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Portsmouth’s First 4th of July Celebration

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Newport Mercury, July 6, 1822

Portsmouth’s first 4th of July celebration was held in the Union Meeting House – where the Portsmouth Historical Society has its headquarters now. A procession (a parade in our day), patriotic oration (speech) and reading of the Declaration of Independence was the program of the event. I wonder if they read from the town’s copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Museum Notes: Julia Ward Howe Collection

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Julia Ward Howe was a summer resident of Portsmouth for over fifty years. One of her homes was on West Main Road close to Lawton’s Valley. Her last home was up Union Street close to Jepson Lane. Julia and her family moved into what they called “Oak Glen” in 1870 and Julia died there in 1910. Julia’s daughter, Maud Howe Elliott, stayed at Oak Glen throughout her mother’s last years and then resided at Oak Glen with her husband,, artist John Elliott. When Maud and her husband moved to Newport, Charles (aka Rathbone) Ballou bought the house. Rathbone Ballou was the son of suffragist Mary Ballou and he hosted meetings of the League of Women Voters at the House. It was Rathbone Ballou in 1950 who donated many of the items in the Julia Ward Howe Collection. Much of what we know about the items comes from the Society’s Records book that lists donations, donors and notes. Most of these items had been at Oak Glen during Julia’s time and then left behind when her daughter sold the home.

Two steel engravings by Landseer – War and Peace, hung in the front hall of Oak Glen. The artist’s name was misspelled in the records book. Julia met the artist at a dinner party in England around 1842. She was seated next to the artist but had not caught his name when they were introduced. In her book Reminiscences she recalls asking him if he knew anything about pictures? “He smiled and answered, ‘Well, yes.’ I then begged him to explain to me some of those which hung upon the walls, which he did with much good nature. Presently some one at the table addressed him as ‘Mr. Landseer,” and I became aware that I was sitting next to the celebrated painter of animals.” Page 99

Julia is famous for writing the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, but she was also a prominent literary figure. She wrote plays, poetry, memoirs, speeches and sermons. Her desk is a prize item in our collection. She liked to write standing up and her friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow suggested adjusting a desk high to be the correct height. After her death, the desk at Oak Glen was cut down again for use by another.

Julia was part of a notable literary circle and many of these writers would have visited Oak Glen. Among these were Bret Harte, Edwin Booth, Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Emma Lazarus, John LaFarge, Mark Twain, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

As an older woman, Julia is often photographed with a cap. In our collection is one of these caps that our record book says was donated by a great grandson of Julia – John Richard Gardner. Also in our collection is a white shawl that Julia used.

There are a few other items and photos listed on the original donation record and we will be locating those and putting them together with our other items from Julia’s home.

Town Hall Exhibits: Railroad Bridge Gear

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One of the unique items in our Old Town Hall exhibits is a gear that served to swing the draw bridge of the Sakonnet River Railroad Bridge. The gear was in service from 1899 when a new bridge was constructed to 1988 when a barge ran into the bridge. In 2006 the bridge swing structure was removed and the Portsmouth Historical Society was gifted with the gear.

The 1899 railroad bridge was built by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. The railway bridge served a number of railroad lines, including the Providence and Worcester Railroad and the Old Colony Railroad. The original bridge was built for the Newport and Fall River Railroad and was constructed by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1864. From 1889 to 1899 the New York and New Haven railroad was in a controversy with the Secretary of War. The bridge was considered a block to navigation of the Sakonnet River and the War Department wanted a 100 foot draw span to facilitate movement of boats through a particularly treacherous current area. As the new bridge was being built, the old bridge still served for transportation to the island. The bridge was considered such an important link between Aquidneck Island and the mainland that the Newport Artillery Company had the duty of guarding it during World War I.

The bridge served to bring supplies to Aquidneck Island even until the 1970s. Weyerhaeser, the Naval Base and Naval Supply Center argued that they needed the bridge for hundreds of carloads of supplies. The railway found the route unprofitable and they petitioned to stop the line. The bridge itself became irreparable when a barge hit it in 1988.

Old Town Hall Exhibits: Mt Hope Bridge Lights

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Tucked into the corners of the Old Town Hall are two of the original light fixtures from the Mount Hope Bridge. They still light up when we plug them in although they date from the 1929 construction of the bridge. It was the first bridge in the United States that was painted a color – green to blend in instead of black or gray. Our Mount Hope lights still bear that green color. The bridge was a prize winning suspension bridge and it was the longest suspension bridge in New England for decades. It was built at the point of the narrowest gap between Bristol and Portsmouth, the historic site of the Bristol or Tripp’s Ferry.

With automobiles becoming more common, Newport politicians pushed for a bridge, but the state legislature rejected the bridge proposal. A private group emerged to make a privately owned toll bridge. Newport representative Herbert Smith continued to back it and got the state authorization to permit private capital to build and charge tolls for a specified time.

The bridge was designed by David Steinmen. Its total cost was about $4,250.000. Authorized on December 16, 1927 it was completed Oct. 24, 1929. Its length is 6,130 feet. and it is 285 ft. above water. The deepest foundation is 54 feet below sea level. The builders were convinced to try a new heat treated wire. Unfortunately these proved to be defective and problems plagued bridge construction. The cables were condemned in February of 1929 – only four months from projected completion date. It was a mammoth project to dismantle and re-wire. This process made the bridge opening four months late.

Just five days after opening ceremonies, the stock market crashed. With the Depression the Mt. Hope Bridge Company defaulted on their mortgage. After a public auction, R.F. Haffenreffer with the Mount Hope Bridge Corporation purchased the bridge. The State of Rhode Island took over in 1955.

The Historical Society has items from the opening festivities of the Mt. Hope Bridge in 1929. These items include an invitation, guest badge and photographs of the construction and ribbon cutting. A front page newspaper article from the time helped us to understand how elaborate the ceremonies were.

Note Lighting fixtures with flags at the grand opening in 1929.

Senator William H. Vanderbilt presided over the pageant. Beginning at 10 in the morning, a parade began in Bristol and headed toward the bridge. Part of this parade was a “tableau” depicting Roger Williams that was organized by the Rhode Island Historical Society. The Newport Historical Society organized a tableau and parade depicting John Clarke and they marched from the Aquidneck Island side.

At 11 a.m., “Roger Williams” met “John Clarke” and unfurled flags at the center of the bridge and exchanged greetings. There was an Native American ceremony in which Governor Case and Senator Vanderbilt became members of the Algonquin Council. Vice President Charles Curtis signaled from Washington, D.C. at noon to begin the dedication of the bridge.

The program lists events such as a christening of the bridge, ribbon cuttings and acceptance of bridge certification. The ceremony was even broadcast on WEAN at the old Outlet Building in Providence. Twenty five thousand cars paraded across the bridge after the ceremonies. In one of those cars was my father, riding in his uncle’s car.

Old Town Hall Exhibits: Horse Drawn Hearse

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Whose Hearse Was It?

In 2009 the Portsmouth Historical Society welcomed back a horse drawn hearse that had been in storage for many years. An elder member of the society thought that the hearse had belonged to the Christian Union Church whose building was now the headquarters of the historical society.


Sure enough, a search of the church records showed that the church did indeed own a hearse. Church records from the Board meeting of March 12, 1871 indicated that: “The board unanimously recommended that Br. John T. Brown purchase a hearse of Langley and Bennett at a cost of $162 provided the sum of $200 is raised.”


Later records from December 16, 1871 showed that it was voted that:
“Br. John T. Brown who has the care of the hearse, be authorized to charge non-subscribers for its use, the sum of one dollar, said dollar to be added to the fund for keeping the hearse in repair.”


A search of the City of Newport Directory from the early 1870s showed that Langley and Bennett was a furniture maker in Newport that also made coffins, caskets and related funeral items.  They also were undertakers.
We were confident that the hearse we had was the one that would bring deceased church members on their last journey from their homes to the church and then on to Union Cemetery down the road.


As part of our celebration of the Christian Union Church building’s 150th anniversary, we read ALL the church records. To our amazement we found an entry in 1903 authorizing John T. Brown to dispose of the hearse and turn over the “hearse fund” that would have been used to maintain the hearse to the treasury.


The church hearse was gone by 1903, so what hearse did we have? We knew from research that the hearse was typical of what was used in the 1870s. Newspaper accounts from 1943 mentioned the donation of a hearse to the society by Mrs. David Anthony. According to the article the hearse had been purchased years before by Asa Anthony who lived on West Main Road. H. Frank Anthony, his son, went on the trip to New Bedford with his father to bring back a used hearse.


Why would Asa Anthony need a hearse? Newspaper articles again offer some clues. It seems that Asa B. Anthony was a coroner for Portsmouth in the 1880s. Asa Anthony would have used the hearse to transport bodies. Other articles comment that bodies remained at Asa Anthony’s home until a funeral. Ironically Asa Anthony’s home, once known as “Willowbrook” is the Connors Funeral Home today.

There are flames on top of the hearse that could be removed and replaced with plumes of black feathers. Of course the extent of the feathers signified how important the deceased was. It has a few practical features as well such as rollers to make it easier to push the coffin into the hearse and spikes that can be raised to keep the coffin in place. The hearse was originally painted black like most hearses but now it is painted grey.

We have no pictures of either the Christian Church hearse or that of Asa Anthony. We will never definitively know whose hearse this is but our assumption is that it served the Portsmouth Town Coroner –

Old Town Hall Exhibits: The Last Mail Wagon

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With COVID restrictions in place we have not been able to open the buildings of the Portsmouth Historical Society. We have hopes that guidelines will ease, but we can still give you a virtual tour of our properties.

The Old Town Hall on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society houses the society’s collection of farm tools and horse drawn vehicles. Among the gems in our collection, is the last horse drawn mail wagon that was used in Portsmouth. John Pierce’s Historical Tracts of the Town of Portsmouth gives us a good history of the wagon.

This horse drawn mail wagon dates back to 1902 when Abner Anthony purchased it when a post office opened on the corner of Clearview Avenue and East Main Road to serve South Portsmouth. Mail to this post office was labeled “Melville Station, Newport.” Abner served for 43 years, first delivering mail by bicycle and then by horse and wagon. Pierce tells us that when this post office closed in 1918, Abner bought a Model T Ford and traded the wagon to Frank Fortner for 12 chickens. Frank was the carrier for the Newtown Village office.

Fortner used the wagon for some time and eventually it found its way to Tiverton. The wagon was then retired to the Taylor barn in Island Park. When that building was torn down in 1958 the wagon was given to letter carrier Roland “Pete” Tremblay who donated it to the Portsmouth Historical Society.

Last Mail Wagon from John Pierce Collection

The mail wagon was originally painted green, but you will find it painted blue and white today. The Portsmouth Historical Society used it as our “float” for the 375th parade.

Last Mail Wagon in 375th Anniversary Parade

On Society Grounds: Southermost School

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We believe this building is the oldest public school in Rhode Island. It may even be the oldest public school in the country that is still standing.

Southermost on grounds of Portsmouth Historical Society

In the early days of Portsmouth, children were probably taught to read and write at home if their parents had those skills. Now education was important to the townspeople of Portsmouth. In 1716, while considering how to divide land in the southern part of town, the freemen of Portsmouth were planning for public education in the town.


It took nine years for that school – Southermost School – to open its doors in 1725 on land near the corner of Union Street and the East Path – across from the current location of the Historical Society.

In colonial days the school teachers were all men. The families of the students in the school were responsible for providing a home and food for the schoolmaster and his family. We have records that indicate that the first schoolmaster, James Preston, and his family lived in the basement of this building when it was across the street.

The building was used as a school for many years but sometime before 1800 the school was moved to the corner of West Main Road and Union Street. The entry way (as you see it now) was added at this time. A stove was used for heat.

Around the time of the Civil War the Gibbs School was built to replace the Southermost School and the Almy family bought this building at auction. It took eight teams of oxen to move the school building to the Almy Farm halfway down Union Street. The school spent 90 years at the Almy/Hall Farm (also known as Lakeside) where it served as a storage and harness shed.

In 1952 the Hall family gave the school to the Portsmouth Historical Society and once again it returned to the corner of Union Street and East Main Road, but this time across the street on the grounds of the Society. Since then the Society worked to restore the school house through grants, house tours and yard sales.

Southermost School on Lakeside Farm

Inside the school house today you can sit in one of the original student desks and view the top of the original schoolmaster’s desk. There are also examples of the primers, copy books and textbooks students would have used in one room schools in Portsmouth. The entrance way has two original large school bells from Portsmouth old schools. It also has lunch pails and pegs to hang the student’s coats.

The historical significance or this building can not be overemphasized. It serves as a monument to the desires of early Portsmouth citizens to support education.

On Society Grounds: Stone Walls

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The stone wall in back of the Portsmouth Historical Society building marks the original boundary of the Christian Union Church lot that was bought in 1824.

From the beginning, Portsmouth citizens were concerned about marking property boundaries.

At first boundaries were marked with hedges and wood, but stone walls became the permanent way to mark our property lines.

Our walls look different from the walls in the communities off the island.  The fieldstone that make up our walls are flatter. That makes them easier to work with when a wall is put together. Our slate, for example, is layered and can be split into slabs.  Slab type stones make the best walls.  

Slate, quartzite, puddingstone and granite are among the types of rocks in our walls.
 
Portsmouth stone walls remind us of our farm heritage. Clearing the land for crops was no easy task. It wasn’t just a one time chore.  Trees had to be cut down and stumps removed.  As the soil was plowed, rocks had to be dug out and cleared away from the planting area.  Rock removal was not just a one time process.  The winter’s freeze brought up a bumper crop of rocks every year. So what was the farmer to do with the rocks?  Removing them was heavy manual labor.  They had to find them, lift them, load them onto a cart, carry them to the edge of the field and then off-load them.

What did the farmer do with these discarded rocks?  They made them useful.  Instead of dumping them in mounds, they used them to form the boundary of a pasture or planting field.  

The walls around the Portsmouth Historical Society are called stacked walls or “dry” walls because there is no cement holding the stones together.

The first step in building a stacked wall was to dig a fairly deep ditch on the boundary. Larger stones were placed underground to form a foundation. Stones were placed in a pattern so that where two stones met there was one stone in the row above and below. Large flat “capstones” finished the top of the wall.

On Society Grounds: Arnold Point Cup Stone

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Research and text by Majorie Webster

Who created the inscribed stone’s makings? Theories abound.
We know that similar stones in the area are attributed to the Wampanoag but experts are not certain that this was true for the Arnold’s Point Stone.
The experts do agree that the holes were definitely manmade employing a time consuming process with rudimentary tools. They also agree that the carvings show considerable age.

In place at Arnold’s Point


Underlying the uncertainty is that the holes are deeper than traditional cups and the connecting grooves are even cruder than the cups.
One theory is that it is a true cup stone! – but that the cups were “enhanced” in the 1880s leaving the channels untouched.

Could this have been done, just as we trace over fading writing with an effort to preserve rather than to vandalize or deceive?
Could coal miners in the area have used their tools in their idle moments to alter the cups?

This is but one theory. We recognize that if true, an altered artifact relocated from its original location is not ideal. Yet we are grateful that it is preserved and that you are able to view it on the grounds of the Portsmouth Historical Society today.

On Society Grounds: Beirut Memorial

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Research and text by Dave Duggan

On October 23, 1983, at about 6:20 a.m. on a Sunday morning, a yellow Mercedes truck crashed into the lobby of the barracks for the 1st Battalion 8th Marines. Then the driver detonated a suicide bomb killing 241 servicemen. FBI forensics experts later determined the bomb was the equivalent to about 12,000 pounds of T.N.T. and was the largest non-nuclear blast since World War II. Across town, a second suicide attack killed 58 French soldiers.

You can read the names on the plaque of the nine Marines from Rhode Island who perished. They came from all over the state including two from Portsmouth: Corporal Stephen Spencer, and Private First Class Thomas Julian, a graduate of Portsmouth High School.

Duty called these Marines and they responded — and they gave their last full measure. They are forever part of a brotherhood that doesn’t feel self-pity but is willing to serve as our nation’s guardians.

This memorial was placed by Shirley Zdanuck in 1984 in memory of the Rhode Island marines killed in this tragedy including PFC Thomas Julian, who as a high school student, used to cut the lawn here at the Portsmouth Historical Society.

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