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How Issac Hull Built Washington

 

Trouble, Trouble

Problem followed problem. Plans for a ship of this magnitude were at first unavailable, then in dispute. Despite a skilled force of local shipbuilders, 30 years had passed without a job of this size and complexity. Hull hired William Badger, now elderly, who had worked on the AMERICA back in 1781. Badger demanded a salary equivalent to Hull's, and the same amount for his son William Jr. Hull grew to dislike the pair, fearing one was too old and the other too inexperienced -- and too inclined to drinking.

Hull learned that the old wooden "ways" used to launch the former ship were too worn and damaged to use again. Despite a stockpile of timber, there was not enough sturdy live oak to frame the new ship. More live oak was needed from the South, but the British had formed a blockade around Portsmouth Harbor. Hull was forced to beg for supplies from the neighboring commander at Boston Yard, wasting away the summer building season on tedious political wrangling.

Suddenly it was fall, and with it came a battle against storms and cold weather. A Connecticut Yankee by birth, Hull knew the tribulations of winter shipbuilding. With work barely underway on the warship, the commander received federal funding to build a gigantic shiphouse so work could continue indoors. By December the completed building was the largest of its kind in the world. During 1813 the commander also added a new smithy, a magazine and a mast and boat shed. Portsmouth Yard was growing.

The better the shipyard, the bigger the target, Hull knew. There was talk that the blockading British planned a raid on Fernald's Island at Portsmouth, and perhaps at defenseless Portland Harbor, the population center of nearby Maine. This attack, Hull felt, was made more likely by the number of local privateers. Sanctioned by the federal government and run like small companies, privateering ships made a handful of Portsmouth men wealthy by attacking British merchant and supply ships for plunder.

Naturally defended by its narrow inlet, Portsmouth was practically without military protection at this time. A number of small old forts en route had been abandoned and only a tiny crew manned Fort Constitution at New Castle. Many New Hampshire locals, angry at the economic impact of "Madison's War" were, according to Hull, unwilling to even defend themselves. In a daring move, a local patriot smuggled 20 small cannon past British patrols by hiding them under a delivery of timber. Hull placed the guns at the end of the island and beefed up defenses, but with little hope they could stop a covert attack. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the British blockade departed, driven to safe winter harbors in Nova Scotia by the threatening winter seas.

Older Isaac HullBy the summer of 1814 the 74-gun warship, still officially without a name, was taking shape within the huge new Franklin Shiphouse. Hull continued to expand the Yard. After firing the Badger family, he ordered construction of new military barracks. He built a small hospital for as many as 200 marines and seamen aboard the USS CONGRESS and WASP, now docked for repair at the shipyard. CONGRESS was the Portsmouth-built sister ship to Hull's own CONSTITUTION. More than a hundred local workers ferried to and from the island daily. Although the number of shipyard workers has risen as high as 9,000 at its peak, the pattern of steady work at The Yard first began under Hull's leadership.

Commander Hull grew tired of ferrying to work from Portsmouth to Fernald's Island. After repeated requests, the nearly bankrupt Navy Secretary grudgingly agreed to allow construction of a $5,000 home for the commander and his wife Ann. As much as she liked the quaint town of 7,000 Portsmouth residents, Mrs. Hull had grown bored with long days alone in a rented boardinghouse. The Hulls became friendly with the toast of Portsmouth society, including the most eminent local citizen Col. Tobias Lear, former secretary to George Washington, and his wife Fannie. The couples had met earlier when the CONSTITUTION was stationed in Algeria and Lear was American consul there during his negotiations with the Barbary pirates. The Hull's beautiful new house at Quarters A is still home to the base commander today. It was finished only shortly before the Hulls moved away from Portsmouth.

CONTINUE THE STORY

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