Predicting the Future of Kittery and Portsmouth
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Freighter to Kittery

When Ben Frisbee gazed into his crystal ball in 1895 he saw his rural hometown of Kittery, Maine radically altered by progress. By 1955, Frisbee predicted, the wetlands would be dredged into lakes and steel wharves would accommodate massive cruise ships. Gerrish Island would be ringed with wide tarred roads lit by bright electric bulbs. (Continue below)


A huge, illuminated, metal tower would replace Whaleback Light and Fort McClary had become a bustling business center.  Ben Frisbee envisioned future Kittery as a mechanized, heavily populated, industrial city – and he welcomed the change.

I’d never heard of Benjamin Randall Frisbee until last week when a Portsmouth Herald reader handed me a copy of “The Island and Harbor Echo.” The Echo was an annual publication created by the alumni of Kittery public schools. The group gathered for a number of years on Thanksgiving Eve in November to reminisce, sing, feast, and listen to poems and speeches. As the official class “Prophet”, Frisbee predicted that Kittery would finally become a profitable and important New England city in the upcoming 20th century.

In a speech to his fellow alumni in 1895, transcribed in the Echo, Frisbee imagined a visitor arriving from Liverpool to Kittery Harbor aboard a high-speed steamer 60 years in the future. The transatlantic voyage from LiverpoolEngland would take only four days. The class prophet opened his essay with the image of an ocean liner gliding past the Isles of Shoals and the Navy Yard toward the modern wharves at Kittery Point. Frisbee wrote:

Airship from mid 1800s

Wood Island soon comes into view on which is a steel fortress covering the entire island. A bridge of solid masonry, steel clad, connects the fortress with the earth works on Gerrish Island. On top of this bridge is a covered archway built of steel, bombproof, where troops can be taken from one fort to the other without exposure in time of battle.”





Pundits who predict the future must inevitably fashion their opinions from what has already happened. In 1918, as we learned in an earlier column, former mayor FW Hartford predicted that Portsmouth would soon double in size as it became the most populated city and the industrial capital of New Hampshire. But when World War I ended the following year, so did the brief boom in the local economy, followed by a crushing Depression.

Kittery_Point_wharf / J Dennis Robinson

Ben Frisbee’s vision of steel forts guarding the Piscataqua River made sense in his day when wars were fought on land and sea, not from the air. Nuclear bombs dropped from airplanes was unimaginable. (Science fiction writer H.G. Wells finally proposed the idea in his 1907 novel War in the Air.) Frisbee’s prediction of high-speed transatlantic steamers, however, came close to the mark. By the 1950s the fastest crossing took only three days and 10 hours, but Kittery never became the destination point he dreamed about.

READ BEN FRISBEE's 1895 essay here

Pundits also tend to forget that what they value about their community may not please future generations. While Frisbee waxed poetic about the rich history and natural beauty of Kittery, he desperately wanted to see the city grow. His futuristic macadamized road on Gerrish Island was 64-feet wide and heavily trafficked by equestrians, people in electric cars, and riders on electric bicycles. As in his own time, Frisbee’s future seacoast was populated by large tourist hotels. In his vision the a Kittery newspaper would be published six times each day with a circulation of 533,140 readers. Shoe factories and iron wharves line the waterfront and the railroad runs along scenic Chauncey Creek. So many people want to live in Kittery Point that the thickly settled region breaks off to form a separate town called Piscataqua.

Our ancestors from the Gilded Age prized history and scenery, but Frisbee also wanted profit and progress. “Pepperrell’s Cove has been dredged to a depth of twenty feet at low water,” he proposed, “its ledges blown out and removed.”

The city of York will expand to 40,000 residents by 1955, Frisbee said. New Castle will become a thriving freight depot. Portsmouth will return to the business of shipbuilding, and just as F.W. Hartford would later promise, become the biggest city in the Granite State. Indeed, New England becomes so profitable in the 20th century that our neighbors to the north want a piece of the action. Canada is annexed in 1920, Frisbee predicts, as the states of Columbia, Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec, and Arcadia.



Portending Portsmouth

A lot of ink has been spilled on this side of the river regarding the future of New Hampshire’s only seaport. Pundits prognosticate over how big the city can get before Portsmouth is no longer Portsmouth. The problem is that, like snowflakes, no two images of Portsmouth are identical. Despite its quaint sense of a city untouched by time, Portsmouth has been evolving, back-pedaling, and shape-shifting since the first European settlers stepped off the Warwick and the Pied Cow in the 1630s.

Having lived here only 40 years, I make no claim to being a local. I know the drill; just because the cat has her kittens in the oven, doesn’t make them biscuits. But you show me an unchanged part of this city, and as an historian, I’ll show you four other ways it used to look. One person’s slum is another person’s beloved childhood neighborhood and a third person’s million dollar condo.

Rockingham Hotel in Portsmouth, NH

So when a local pundit tells me that the Old Port is being destroyed by an infestation of hotels, I like to point out all the buildings downtown that used to be hotels back in the day, and all the spots nearby where other hotels and taverns used to stand. And when people tell me that one more hotel or another parking garage is going to despoil Portsmouth for all future generations, I have to wonder if they know how this city got so great.

Here they come

You don’t need a crystal ball to see what’s happening to Portsmouth. Just walk downtown this weekend and meet the visitors from Germany, England, Switzerland, Japan, Finland, and across the planet. (Go check the sign-in logs at the local visitor center for proof.) Watch the way they admire what we proud residents take for granted. Listen to their questions. Ask them why they came. I have.

I met a carpenter not long ago who had come all the way from South Africa to study Portsmouth furniture. I have emails from people as far away as Australia who want to walk the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. A guy called from Anchorage, Alaska who did not want to miss touring the USS Albacore when he came to the East Coast to visit his sister. Just yesterday I was talking to a book publisher in New York City who knew all about Portsmouth. “That’s the only place Dan Brown will give a lecture,” she said admiringly. It’s not by accident that the world is beating a path to our doorway. Barack O’bama, Gladys Knight, Ben & Jerry, Chad & Jeremy, Salman Rushdie, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby are all stopping by – need I go on?

Like it or not, Portsmouth is becoming the visitor destination it has dreamed of being since we held the first cultural celebration in 1823. Some very intelligent and passionate people have dedicated their lives to preserving our history, restoring old buildings, and telling our unique stories. You can’t throw a rock in this town without hitting an historian or a musician or an artist. Most of them started out as visitors.

For what it’s worth, built Worth Lot garage

I have explained too often, in books and in articles and in lectures, that Portsmouth remains Portsmouth thanks as much to “outsiders” as to locals. It’s a bitter pill for some. But it was local citizens who wanted to turn the 1715 Warner House into a gas station, the 1758 Portsmouth Historical Society into an insurance company, and the historic North End into a parking garage. It was a city mayor who tore down the beautiful Treadwell Mansion that stood at the corner of Congress and Middle streets. Local citizens demolished scores of historic wooden homes to make way for modern expansion and operated the red light district until the Navy Yard pressured its closure.

Proposed Worth Lot Parking garage plan for Portsmouth NH

It was outsiders and summer visitors who stepped in with the finances and expertise to restore the Jackson, Aldrich, Warner, Moffatt-Ladd, John Paul Jones, Wentworth-Coolidge, Wentworth-Gardner, Tobias Lear and other historic house museums in the region. Outsiders and locals fought side-by-side to save Strawbery Banke Museum, the Music Hall, the Portsmouth Athenaeum, and more.

So we’re all in this together, the biscuits and the kittens and the day-trippers. We all have our own personal love for Portsmouth and it is going to take our shared dollars to keep this city going strong and our property values up. Portsmouth is back after a 200-year economic decline, and I assume we all want it to stay that way. If you don’t like tourists, get over it. We’ve been a tourist destination since the 1870s and it’s too late to turn back now.

Tourism is the state’s number one industry. And if you just moved here and don’t want anyone else to discover this wonderful city, shame on you. A new study shows that a year of visitors to Portsmouth cultural events added $41 million to our economy. According to a recent tally, there are now as many restaurant seats in Portsmouth as there are residents, and I can’t afford to dine out every night.

Is there a downside? Of course. There are costs to keeping this city accessible, clean, and safe. Not everyone can afford the change. But we are a community of smart compassionate people. We’ll fix the problems. We work harder than any group I know to protect the unprotected and support those in need. If we don’t “keep Portsmouth Portsmouth” then we shoot ourselves in the foot.

Which is why as a resident and historian I am wholeheartedly in favor of building the new parking garage on the Worth Lot. It’s a great spot. And I am in favor of another hotel or two nearby. We especially need a key conference center where hundreds of outsiders can convene, share our fine city, empty their wallets, and head home full of memories.

We need to treat our visitors with respect. We already have so much for them to see and do. Now we need to offer them a place to park and a place to sleep. Maybe I’m biased. I was a visitor here myself not long ago. I’m no Ben Frisbee, but I predict that if we build that parking garage, the people who park there will not destroy our beloved city. In fact, they may help us save it.


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His latest book is Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at Smuttynose Island. He is currently seeking underwriters for a new book on Portsmouth fires.