An Old Town By The Sea by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
II. Along the Water Side
It is not supposable that the early settlers selected the site of their plantation on account of its picturesqueness. They were influenced entirely by the lay of the land, its nearness and easy access to the sea, and the secure harbor it offered to their fishing-vessels; yet they could not have chosen a more beautiful spot had beauty been the sole consideration. The first settlement was made at Odiorne's Point--the Pilgrims' Rock of New Hampshire; there the Manor, or Mason's Hall, was built by the Laconia Company in 1623. It was not until 1631 that the Great House was erected by Humphrey Chadborn on Strawberry Bank. Mr. Chadborn, consciously or unconsciously, sowed a seed from which a city has sprung.
The town of Portsmouth stretches along the south bank of the Piscataqua, about two miles from the sea as the crow flies--three miles following the serpentine course of the river. The stream broadens suddenly at this point, and at flood tide, lying without a ripple in a basin formed by the interlocked islands and the mainland, it looks more like an island lake than a river. To the unaccustomed eye there is no visible outlet. Standing on one of the wharves at the foot of State Street or Court Street, a stranger would at first scarcely suspect the contiguity of the ocean. A little observation, however, would show him that he was in a seaport. The rich red rust on the gables and roofs of ancient buildings looking seaward would tell him that. There is a fitful saline flavor in the air, and if while he gazed a dense white fog should come rolling in, like a line of phantom breakers, he would no longer have any doubts.
It is of course the oldest part of the town that skirts the river, though few of the notable houses that remain are to be found there. Like all New England settlements, Portsmouth was built of wood, and has been subjected to extensive conflagrations. You rarely come across a brick building that is not shockingly modern. The first house of the kind was erected by Richard Wibird towards the close of the seventeenth century.
Though many of the old landmarks have been swept away by the fateful hand of time and fire, the town impresses you as a very old town, especially as you saunter along the streets down by the river. The worm-eaten wharves, some of them covered by a sparse, unhealthy beard of grass, and the weather-stained, unoccupied warehouses are sufficient to satisfy a moderate appetite for antiquity. These deserted piers and these long rows of empty barracks, with their sarcastic cranes projecting from the eaves, rather puzzle the stranger. Why this great preparation for a commercial activity that does not exist, and evidently had not for years existed? There are no ships lying at the pier-heads; there are no gangs of stevedores staggering under the heavy cases of merchandise; here and there is a barge laden down to the bulwarks with coal, and here and there a square-rigged schooner from Maine smothered with fragrant planks and clapboards; an imported citizen is fishing at the end of the wharf, a ruminative freckled son of Drogheda, in perfect sympathy with the indolent sunshine that seems to be sole proprietor of these crumbling piles and ridiculous warehouses, from which even the ghost of prosperity has flown.
Once upon a time, however, Portsmouth carried on an extensive trade with the West Indies, threatening as a maritime port to eclipse both Boston and New York. At the windows of these musty counting-rooms which overlook the river near Spring Market used to stand portly merchants, in knee breeches and silver shoe-buckles and plum-colored coats with ruffles at the wrist, waiting for their ships to come up the Narrows; the cries of stevedores and the chants of sailors at the windlass used to echo along the shore where all is silence now. For reasons not worth setting forth, the trade with the Indies abruptly closed, having ruined as well as enriched many a Portsmouth adventurer. This explains the empty warehouses and the unused wharves. Portsmouth remains the interesting widow of a once very lively commerce. I fancy that few fortunes are either made or lost in Portsmouth nowadays. Formerly it turned out the best ships, as it did the ablest ship captains, in the world. There were families in which the love for blue water was in immemorial trait. The boys were always sailors; "a grey-headed shipmaster, in each generation, retiring from the quarter-deck to the homestead, while a boy of fourteen took the hereditary place before the mast, confronting the salt spray and the gale, which had blasted against his sire and grandsire." (1. Hawthorne in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter.) With thousands of miles of sea-line and a score or two of the finest harbors on the globe, we have adroitly turned over our carrying trade to foreign nations.
In other days, as I have said, a high maritime spirit was characteristic of Portsmouth. The town did a profitable business in the war of 1812, sending out a large fleet of the sauciest small craft on record. A pleasant story is told of one of these little privateers--the Harlequin, owned and commanded by Captain Elihu Brown. The Harlequin one day gave chase to a large ship, which did not seem to have much fight aboard, and had got it into close quarters, when suddenly the shy stranger threw open her ports, and proved to be His Majesty's Ship-of-War Bulwark, seventy-four guns. Poor Captain Brown!
Portsmouth has several large cotton factories and one or two corpulent breweries; it is a wealthy old town, with a liking for first mortgage bonds; but its warmest lover will not claim for it the distinction of being a great mercantile centre. The majority of her young men are forced to seek other fields to reap, and almost every city in the Union, and many a city across the sea, can point to some eminent merchant, lawyer, or what not, as "a Portsmouth boy." Portsmouth even furnished the late king of the Sandwich Islands, Kekuanaoa, with a prime minister, and his nankeen Majesty never had a better. The affection which all these exiles cherish for their birthplace is worthy of remark. On two occasions--in 1852 and 1873, the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the settlement of Strawberry Bank--the transplanted sons of Portsmouth were seized with an impulse to return home. Simultaneously and almost without concerted action, the lines of pilgrims took up their march from every quarter of the globe, and swept down with music and banners on the motherly old town.
To come back to the wharves. I do not know of any spot with such a fascinating air of dreams and idleness about it as the old wharf at the end of Court Street. The very fact that it was once a noisy, busy place, crowded with sailors and soldiers--in the war of 1812--gives an emphasis to the quiet that broods over it to-day. The lounger who sits of a summer afternoon on a rusty anchor fluke in the shadow of one of the silent warehouses, and look on the lonely river as it goes murmuring past the town, cannot be too grateful to the India trade for having taken itself off elsewhere.
What a slumberous, delightful, lazy place it is! The sunshine seems to lie a foot deep on the planks of the dusty wharf, which yields up to the warmth a vague perfume of the cargoes of rum, molasses, and spice that used to be piled upon it. The river is as blue as the inside of a harebell. The opposite shore, in the strangely shifting magic lights of sky and water, stretches along like the silvery coast of fairyland. Directly opposite you is the navy yard, and its neat officers' quarters and workshops and arsenals, and its vast shiphouses, in which the keel of many a famous frigate has been laid. Those monster buildings on the water's edge, with their roofs pierced with innumerable little windows, which blink like eyes in the sunlight, and the shiphouses. On your right lies a cluster of small islands,--there are a dozen or more in the harbor--on the most extensive of which you see the fading-away remains of some earthworks thrown up in 1812. Between this--Trefethren's Island--and Peirce's Island lie the Narrows. Perhaps a bark or a sloop-of-war is making up to town; the hulk is hidden amoung the islands, and the topmasts have the effect of sweeping across the dry land. On your left is a long bridge, more than a quarter of a mile in length, set upon piles where the water is twenty or thirty feet deep, leading to the navy yard and Kittery--the Kittery so often the theme of Whittier's verse.
This is a mere outline of the landscape that spreads before you. Its changeful beauty of form and color, with the summer clouds floating over it, is not to be painted in words. I know of many a place where the scenery is more varied and striking; but there is a mandragora quality in the atmosphere here that holds you to the spot, and makes the half-hours seem like minutes. I could fancy a man sitting on the end of that old wharf very contentedly for two or three years, provided it could be always in June.
Perhaps, too, one would desire it to be always high water. The tide falls from eight to twelve feet, and when the water makes out between the wharves some of the picturesqueness makes out also. A corroded section of stovepipe mailed in barnacles, or the skeleton of a hoopskirt protruding from the tide mud like the remains of some old-time wreck, is apt to break the enchantment.
I fear I have given the reader an exaggerated idea of the solitude that reigns along the river-side. Sometimes there is society here of an unconventional kind, if you care to seek it. Aside from the foreign gentleman before mentioned, you are likely to encounter, farther down the shore toward the Point of Graves (a burial-place of the colonial period), a battered and aged native fisherman boiling lobsters on a little gravelly bench, where the river whispers and lisps among the pebbles as the tide creeps in. It is a weather-beaten ex-skipper or ex-pilot, with strands of coarse hair, like seaweed, falling about a face that has the expression of a half-open clam. He is always ready to talk with you, this amphibious person; and if he is not the most entertaining of gossips--more weather-wise that Old Probabilities, and as full of moving incident as Othello himself--then he is not the wintery-haired shipman I used to see a few years ago on the strip of beach just beyond Liberty Bridge, building his drift-wood fire under a great tin boiler, and making it lively for a lot of reluctant lobsters.
I imagine that very little change has taken place in this immediate locality, known prosaically as Puddle Dock, during the past fifty or sixty years. The view you get looking across Liberty Bridge, Water Street, is probably the same in every respect that presented itself to the eyes of the town folk a century ago. The flagstaff, on the right, is the representative of the old "standard of liberty" which the Sons planted on this spot in January, 1766, signalizing their opposition to the enforcement of the Stamp Act. On the same occasion the patriots called at the house of Mr. George Meserve, the agent for distributing the stamps in New Hampshire, and relieved him of his stamp-master's commission, which document they carried on the point of a sword through the town to Liberty Bridge (the Swing Bridge), where they erected the staff, with the motto, "Liberty, Property, and no Stamp!"
The Stamp Act was to go into operation on the first day of November. On the previous morning the "New Hampshire Gazette" appeared with a deep black border and all the typographical emblems of affliction, for was not Liberty dead? At all events, the "Gazette" itself was as good as dead, since the printer could no longer publish it if he were to be handicapped by a heavy tax. "The day was ushered in by the tolling of all the bells in town, the vessels in the harbor had their colors hoisted half-mast high; about three o'clock a funeral procession was formed, having a coffin with this inscription, LIBERTY, AGED 145, STAMPT. It moved from the state house, with two unbraced drums, through the principal streets. As it passed the Parade, minute-guns were fired; at the place of interment a speech was delivered on the occasion, stating the many advantages we had received and the melancholy prospect before us, at the seeming departure of our invaluable liberties. But some sign of life appearing, Liberty was not deposited in the grave; it was rescued by a number of her sons, the motto changed to Liberty revived, and carried off in triumph. The detestable Act was buried in its stead, and the clods of the valley were laid upon it; the bells changed their melancholy sound to a more joyful tone." (1. Annals of Portsmouth, by Nathaniel Adams, 1825.)
With this side glance at one of the curious humors of the time, we resume our peregrinations.
Turning down a lane on your left, a few rods beyond Liberty Bridge, you reach a spot known as the Point of Graves, chiefly interesting as showing what a graveyard may come to if it last long enough. In 1671 one Captain John Pickering, of whom we shall have more to say, ceded to the town a piece of ground on this neck for burial purposes. It is an odd-shaped lot, comprising about half an acre, inclosed by a crumbling red brick wall two or three feet high, with wood capping. The place is overgrown with thistles, rank grass, and fungi; the black slate headstones have mostly fallen over; those that still make a pretense of standing slant to every point of the compass, and look as if they were being blown this way and that by a mysterious gale which leaves everything else untouched; the mounds have sunk to the common level, and the old underground tombs have collapsed. Here and there the moss and weeds you can pick out some name that shines in the history of the early settlement; hundreds of the flower of the colony lie here, but the known and the unknown, gentle and simple, mingle their dust on a perfect equality now. The marble that once bore a haughty coat of arms is as smooth as the humblest slate stone guiltless of heraldry. The lion and the unicorn, wherever they appear on some cracked slab, are very much tamed by time. The once fat-faced cherubs, with wing at either cheek, are the merest skeletons now. Pride, pomp, grief, and remembrance are all at end. No reverent feet come here, no tears fall here; the old graveyard itself is dead! A more dismal, uncanny spot than this at twilight would be hard to find. It is noticed that when the boys pass it after nightfall, they always go by whistling with a gayety that is perfectly hollow.
Let us get into some cheerfuler neighborhood!