Newspapers and History are Siamese Twins
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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Leaders of the local history community were chewing nails recently over a couple of Portsmouth Herald editorials. One editorial implied that the city has “plenty of historic organizations with staff and myriad supporters” who should step up and help maintain the city’s ancient graveyards. Maybe not. (Continued below)
Another Herald editorial questioned the use of funds already allocated by federal mandate to preserve and restore the original bronze plaques and artifacts from the old Memorial Bridge. Most debates over historic preservation are ultimately about money. What can we afford to save and what can we live without?
As a history writer I often get caught in the crossfire, defending journalism practices to historians and vice-versa. In a town where history often dominates the front page of the newspaper, I’ve taken a lot of shrapnel. Sometimes the newspaper editorials champion historic preservation, but sometimes they just turn molehills into mountains.
Few towns expend more newspaper ink debating the value of its history than Portsmouth. It’s been that way since the economy went south in the War of 1812 and locals put on their rose-colored glasses and gazed jealously into the city’s glorious past. Since the 1823 celebration of our first European settlers, Portsmouth merchants discovered that history attracts visitors and visitors bring cash. Today that is truer than ever. The fact that the first 10 fishermen settled at what is now Rye in 1623 (there was as yet no Portsmouth) and then quickly disbursed has done nothing to diminish our claim to antiquity.
Predicting future Portsmouth
Newspaper editors have long been among the city’s biggest cheerleaders. Editor Charles W. Brewster of the Portsmouth Journal and Ray Brighton and FW Hartford of the Portsmouth Herald frequently waxed rhapsodic about our glorious ancestors. But when it comes to predicting the future, editors seem no more clairvoyant than the man on the street.
Early in 1918, for example, Fernando W. Hartford predicted that Portsmouth was about to double its population. “Portsmouth, with its ancient buildings, rich in history, will remain,” Hartford wrote in the Granite Monthly, but the “New Portsmouth” will become the manufacturing capital of New Hampshire.
“Portsmouth will not be happy until it attains its deserved title of being the metropolis of the State,” Hartford wrote.
The nation was at the peak of World War I when Hartford made these predictions. The navy yard was building twelve submarines. The Atlantic Corporation at Freeman’s Point had a contract to build 10 steel cargo ships, a sweet deal that led to the federally-funded construction of the Atlantic Heights neighborhood the following year.
“Portsmouth of the old days is now a thing of the past,” Hartford wrote, contradicting his previous statement, “and while we like to revel in its history, it is the history-making of the future that is of more interest just now.”
“Unless all signals fail,” he continued, “we shall have a city of 25,000 within a year or two.”
But the war ended quickly and with it went the Portsmouth boom. The shipyard slowed and the Atlantic Corporation went belly up. Hartford’s predictions of a gigantic industrialize Portsmouth thankfully fizzled. Today the population hovers at around 21,000, making us only the tenth largest city in the state. But to the city’s credit, every single building pictured in Hartford’s rousing nine-page article is still standing almost a century later.
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