Making the Goodwin Monument Sing
Once you know the tune,
Entertainer Steve Allen used to pull a stunt on his old TV show by "playing" phone numbers on the piano. Members of the studio audience would shout out their seven-digit numbers and the comedian then tweaked the patterns into clever tunes. His point was to show that nothing is inherently dull. Life effervesces. And so I will, here in this column, attempt a similar parlor trick this Veteran's Day, by selecting a local monument at random - and making it sing for you.
Let's try the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Goodwin Park on Islington
Street in Portsmouth. Perhaps you've never even noticed it. Currently
the park is getting a $250,000 facelift, courtesy of a federal HUD
grant. That's appropriate because, when the park and its large "white
bronze" memorial went up in 1888, it didn't cost the city a dime.
Here's a few notes that I hope will produce a lively melody.
Elected officials worry about their "place in history" and so did Portsmouth Mayor Marcellus Eldredge. Like local tycoon Frank Jones (another Portsmouth mayor), Mr. Eldredge owned a profitable Portsmouth brewery. The Civil War was then as fresh in the local memory, as Viet Nam is today. Mayors all over the North were erecting Civil War monuments. In fact, those who didn't might be considered southern sympathizers. No carpetbagger, Mayor Eldredge promised the local veterans group that, if they could raise a few thousand dollars by public conscription, he'd pay for the other half of a dandy new monument. No carpetbaggers either, the people of Portsmouth signed up. The smallest recorded donation was a dime from a school girl, the largest was $1,000 from Frank Jones. A company in Bridgeport, Connecticut was cranking out low cost monuments made of the revolutionary new "white bronze" alloy, and Portsmouth got the catalog and ordered up a fancy one.
You couldn't find a more amazing man in local history. Born in South Berwick, Maine, young Ichabod was driven to succeed, and came to work in Portsmouth at its peak at age 14. He gained great respect as a sea captain for 20 years, then, still in his 30's became president of - two banks, the Portsmouth Whaling Company, the Portsmouth Steam Company (a giant factory), Portsmouth Gas Company, Portsmouth Bridge Company and, most importantly, Goodwin was president of the local railroad for two decades. Goodwin was such a powerful force in the state that, as governor, he was able to privately raise $650,000 for Lincoln's early war effort. The man simply had the Midas Touch. Ironically, it was the industrialization of the west end of Portsmouth under Goodwin that turned the once lovely tree-lined Islington Street into a commercial thoroughfare.
The Civil War was a boom period for shipbuilding on the Piscataqua. Next to the Merrimack and Monitor submarine attack, no US Civil War sea battle is more famous than the Kearsage sinking the Confederate ship Alabama. Built here at the Navy Yard in 1861, Kearsage was a strange combination of sailing ship and steamboat. The confrontation actually took place off the coast of Europe where the Confederate ship had been stalking Yankee merchant vessels. The Kearsage captain politely allowed Alabama five days to make repairs in a French port before the battle began in July 1884. The Alabama was sunk and the Kearsage boasted no lives lost, though one crewman died of his wounds days later.
The one hour and ten minute battle, left Kearsage veterans with a lifetime of laurels. Some of them organized to promote the annual Kearsage remembrance cermeonies and marched in local military parades well into World War I. Around here "Remember the Kearsage!" was a cry more stirring than "Alamo!"
A small passageway was cut into the hollow base in the 50s and, with an official Portsmouth City flashlight, this author was allowed to crawl inside the statue recently. It was not a stirring vision. The original metal armatures are completely eaten away, the base is bowed at the center, and the guts are a patchwork of tar, cement, caulking compound and rubber sealant. Outside, the Minuteman is tilting badly, bits of the Sailor's cap have eroded away, and Lady Liberty has cracks along her wrist that look like an attempted suicide. Water still pours in through breaks in the surface.
There were the usual bands, parades and speeches all exhaustingly reported in the Portsmouth newspapers. Crewman from both Kearsage and Alabama were in attendance. Things went swimmingly, except when the drapery caught on one of the statues during the unveiling, and a spectator had to climb up the monument to release it. Police reported few criminal incidents and an uncharacteristic lack of public drunkenness, which often left even very young boys passed out the in the streets after days of public celebration. The ideal day was marred only by the accidental death of boy who had come in from the Isles of Shoals for the festival and was killed during the fireworks display.
Back in Goodwin Park, however, the monument is singing. I hear sea
chanteys mixed with bits of an old drinking song, a player piano and
children's nursery rhymes intertwined with a Gilbert & Sullivan score.
I've heard marching bands inside that cracked and rusting thing. Nothing
dull about this monument. You'll hear it too, funeral hymns and
fireworks, battle cries and political mumbo-jumbo. It's all there for
those who care enough to eavesdrop on the past.
By J. Dennis Robinson
Sources: Ray Brighton, Rambles Around Portsmouth, Peter E. Randall, Publisher, 1974; vertical files at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, City of Portsmouth and Portsmouth Public Library.
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com
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