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Before the Portsmouth Navy Yard

Piscataqua Map before the Naval Shipyard/ SeacoastNH.comBREWSTER'S RAMBLE #129

Charles Brewster offers an extraordinary interview with a woman who remembers the Kittery island before the creation of the shipyard. This is a perfect example of how important Brewster’s early reports have become. Without this interview we would know none of this amazing detail.




Kittery Islands Before the
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values. -- JDR

ABOUT Charles Brewster 
READ ALSO: A Short History of the Shipyard 

OUR Navy Yard is now so completely a work of art, it has almost gone out of mind as a work of nature; the days of its youth are forgotten, or remembered only by a few, and those few not sufficiently interested to snatch from oblivion the record of those early days.

Brewster's RamblesThe Navy Yard Island, containing about sixty acres, formerly called Fernald's Island, was up to the present century [ed. This was written in the mid-1800s.] used for farming and drying fish, and had but one house upon it. In 1806 it was purchased by the United States of Capt. William Dennett, for $5,500, for the establishment of a Navy Yard. A lady who has recollections of the island in past years, has kindly aided us

in a Ramble, by the following interesting sketch of her recollections.My recollections of it date from the early years of its establishment as a naval post, when most of it was still in a wild state; and we, children, could gather wild strawberries and black berries, bouquets of violets and white everlasting, and branches of the glossy-leaved, fragrant bayberry, on every hill and in every hollow. But years have brought strange changes! Now it has become almost a regular fortification; not a furlong of its natural shore, or a rod of its original surface, is to be found.Years ago destiny removed me from the spot -- but I still cling to it.

Occasionally, of a summer, I go, for a day, to look with bodily eyes upon that "greenest spot in memory's waste;" but it is like visiting the grave of one long dead, whose quiet resting place it is hard to find. Busy, ambitious life starts out upon me from all the old quiet places where once we could dream for hours undisturbed; the fine brick quarters of the officers stand where once was "our wild strawberry patch;" the "old house" on the hill, as we ascended from where the landing now is, containing two tenements under one roof, (and occupied, as necessity required, by the lieutenant, surgeon, sailing master, or naval storekeeper,) has disappeared, and the hill along with it, from the surface of the earth. It stood about where the steps now descend the declivity in the basin of which is the Dry Dock; and just beyond the house, on the summit of the hill, was a flag-staff within a hexagon or octagon shaped enclosure, built of timber, with embrasures for cannon in time of need, though no cannon were in it then.

Behind the old ship house, (which for half a century sheltered the well seasoned Alabama,) just on the water's edge, were two small, white-washed, one-story houses, honored with the name of barracks, and occupied by a sergeant and a small detachment of marines. And between these barracks and the blacksmith's shop was an old yellow, two-storied, frame house, used as the sailor's lodge: the spot now occupied by the brick lodge being then a grassy hollow, containing a solitary well, where occasionally the marines came to wash and spread out their linen to dry.But all this is with the past, and now I look around and feel bewildered by the change that has taken place. The old elm in the enclosure around the Commodore's house is the only object that looks familiar -- the only old land mark remaining unchanged -- the original proprietor of the soil, whose claims are better grounded and of earlier date than Uncle Sam's. The house itself is an old landmark, but it has been frequently altered and repaired, till it can hardly be called the same. The most striking feature of its interior used to be the paper on the walls of the two front rooms. That on the eastern room, represented a mingling of smoke and carnage on a field of battle -- soldiers in scarlet and blue uniforms, wounded and dead, prostrate upon the ground or borne upon litters, falling from their horses or trampled under foot by them. These figures were a foot in length, and the horses were the size of cats. I never felt happy in that room -- in turning the eyes from one scene of horror they fell upon another; but in the western room it was different. There the walls were covered with a series of sketches from Italian scenery, (with trees the height of the room,) representing ladies, accompanied by gaily dressed cavaliers, stepping from marble palaces into waiting gondolas, or leaning over richly decorated balconies; public marts, where were collected groups in all the gay costumes of the Levant; marble fountains, from which handsome peasant girls were bearing away pitchers and jars of water; and lazy looking men, lounging among grass-grown ruins, playing upon musical instruments; while a group of both sexes were dancing. We never tired of looking at these scenes, and never thought whether there was furniture in the room or not. Such paper must have been designed as a substitute for furniture.

The house now used as a hospital is an old landmark, but is too shabby to be recognized as an acquaintance by those who knew it in better days, with its well kept though not handsome exterior, its highly cultivated garden sloping to the very water's edge, and when comfort and profuse hospitality reigned within. Like many a human being, it has fallen, after a long and useful life, into a shabby and neglected old age.

In those days we had no bridges connecting us with Jenkins' (now Bridge's) Island to the south and the main land to the north, and making the Yard a highway for the multitude. We were a little world to ourselves, and daily sent our greeting to the neighboring town and islands through the mouth of our sun-set gun. This greeting is no longer necessary, because the bridges have made the Navy Yard a sort of continuation of Portsmouth and Kittery, which is doubtless a great advantage to all; but I have less sympathy with its present diffusive and elaborate state, than with its former simplicity and isolation.

The portion of the island now occupied by the marine barrack and parade ground was then a tolerably high hill, rising abruptly from the shore on the south-eastern side, and terminated on the top by the powder house, built of rough stones, white-washed, and with a conical roof. On this hill we played, in sun and rain, summer after summer; on this hill we used to kill quantities of snakes, trying to make it rain (as we had been told we could); to the top of this hill we ran to get a view of the neighboring main land, with its two little straggling villages of Kittery Point and Foreside. But suddenly there came an order from Government to build a new barrack, and this hill was selected for the site.

The powder-house was to be removed, and one half of the elevation to be levelled for a parade ground. I was not sorry to have the powder-house taken away, for it was the cause of some of the most cheerless days of my childhood, those days when early after breakfast came an order from the commandant "to put all fires out," because powder was to be removed, and all the houses which it was to pass must be fireless, lest a chance spark (almost an impossibility) should fall among the kegs or canisters as they were carted by. And there we sat shivering, wrapped in cloaks and shawls, (in mid-winter,) until such time as the transportation was over, and we could renew the fires, doff out-of-door garments, and make an evening of unusual glow and warmth compensate for a day of gloom and chill.

I was glad to have the recurrence of these days put an end to, but I was sorry to have the hill, our favorite play-ground, taken from us. And now I watched each day the movements of the prisoner soldiers as they worked at the levelling of the parade ground, with a long iron chain fastened to their waist, to which was attached a heavy iron ball, which they had to lift and carry wherever they went and whichever way they turned. This was the punisbment, then, for all attempts at deserting. They seemed cheerful

enough, laughing and talking among themselves; but I could not help pitying them, as I watched them through a whole summer, working with shovel, pick axe and wheelbarrow, in the hot sun, with that ball and chain, and I freely forgave them for digging up and wheeling off the soil which had been a little world to us.

For much more on the history of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
read DO YOUR JOB by Richard Winslow, Peter E. Randall, Publisher, 2000.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
This digital transcript  © 1999

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