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An Old Town By The Sea
by [?]

Though many of the old landmarks have been swept away by the fateful hand of time and fire, the town impresses you as a very old town, especially as you saunter along the streets down by the river. The worm-eaten wharves, some of them covered by a sparse, unhealthy beard of grass, and the weather-stained, unoccupied warehouses are sufficient to satisfy a moderate appetite for antiquity. These deserted piers and these long rows of empty barracks, with their sarcastic cranes projecting from the eaves, rather puzzle the stranger. Why this great preparation for a commercial activity that does not exist, and evidently had not for years existed? There are no ships lying at the pier-heads; there are no gangs of stevedores staggering under the heavy cases of merchandise; here and there is a barge laden down to the bulwarks with coal, and here and there a square-rigged schooner from Maine smothered with fragrant planks and clapboards; an imported citizen is fishing at the end of the wharf, a ruminative freckled son of Drogheda, in perfect sympathy with the indolent sunshine that seems to be sole proprietor of these crumbling piles and ridiculous warehouses, from which even the ghost of prosperity has flown.

Once upon a time, however, Portsmouth carried on an extensive trade with the West Indies, threatening as a maritime port to eclipse both Boston and New York. At the windows of these musty counting-rooms which overlook the river near Spring Market used to stand portly merchants, in knee breeches and silver shoe-buckles and plum-colored coats with ruffles at the wrist, waiting for their ships to come up the Narrows; the cries of stevedores and the chants of sailors at the windlass used to echo along the shore where all is silence now. For reasons not worth setting forth, the trade with the Indies abruptly closed, having ruined as well as enriched many a Portsmouth adventurer. This explains the empty warehouses and the unused wharves. Portsmouth remains the interesting widow of a once very lively commerce. I fancy that few fortunes are either made or lost in Portsmouth nowadays. Formerly it turned out the best ships, as it did the ablest ship captains, in the world. There were families in which the love for blue water was in immemorial trait. The boys were always sailors; “a grey-headed shipmaster, in each generation, retiring from the quarter-deck to the homestead, while a boy of fourteen took the hereditary place before the mast, confronting the salt spray and the gale, which had blasted against his sire and grandsire.” (1. Hawthorne in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter.) With thousands of miles of sea-line and a score or two of the finest harbors on the globe, we have adroitly turned over our carrying trade to foreign nations.

In other days, as I have said, a high maritime spirit was characteristic of Portsmouth. The town did a profitable business in the war of 1812, sending out a large fleet of the sauciest small craft on record. A pleasant story is told of one of these little privateers–the Harlequin, owned and commanded by Captain Elihu Brown. The Harlequin one day gave chase to a large ship, which did not seem to have much fight aboard, and had got it into close quarters, when suddenly the shy stranger threw open her ports, and proved to be His Majesty’s Ship-of-War Bulwark, seventy-four guns. Poor Captain Brown!

Portsmouth has several large cotton factories and one or two corpulent breweries; it is a wealthy old town, with a liking for first mortgage bonds; but its warmest lover will not claim for it the distinction of being a great mercantile centre. The majority of her young men are forced to seek other fields to reap, and almost every city in the Union, and many a city across the sea, can point to some eminent merchant, lawyer, or what not, as “a Portsmouth boy.” Portsmouth even furnished the late king of the Sandwich Islands, Kekuanaoa, with a prime minister, and his nankeen Majesty never had a better. The affection which all these exiles cherish for their birthplace is worthy of remark. On two occasions–in 1852 and 1873, the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the settlement of Strawberry Bank–the transplanted sons of Portsmouth were seized with an impulse to return home. Simultaneously and almost without concerted action, the lines of pilgrims took up their march from every quarter of the globe, and swept down with music and banners on the motherly old town.