Secret Portwalk Dig Yields Buried Treasure
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Residences_at_Portwalk_Portsmouth_NHSPECIAL HISTORY REPORT:

Portsmouth’s North End is best remembered as the city’s “Little Italy” neighborhood razed by renewal in the 1970s. But 200 years earlier it was a vital colonial neighborhood. Portsmouth welcomed the modern Portwalk development there (hotel, shops, residences) but historians balked when developers told the EPA the land had no historic significance. Turns out it did – big time. Read our special investigative coverage. (Continued below)

 

 

WHAT LIES BELOW

A richly detailed study of the city’s historic North End sits on a shelf in a government office in Concord — hidden in plain view.

Filed quietly over a year ago on July 9, 2010, the report of more than 150 pages was commissioned by Cathartes Private Investments of Boston, developer of the new Portwalk project on Hanover Street. The report filed by Independent Archaeological Consulting LLC of Portsmouth has not been publicized. It proves conclusively that the mixed-use development is being constructed in a historically sensitive area that is potentially filled with irreplaceable artifacts from the city’s past. Two phases of the three-phase project — a combination of hotel, shops and residential units — are largely completed. It remains to be seen whether Portwalk’s developers will apply the lessons learned from their own report to preserve whatever lies beneath the final phase, now being planned.

Portwalk_bottleWhatever was buried under Phase I of the Portwalk project is lost; no recovery field work was allowed. But in a highly compressed timetable of only six days in April 2010, archaeologists were given permission to recover artifacts from Phase II, under what is now the Residences at Portwalk, roughly the site of the former Parade Mall. With the clock ticking, trained researchers narrowed their focus from 20 features of historic interest to six, then down to two intact wood-lined privies dating to the mid-1700s. Working quickly amid construction, the team extracted 3,500 artifacts, including one prehistoric American Indian projectile point.

The colonial privies yielded an extraordinary cache of Portsmouth artifacts, according to Ellen Marlatt and Kathleen Wheeler, owners of Independent Archaeological Consulting. There was a wealth of high-end ceramics, according to their report, including Delft, Nottingham and English pottery, salt-glazed stoneware, Westerwald and Chinese porcelain, plus bottle and window glass, nails, pipe stems, shellfish and an array of animal, bird and fish bones. There were 16 leather shoes, boots and parts of shoes in one privy.

This material, when studied by historians, may be extremely valuable to understanding the daily lives of our predecessors around the time of the American Revolution, according to the archaeologists. Most importantly, we know to whom these privies belonged. Marlatt and Wheeler were able to indisputably identify one privy as linked to the home of Col. Joshua Wentworth (1742-1809), a renowned New Hampshire patriot and one of the city’s richest men. Wentworth was, in turn, the grandson, nephew and cousin of the state’s last three Colonial governors, yet he chose to fight against the British in the Revolution.

On the verge of the War of Independence in 1774, the Wentworth family was being torn apart by divided loyalties. That same year, Wentworth married Sarah Pierce, who belonged to another of the city’s most prominent families. He was 32, she was 17. The couple had 14 children, but only four survived into adulthood. Their circa-1770 house was saved from destruction during urban renewal by businessman Harry Winebaum and moved intact in 1973 via the Piscataqua River on a barge to Strawbery Banke Museum. The Joshua Wentworth House on Hancock Street in the South End is now privately owned.

CONTINUE PORTWALK HISTORY DIG

 


Joshua_Wentworth_hosue moved in 1973

 

Sensitivity analysis

The very existence of the unpublicized “dig” and the professional archeology report comes as a surprise. Portwalk’s owners have claimed from the outset that their 5-acre project encompassing 635,000 square feet in six buildings is not being constructed on a historically sensitive area. In 2009, complaints from local residents and archeologists prompted state and federal agents to request a halt to the project to determine whether Portwalk was in compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 that protects cultural resources including those underground.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency did not respond to the request to slow the project. Portwalk officials explained that they had hired their own archeologist, Victoria Bunker of Durham, to assess the situation, and had followed her recommendations. The private report, however, was closely held by Portwalk and not filed with the state until the hotel was completed the following year. It appears as an appendix to the Phase II project filed by IAC in 2010.

“Our construction doesn’t trigger a historic review,” Portwalk spokesman Scott Tranchemontagne told Foster’s Daily Democrat in July 2009. “We definitely respect the history of this area,” he added.

Edna Feighner does not agree. As review and compliance coordinator for the N.H. Division of Historic Resources, Feighner led the failed charge to halt Portwalk construction two summers ago. She said Portwalk, in effect, took advantage of a flawed federal, state and city permitting system to make an end-run around regulatory scrutiny.

Feighner contends that Portwalk did not follow the recommendations of the original Bunker “sensitivity report,” now on file with N.H. DHR in Concord. Bunker’s report assigned “no sensitivity” to the likelihood of finding Pre-Contact Native American artifacts on the site, as Portwalk duly reported to the press in 2009. But from the first page of her assessment, Bunker clearly indicated the site might yield historic artifacts from the 1700s and 1800s. She noted: “Sensitivity for the historic period archeological elements has been assigned to portions of the property.” By law, Portwalk was not required to release results of a private assessment at the time, and despite requests from the media, developers did not.

The 70-page Bunker report (prepared for Parade Office LLC) offered a clear case for why Portsmouth artifacts beginning in the mid-1700s might be found underground. It acknowledged that widened roads, public utilities, urban renewal and the building of the Parade Mall have compromised the site. But despite all that activity, Bunker wrote, important resources below the surface “could have survived in relatively good condition.”

Bunker concluded that archeological field work was advantageous to preserving the history of the North End. She emphasized multiple times that the scope of the Portwalk project should be “developed in consultation with N.H. Division of Historical Resources.” Instead, according to Feighner, the developers filed their project independently with the EPA as having “No Historic Resources Present.”

Feighner said, “They (Portwalk) get a report that says this area is sensitive. They withhold that information. They file their notice of intent to the EPA electronically and check off the box that says there are no historic properties … and EPA doesn’t verify anything.”

CONTINUE PORTWALK HUD PROJECT

 


Portwalk under construction by Phil Cohen

 

The privy counsel

According to the Web site for the new Residences at Portwalk, the “sophisticated, eco-friendly” luxury units at 195 Hanover St. are located “in historic downtown Portsmouth.” To be more precise, they stand directly “on” historic Portsmouth, atop more than two centuries of previous occupation. Long before the demolished Portsmouth Parade Mall, and long before the ethnic “Little Italy” neighborhood that was later demolished by urban renewal, this parcel was home to residents of colonial Portsmouth. Their houses may be gone, but the cellar holes and privies remain.

“A privy is a treasure chest to an archeologist,” said Ellen Marlatt, who, with Wheeler and their small team, did the field work and initial analysis of the Phase II site. Because Portwalk opted to use HUD financing in the building of 36 new residential units, the detailed IAC assessment featuring the two privy sites had to be filed by federal law with Feighner at the Division of Historic Resources in Concord. Because the archaeologists were instructed not to release the report further, it has been there, out of sight and out of mind, since last July.

The front cover of the archaeological report, appropriately, shows a decorated redware chamber pot recovered from the nightsoil layers of the Portwalk dig. “Nightsoil” is a nice word for the human excrement collected by workers at night from cesspools and privies. Since our ancestors threw just about everything down the privy, heavy items and trash that were not collected sank to the bottom. Today, this prized material provides a time capsule of daily life during the heyday of New Hampshire’s only seaport.

Among the most prized items recovered was a green glass wine bottle with a “blob seal” stamped “Josa Wentworth, 1773.” This allowed archeologists to confirm that they were, indeed, digging up the relics in what had been the western back yard of a prominent Portsmouth resident. The presence of the name and date, according to the IAC report, “is probably unique in all of northeastern archeology.”

Early research suggests the other privy belonged to the family of Epps Greenough next door. Greenough (1737-1778) was born in Newbury, Mass., and married Abigail Moffatt (born 1739) whose father’s mansion, now the Moffatt-Ladd House, stands nearby on Market Street as a public museum. Historians know a great deal about the house that stood here because Greenough left a four-page will listing its contents. This privy, curiously, contained 54 well-preserved leather boot and shoe parts. There was also a smaller privy nearby made from a submerged barrel that the IAC report suggests may have been used by servants or enslaved workers in the household. The Portwalk archeology report and the items recovered will be of immeasurable value to future historians.

CONTINUE PORTWALK PORTSMOUTH ARCHEALOGY

 


Portwalk_report

 

Where to from here?

Will the public get to see the Portwalk artifacts? At this writing, even determining their ownership is controversial. It is not precisely clear, according to IAC, who owns items unearthed from a private site during a project using HUD funds.

As to their current location, Marlatt said, “We are not at liberty to say.”

In response to a series of questions about the artifacts, the two archeology reports, and Portwalk’s treatment of historical resources on the site, the company issued the following statement:

“It is our understanding that Portwalk owns the artifacts. Our intent is to make these available to the public. We are in discussions with a local museum to display them. The Portwalk development has invested a large amount of time and resources into studying the site, including the hiring of locally-based, recognized experts Independent Archaeological Consultants. The site was previously developed and disturbed, most recently during the urban renewal of 40 years ago, which produced the Parade Mall. Portwalk has complied with all applicable federal, state and local laws, rules and regulations including those related to archaeology. It is our intent to continue to do so,” said Scott Tranchemontagne, Portwalk spokesman.

Portwalk did not grant a request to use color photographs of the artifacts with this article, but Feighner said she is quite certain the images are now in the public domain.

Despite Portwalk’s contention that the property was “previously developed and disturbed,” the many experts consulted for this article unanimously agreed with the Bunker report, which states explicitly that bulldozing and other “massive changes” do not necessarily mean that historic artifacts have been destroyed. In fact, the many important artifacts located by IAC were found in a heavily compromised part of the site.

“We’ve got some fascinating information out of just the two privies that they (archeologists) were able to salvage,” Feighner said this week. “But there could have been a lot there if Portwalk had done their due diligence.

“If anyone had supported me when I walked over there and said, ‘Stop what you’re doing,’” she said, then paused and started over. “My support needed to come from the city and the federal agencies, and it didn’t come from either.”

What is clear from the Bunker and IAC reports is that the North End is a historically sensitive area. Originally owned by the Cutt family in the 1600s, the Portwalk parcels are located on high ground midway between the active waterfront and the formerly active North Mill Pond. The area, according to the Bunker report is “crossed and bracketed by streets that have been prominent during all periods of Portsmouth history.”

One only has to stroll among the historic houses on “The Hill” that were saved from destruction under urban renewal (when 400 other surface structures were demolished) to get a rough idea what buildings existed there previously. Or walk into the Portsmouth Sheraton Harborside and examine the numerous artifacts in a series of display cases there. These items were recovered from 1981 to 1986 in a cooperative effort among the hotel developers, the state, Strawbery Banke Museum, archeologists and volunteers. Published reports drawn from thousands of artifacts recovered from the old Deer Street area there have had a powerful impact on historians far and wide. As recently as 2004, according to Bunker’s report, archeological areas of “high sensitivity” for archeological resources were identified right near Portwalk at the intersections of Hanover, Maplewood and Deer streets.

Feighner contends that Portsmouth, due to its age and importance as a key New England seaport, is special when it comes to underground history. Like Boston and Portland, she said, this city needs special regulations or special oversight if it wants to protect its underground resources that are spread throughout the city. No such local regulations exist. Feighner said she has been talking about this with Portsmouth officials for 10 years, but they only “hemmed and hawed,” and no action has been taken. Portwalk is proof, she warned, that the system is broken at all levels.

“I had to kind of give it up,” she said of earlier attempts to intercede with the Portwalk construction, “because it’s so frustrating sometimes trying to work on what you think is the regulatory end of it, and then you get an agency like EPA that refuses to take responsibility for their undertaking.”

Feigner said she is curious to see how Portwalk’s developers will respond to archeology in Phase III of the project. Then, echoing the Bunker report, she added: “I’m curious about what’s happening across the street with the new parking lot area on Deer Street. That little parcel of land, that’s the next thing to keep your eye out for … that also has very significant historical value.”

© 2011 J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

J. Dennis Robinson writes the “History Matters” column that appears every other Monday in the Portsmouth Herald. He is the editor of SeacoastNH.com, a Web site of local history and culture. His next hardcover book, America’s Privateer, will focus on the War of 1812 and is scheduled for release this fall.

READ earlier Portwalk blog