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How Issac Hull Built Washington

Isaac Hull


Isaac Hull’s job was to build the largest warship in the American navy. He had no wood, no place to build in winter and little money. There was a war on and a British blockade. The Portsmouth Shipyard had almost no buildings and only a dozen workers. Times were even tougher at PNSY then, than now.




In 1813 "Old Ironsides" Captain Isaac Hull got a new assignment. He took command of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and build America's largest warship. He was, at the same time, charged to help defend 300 miles of northern New England coastline from the invading British navy. When Hull arrived at the new federal yard he discovered a miniscule facility with only a few buildings, not a single guard or defensive cannon and just 18 men.

Isaac HullHull was unshaken. He had done the impossible before. A year before, pursued near New Jersey by five ships from the world's finest navy, Hull gave the British fleet the slip. Then with the American fleet outnumbered 100 ships to one, he pitted the USS CONSTITUTION dead against HMS GURRIERE outside Boston in August 1812. When the smoke cleared, the American ship had won the battle, puncturing the Royal Navy's claim to invincibility. It was largely a morale victory, but just the boost a politically divided young country needed. His surviving ship became known as "Old Ironsides".

Still the War of 1812 raged on. Before it was over the British would torch the new nation's capital city of Washington. Even as Washington burned, Hull was building the USS WASHINGTON, the name eventually assigned to his 74-gun project. Despite the crude shipbuilding conditions there, Hull's initial assessment of Portsmouth Harbor vibrated with enthusiasm. He highly approved of the government's chosen site on 58-acre Fernald's Island on the Maine side of the swiftly flowing Piscataqua River. Sheltered, yet close to the sea in a deepwater port, Portsmouth Yard was more convenient, he wrote, "than any Yard belonging to the United States."

But building WASHINGTON quickly became a political land battle rivaling anything Hull had experienced at sea. The only other navy project of this scope ever attempted had been the sloop of war AMERICA in 1782 under the direction of John Paul Jones. Built on nearby Badger's Island, practically within view of Portsmouth Yard, that project became a year-long struggle. Jones too had arrived in the region fresh from the greatest sea victory of his career. Both Jones and Hull left the Piscataqua disappointed and discouraged.


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