Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bellamy Eagles

Discover Portsmouth at 10 Middle Street, in the former Academy Building that served as Portsmouth Public Library, is holding an exhibit of wood carvings by John Haley Bellamy and other artists inspired by him. Called “Bold and Brash: The Art of John Haley Bellamy”, the exhibit is a rare collection of works by the artist famous for his decorative wall-hangings known as Bellamy Eagles.

John Haley Bellamy was born in the historic Pepperrell Mansion in Kittery on April 5, 1836. His father, Charles Gerrish Bellamy, was a building contractor who served as a Maine State Congressman from 1842-1843, and a State Senator from 1846-1847. Later, he became the Inspector of Timber at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. He and his wife, Frances “Fanny” Keen Bellamy, had nine children, as well as two daughters from Frances' previous marriage.

John Haley Bellamy, their first child together, learned to carve as an apprentice to furniture-maker Samuel Dockham in Portsmouth, and as an employee of Laban Beecher, a famous and controversial ship's woodcarver, in Boston. By the late 1860s, Bellamy partnered with D.A. Titcomb of Boston and was selling carvings across the country to fraternal organizations like the Freemasons, Knights of Columbus, and the Civil War veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic.

During his lifetime, Bellamy's decorative pieces for ships and homes included figureheads, furniture, wall-hangings, and animal figures. He also held patents for six styles of intricately-carved clock cases.

He moved to Portsmouth during the winter of 1872-1873 and opened a wood-carving shop. Here was where he specialized in carved eagles like the ones exhibited at Discover Portsmouth. He became renowned for his “Bellamy Eagles”, yet never signed his works because he considered himself to be an ordinary, but skilled, woodcarver and not an artist.

In 1880, he was commissioned to carve a figurehead for the USS Lancaster, a Naval sloop-of-war, while she was undergoing repairs at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Bellamy was paid just $2.32 per day for his work. The resulting gilded eagle weighs 3,200 pounds and has an eighteen-foot wingspan. Considered to be Bellamy's finest work, the beautiful Lancaster Eagle is proudly displayed at The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

Bellamy died in Portsmouth on December 5, 1910, having outlived his parents and all of his brothers and sisters.

A Bellamy Eagle, or an eagle inspired by John Haley Bellamy, currently flies above the front door of Northeast Auctions in the Treadwell Jenness House. Another once adorned the front facade of the H.C. Hopkins & Company Dry Goods Store on Market Street, now home to the Portsmouth Brewery.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Richard Jackson House

The Richard Jackson House is located at 76 Northwest Street, north of the North Mill Pond in an area of Portsmouth known as the Christian Shore.

This year (2014) marks the 350th anniversary of the oldest house in Portsmouth, which is also the oldest timber-framed building in New Hampshire and Maine. Richard Jackson built the original, center portion of this home on his 25-acre property in 1664. Back in Colonial days, the river was more important for travel than the few roads, and for this reason, the home faces the North Mill Pond rather than Northwest Street.

Richard Jackson, the son of an immigrant cooper, worked as a woodworker, farmer, and mariner. His 25-acre property was adjacent to the farms of his father-in-law and brother-in-law. The Jackson family never became famous or wealthy; they were contented to be common laborers, planting crops, tending their apple trees, caring for farm animals, and raising their families. 

Over the years, the house was usually owned and occupied by more than one Jackson family member at a time. This led to several enlargements to increase the living space.
Kitchen, Showing the Butry Door on the Left

They built the first addition, a lean-to adjacent to the kitchen, in 1715. Called “the Butry” or buttery, this unheated space was used for food storage. Later, they extended the lean-to across the entire rear of the house. This gave the home its distinctive steep roof that slopes almost down to the ground.

Interior of the Western Lean-to

In a 1727 census, twelve men over the age of sixteen lived in the small house, along with wives and children. The overcrowded conditions led to the construction of an ell on the east side of the house. Around 1824, a shed-roofed lean-to was also added on the west side.

The Richard Jackson House has been regarded as historically significant for many years. As long ago as 1876, when Sarah Haven Foster published The Portsmouth Guide Book, she referred to the Jackson House as “the most ancient of all our houses.”

Stairs to the Second Floor
From 1880, the Jacksons lived next door in a more modern house and rented this old home. Until the early 1930s,  their renter was a woman named Isabelle “Belle” Tilley who had been born on a slave plantation and escaped via the Underground Railroad. The Richard Jackson House remained in the possession of the Jackson family for more than 250 years. William Sumner Appleton , the founder of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now known as Historic New England, acquired the house from the seventh generation of Jacksons in 1924. 

The vintage photographs above both date from 1900, before the building was restored by Historic New England. The top comparison photographs show the front of the building that faces the North Mill Pond. The pictures above show the most-famous view of the house, the rear view. 

Not surprisingly, the 350-year-old Richard Jackson House is a National Historic Landmark. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Pest Island

Pest Island is southwest of the northwestern corner of New Castle, east of downtown Portsmouth.

Colonial Portsmouth’s merchant fleet traveled to distant ports and encountered many contagions, the worst of which was smallpox. The first recorded cases on the Seacoast occurred in 1692 and were thought to have been contracted from cotton imported from the West Indies. At that time, no one locally knew the proper way of treating patients with smallpox, resulting in the death of most people who contracted the disease.

In 1735-1736, an unknown contagion that became known as throat-distemper ravaged the area. Especially virulent in children, the merciless disease killed ninety-nine people over a fourteen-month period, eighty-one of whom were under the age of ten. By the mid-1700s, patients with smallpox or other contagions were usually quarantined in rented houses in rural areas away from the most populated parts of Portsmouth until they were cured or killed. 

Wentworth by the Sea with Pest Island on the Right
According to Nathaniel Adams’ 1825 book, Annals of Portsmouth, in 1749, Portsmouth “purchased a small island in the river, just below the town, on which they built a house, with suitable accommodations for a hospital. A family resides in the house to attend upon the sick that are brought there. It is called the pest-house.” 

The original site was probably Shapley’s Island rather than Pest Island. 

Courtesy of Bing Maps
In 1764, an epidemic of smallpox in Boston threatened to spread to Portsmouth, which had constant contact with its sister city by sea and by land. To prevent this from happening, every person and ship traveling from Boston, as well as their baggage and cargo, were ‘smoked’, a method believed to reduce the chances of spreading the disease to others. A native of Portsmouth, Dr. Hall Jackson, lived in Boston at that time and gained a reputation for successfully treating smallpox victims through inoculations.

In 1778, the town used Dr. Hall's methods to organize a program for inoculating all smallpox patients. A committee identified three islands that were suitable for a quarantine hospital: Pest, Henzell’s, and Salter’s. A system was put in place whereby a person needed permission to visit the island and was required to pay for their care in advance, including eight dollars for the attending physician. Once inoculated, the patient had to remain on the island for at least twenty-one days and could not leave until a doctor certified a clean bill of health. One out of every ten patients who received treatment was to be a pauper whose care was provided for free. The program inoculated four hundred and twelve patients at a total cost of about sixty-five hundred dollars.

In 1782, about a year before the Revolutionary War ended, Portsmouth granted four local physicians – Ammi R. Cutter, Joshua Bracket, Hall Jackson, and John Jackson – permission to establish a private hospital on Henzell’s Island, provided that there would be no cost to the town.

The bridges that connect the South End of Portsmouth with New Castle (Route 1B) were constructed in 1822. At that time, the Shapley's Island ‘pest-house’ had to be relocated to Pest Island. According to Sarah Haven Foster's Portsmouth Guide Book, the hospital still remained on Pest Island when she published in 1876.

Pest Island Looking South from Riverside Cemetery in New Castle

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Portsmouth Naval Prison

The Portsmouth Naval Prison, sometimes called ‘The Castle’, occupies the southeastern corner of Seavey Island, at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.

During the Revolutionary War, starting in 1775, Seavey Island was fortified with earthworks and garrisoned by New Hampshire militia to prevent the British Navy from entering Portsmouth harbor. Fort Sullivan, named for General John Sullivan, consisted of several gun batteries facing a similar installation, Fort Washington, on Peirce Island. The opposing cannon of the two forts commanded The Narrows, a constricted stretch of the Piscataqua River between the two islands. Fort Sullivan was again manned during the War of 1812, and it was strengthened for the defense of Portsmouth Navy Yard against Confederate threats during the Civil War. After 1866, Fort Sullivan was dismantled.

Spanish Prisoners Washing Dishes at Fort Long - 1898
During the brief Spanish-American War, a prison encampment known as Fort Long, named for the Secretary of the Navy, John Long, occupied the area of Seavey Island where the Naval Prison stands today. During July of 1898, the Navy transported more than sixteen hundred Spanish prisoners to their temporary home at Fort Long. Their numbers included about a dozen officers and several surgeons and priests. 

To accommodate the mass of prisoners, eight large barracks were erected to house them, eight more were built for their Marine guard, plus six cook houses, three mess halls, and sanitary buildings. To secure the inmates, two Gatling guns, precursors of modern machine guns, were positioned near the camp entrances, and Marines were posted every fifty feet around the perimeter to prevent an escape.

Spanish Prisoners Fishing - 1898
During the summer of 1898, the Spanish prisoners could frequently be seen fishing from the high rocks along the Piscataqua riverbank. Some were paroled and allowed to visit Portsmouth. Their stay on the Seacoast was short-lived, however; the war ended barely a month after they had arrived. 

All of the prisoners, except for thirty who had died from injuries or disease and were buried on the island, were transported to Spain on September 12. The Navy closed Camp Long three years later, in 1901.

Construction of Portsmouth Naval Prison began in 1905, and the first prisoners arrived in 1908. Like Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, it was thought that the fast tidal currents of the Piscataqua River would discourage prisoners from trying to escape, and stop them if they made an attempt. 

The Castle

The prison was enlarged in 1912 by the addition of The Castle, an impressive-looking building with crenelated battlements atop the four guard towers. The roof is made of copper and, like the Statue of Liberty, weathering has caused it to turn green. 

A few years after The Castle was added, the First World War saw an influx of prisoners, until the prison population reached 2,295 inmates in 1918. 

The Fortress
Business was also booming during World War II, requiring two new wings to be constructed: the northeast wing in 1942, and the southwest wing, known as ‘The Fortress’ in 1943. During the final year of the war, 1945, Portsmouth Naval Prison held 3,088 inmates. When Germany surrendered, four captured U-boats were escorted to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard: U-234, U-805, U-873, and U-1228. Their crews were incarcerated and interrogated at the Naval Prison. 

Portsmouth Naval Prison continued to be used through the Korean War and into the Vietnam War years. By 1974, however, it was considered obsolete and closed permanently. It remains vacant to this day. The U.S. government continues to look for someone to lease the facility, although re-use will require a massive cleanup of hazardous materials, especially asbestos.

When it was built, the Portsmouth Naval Prison was considered to be the largest poured-concrete building in the world. In its day, The Castle was the United States Navy’s maximum security prison, and the inmates unlucky enough to be incarcerated here did hard time. A sailor or marine transferred to Portsmouth dreaded the move as much as a civilian sent to Alcatraz. In fact, this infamous brig earned nicknames like ‘The Rock’ and ‘Alcatraz of the East’. Although the prison housed more than eighty-six thousand prisoners during its sixty-six years in service, not one inmate escaped.

The oldest photographs on this page, taken in 1896, were published in C.S. Gurney's 1902 book, Portsmouth . . . Historic and Picturesque. The vintage picture of Portsmouth Naval Prison above is used courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOC) and dates from circa 1912. Mine was taken from a different angle because duplicating the LOC photo would require a boat or trespassing on private property.

The best places to view the Portsmouth Naval Prison are from Peirce Island and from Portsmouth Avenue (Route 1B) near the westernmost tip of New Castle. Due to hazardous materials, and Shipyard security, visiting the closed facility is prohibited.