Portsmouth Shipyard in a Bottle
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson


The commissioning of the USS New Hampshire in 2008 reminded locals of their deep connection to the sea. The region’s maritime heritage begins two centuries before the arrival of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1800. Once dependent on the federal shipyard for its economy and reputation, Portsmouth is no longer a ship-building city – but remains an important port of call.  




A Quick History of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard

Locals still call it "The Ya’d." It was established on a cluster of Kittery islands once used for drying fish. More than two centuries later, despite ceaseless threats of closure, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is still pumping iron. Among the nation’s first federal shipyards, PNS has weathered a turbulent transition from sail, to steam, to atomic fuel.

Legend says John Langdon pointed out the shipyard site while touring George Washington along the Piscataqua River in 1789. Thomas Jefferson made it official on June 17, 1800, purchasing two islands for $5,500. This was the best spot on the New England coastline to built American warships, according to the fledgling Navy Department. Although the rocky harbor possessed a furious current, it was deep and easy to defend on the Maine and New Hampshire sides.

Generations of skilled shipbuilders already lived along the river. HMS FALKLAND, the biggest ship built in the Colonies at the time, was launched here in 1690. The RALEIGH, contracted to fight the Revolution in 1776 (and now seen on the NH state seal) was constructed in just 60 days. The 18-gun sloop of war RANGER, captained by John Paul Jones, followed the next year. The AMERICA, largest and heaviest ship then built on this continent, slid into the Piscataqua in 1782 followed by the CONGRESS in 1799 and WASHINGTON in 1815.

It was Admiral Isaac Hull, former commander of the USS CONSTITUTION, (built and still thriving at nearby Charleston, MA) who kicked PNS into action during the War of 1812. His former ship, the famed "Old Ironsides" later spent nearly two decades here. Through the 19th century the shipyard grew from 13 employees to hundreds, then thousands. Industrial structures mushroomed and towering cranes appeared. Land was added and filled between islands. The gigantic Franklin Shiphouse, built in 1828 to allow year round indoor construction, was once the largest wooden structure anywhere.

Through the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, two world wars and the Cold War, PNS production rose and fell like the enormous Piscataqua tides, buoying the local economy during peak production. Innovation flourished as technology evolved. The KEARSAGE, build during the Civil War, was half-sailing vessel, half steamship. Its defeat of the Confederate ship ALABAMA, said to have attacked 65 Yankee vessels, was a key battle in American maritime history.

High-tech research led to submersible ships and construction of a massive "floating drydock." As the 20th century dawned, 1,300 Spanish prisoners of war were encamped on the island. Soon afterwards, an enormous military prison, the fearsome "Castle" of concrete, arose on the same spot. The Jack Nicholson film "Last Detail" is the story of one convicted Navy man on a journey toward "the worst place on earth" – Portsmouth. It stands in ruins today.

In 1905 the shipyard exploded. A treacherous spit of land called Henderson’s Point was removed in the largest dynamite excavation to date. When the dust cleared, the risky navigation point at what locals called "Pull and be Damned" was gone and the gateway to a modern breed of underwater warships was opened.

That same year Portsmouth became a synonym for "peace" when the bloody conflict between Russia and Japan ended here. At the invitation of President "Teddy" Roosevelt, delegates from both nations signed the Treaty of Portsmouth at the shipyard after a nail-biting month of negotiations. Thanks to a new transatlantic cable, the whole world was watching.

In April 1917 the first submarine built at a naval shipyard was launched at Portsmouth Harbor. Named simply L-8, it was the first and only submarine to serve in World War I. Over the next few decades, PNS experienced its greatest triumphs and tragedies. In 1936 the century-old Franklin Shiphouse was devoured in a hellish blaze. Two years later, the Portsmouth-build sub SQUALUS sank in 243 feet of water five miles off the Isles of Shoals. Using an experimental diving bell system, 33 men were saved, but 26 lost their lives.

Through both world wars, PNS production was unsurpassed by any other naval submarine facility. in 1943, Portsmouth set a record with four launchings in a single day. The durable sub SAND LANCE took 100 Japanese depth charges and survived to fight again. In 1945, seacoast residents spotted Nazi U-boats in the Piscataqua – but they were here to surrender, not to attack.

The age of atomic-powered submarines that followed WWII continues today.

The plucky teardrop-design of the USS ALBACORE was the shape of things to come. The unarmed, diesel-powered vessel, now a local museum, was fully submersible and set new underwater speed records. Then tragically, in 1963, the USS THRESHER was lost at sea in 8,400 feet of water with 129 souls aboard. Another USS SAND LANCE, launched in 1969, was the last of 134 submarines built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Today PNS is renowned as one of the best overhaul and repair facilities in the nation.

And so the shipyard sails into its third century, a source of unending local pride and a bottomless river of maritime stories. Collected, they define our shared history on both sides of the swift and unstoppable Piscataqua.


Copyright © J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the popular regional history web site SeacoastNH.com.

SOURCES: For more Information: Read "Do Your Job!" An Illustrated Bicentennial History of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, 1800-2000, by Richard E. Winslow III, published by The Portsmouth Marine Society (2000).