighters got control. Forty people arrived from Salem, MA around three o’clock in the morning and kept an eye on the smoking ashes while exhausted townspeople who had battled the flames all night found somewhere to sleep. The following night, Christmas Eve, Newburyport sent eighty or ninety men to help guard the charred remains and stacks of belongings that littered the streets.

The fire destroyed State Street from the burning barn to the Piscataqua River shoreline and even torched the Portsmouth Pier and all its warehouses at the end of the street. Among the losses was an historic, castle-like mansion once owned by Sheriff Thomas Packer, who was notorious for hanging Ruth Blay, the last woman executed in New Hampshire. The prosperous merchant, James Sheafe, Jr., lost his home on the north side of State Street opposite Washington Street, and the house where Daniel Webster lived, on the northwest corner of Court and Pleasant Streets, also burned. Portsmouth’s library and about a thousand books were lost.

Destroyed were approximately one hundred and eighty homes and sixty-four barns and shops; some estimates put the destruction as high as two hundred and seventy-two buildings. Fifteen acres of the center of Portsmouth were in ruins: 1/3 of a mile from west to east and 1/8 of a mile south to north.  Property damages amounted to $250,000 -$300,000. Afterwards, charitable donations of precisely $77,273 were collected.

Losses from this fire were so devastating that the NH Fire and Marine Insurance Company, incorporated after the first Great Portsmouth Fire in 1802, went bankrupt. Their building in Market Square was later sold to the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

As a result of the fire, the third Christmastime inferno to devastate Portsmouth in eleven years (1802, 1806, and 1813), the town voted to request state legislation banning wooden structures over 12 feet –one story high – within the town limits. The resulting “Brick Act” was controversial but resulted in the Portsmouth we know today. Most buildings on State Street, from Pleasant Street to Marcy Street, Daniel Street, and Market Street are brick for this reason.

Years later it was discovered that the barn fire that started it all had been deliberately set by a disgruntled servant of the Widow Woodward. Angry that her employer had confiscated some bottles of wine given to her by a boarder, the young woman retaliated by setting fire to the barn.

Amazingly, not one person died in
The Great Portsmouth Fire of December 22, 1813.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Francis House

The Francis House was “the second house from Middle Street on the east side of Union Street” in 1902. It no longer exists.

During the War of 1812, John Francis was a black crewman aboard a merchantman owned by Nathaniel A. and John Haven. On the ship’s homeward journey to Portsmouth after a successful voyage early in the war, the ship was captured by privateers sailing out of South Carolina or Georgia. When a prize crew boarded the ship, Francis agreed to help them sail the empty merchantman back to port. During the voyage, he managed to hide $15,000 of the cargo’s proceeds in a slush tub, a large bucket filled with animal grease that was used to ‘slush’ the masts. The money, an enormous amount for the early 1800s, consisted of sixty pounds of gold coins. When the ship reached land, the privateers allowed him to have the slush tub, not knowing that it contained a small fortune. Francis banked the money and returned it to the Haven family.

To thank John Francis for his service, John and Nathaniel A. Haven built the Francis House for him shortly after the War of 1812 ended. At the time, there were a number of free African-American homes clustered on Union Street, on the west side of Middle Street. He lived here for many years.

Nathaniel A. and John Haven were sons of Reverend Samuel Haven, a pastor of the South Church. Dr. Nathaniel Appleton Haven graduated from Harvard College in 1779 and became a physician. He was a surgeon in the navy during the Revolutionary War, became a merchant after hostilities ended, served as the first President of the Portsmouth Savings Bank, and was elected to Congress in 1809. John Haven was a shipmaster who partnered with his older brother, Nathaniel, to form the N. A. and J. Haven merchant company. They were successful and became enormously wealthy. Legacies of the Haven family include Haven Park, the Haven Block in Market Square, and the Haven School.

Charles W. Brewster, in Rambles About Portsmouth, wrote in 1859 that the Francis House was a “two-story dwelling on the east side of the street, numbered four from Middle Street.” The exact location of the house was in dispute by 1902. C. S. Gurney required the help of two elderly gentlemen, George W. Haven and Peter Emery, to locate it. When he published Portsmouth . . . Historic and Picturesque, he gave the following location for the Francis House:  “the second house from Middle Street on the east side of Union Street, next north of the stable, which was formerly a stocking factory.”

Gurney included the black-and-white photograph of the Francis House shown above. Based on several descriptions of the location, my best guest is that the house was located around 233-235 Union Avenue. The house currently in this location is somewhat similar, but I believe the original Francis House was demolished a number of years ago. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Farmers Hotel

The Farmers’ Hotel, later renamed the Piscataqua House, once stood on the southwest corner of Pleasant and Porter streets.

The first hotel on this lot opened around the year 1818 and was replaced by the larger Farmers' Hotel around 1830. In 1840, Farmers' Hotel was owned by the partnership of Josiah Hadley and Eben Clark. The pair were also the proprietors of the first three-story retail store in town, which was located opposite their hotel on the northwest corner of Pleasant and Porter Streets. 

Hadley served in the army, rose to the rank of brigadier general in 1844, and commanded troops at Fort Constitution in Newcastle during the Civil War. He later served as a state representative in Concord and as a proprietor of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

By 1902, when C. S. Gurney published Portsmouth . . . Historic and Picturesque, all that remained of the old Farmers’ Hotel was the c.1857 ambrotype he published (below) and a grassy lot to the right of the Custom House where the building once stood.

Today, a 1927 addition to the original granite U.S. Custom House is located where the old Farmers' Hotel used to stand. The building is currently occupied by the 5 Thai Bistro.