Portsmouth NH Naval Shipyard a cornerstone of the city


D. Allan Kerr

This article is part of a monthly series celebrating Kittery’s history, as Maine’s oldest town celebrates its 375th anniversary.

There isn’t much that can be said about Portsmouth Dockyard that hasn’t already been printed in these pages, but you can’t talk about Kittery’s history without mentioning its cornerstone. . You could say the yard is Kittery’s Peanut Butter Jelly.

And the history of the shipyard, which dates back to 1800, is so epic that it cannot be summed up in a single article, no matter how brilliant. To do justice to such a topic, it would take another whole series.

For instance:

An article could simply focus on the historic significance of the yards, as the oldest shipyard our country has ever had. And how, even before the site was designated by an emerging new federal government as the location of a Navy installation, this area had been a hotbed of Revolutionary War-era wooden shipbuilding. The islands in Kittery Harbor’s access to both the timber needed to build ships and the sea to launch them made places like Badger’s Island ideal for building ships like the famous USS Ranger, built for Father of the United States Navy, John Paul Jones. .

You could describe how the 74-gun warship USS Washington was the first warship built at the yard, during the War of 1812, and how one of its most famous ships ever was the USS Kearsage, which rose to prominence for taking out the dreaded Confederate raider. Alabama during the Civil War some 50 years later.

You could point out how nearly every superstar in US Navy history seems to have had some sort of connection here in our humble hometown shipyard at some point in their careers. Isaac Hull, the shipyard’s first commanding officer, was already a celebrity when he arrived here, having commanded the USS Constitution when the frigate became known as the “Old Ironsides” for its exploits in the War of 1812.

After:Kittery is celebrating its 375th birthday with a party and a taste this weekend

David Farragut, perhaps America’s most famous admiral, immortalized for ordering his crew “Damn the torpedoes…full speed!” during the Civil War, died at the yard during a visit in 1870. Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations during World War II, also died at the yard the following century, in 1956.

One could devote an entire book, not just an article, to the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth signed at the yard. In fact, many books have been written about this historic moment, which ended what was then the greatest war the world had ever known and established Japan as a world power.

Negotiations between Japanese and Russian diplomats took place in building 86 of the yard for most of August. The signing of the treaty on September 5 ended the Russo-Japanese War and won President Teddy Roosevelt the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the two sides together, even though he never personally participated in the talks.

The yard’s iconic and long-deserted naval prison, for years a subject of fascination for locals and tourists navigating the Piscataqua River, is certainly a worthy story.

For decades, this majestic, medieval-looking concrete structure has fueled a Seacoast urban legend that never seems to die for good. According to this story, a young Walter Elias Disney served time in the court jail and later used his design as the basis for Cinderella’s castle in the 1950 animated classic.

Unfortunately, the story is indeed a myth, as Disney never served in the military and therefore would not have served time at the local naval prison, which held convicted sailors and marines. However, the prison was known locally as “The Castle” during its several decades of operation.

Another popular legend, which may have at least a kernel of truth, describes a young Navy sailor named Humphrey Bogart who, over 100 years ago, was tasked with escorting a prisoner to the installation of the courtyard. According to this story, the handcuffed prisoner asked Bogart for a cigarette, and as Bogart tried to find a match, the prisoner hit him in the mouth with the handcuffs and attempted to escape. The resulting scar on Bogart’s lip is said to have given him his legendary lisp, at least according to this account.

Ironically, the underrated classic 1973 film “The Last Detail,” starring Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid, follows the adventures of two elderly Navy sailors escorting a young sailor to naval prison to serve a lengthy sentence. However, the Kittery facility does not actually appear in the film.

The prison site was originally a camp for up to 1,600 enemy prisoners from the Spanish-American War in the late 1890s. When the prison opened on Seavey Island in 1908, it was believed that she was the largest cast concrete building in the world, according to the Naval Sea Systems Command.

Empty since 1974, the fortress-like structure now seems a mysterious and brooding protector of Portsmouth Harbour, fueling endless speculation about what to do with such a remarkable building.

Again, entire books could be written about the shipyard’s vital role during World War II, which I personally consider its most fascinating era. At one point during the war, about 20,500 people worked daily at the construction site, twice the actual population of the city today.

Kittery, Maine's oldest town, counts down to its 375th birthday.

After:This WWII veteran started at Portsmouth Dockyard aged 16. He’s still here at 95.

Nearly 80 submarines, almost half of the U.S. fleet at the time, were manufactured at the shipyard during America’s three and a half years in this global conflict. An unprecedented 32 submarines were completed in 1944 alone. And on a single record day – January 27, 1944 – the yard commissioned not one, but four submarines: USS Razorback, USS Redfish, USS Ronquil and USS Scabbardfish.

The yard had already been in the business of building submarines for almost a quarter of a century when America entered the war. It was the first US Navy facility to build a submersible vessel, in 1917 during World War I, with the commissioning of a submarine known only as the L-8.

After Germany surrendered to end World War II, Nazi submarines were brought to the yard for study and their crew members, for a short time, were held as prisoners at the Castle.

The yard continued to manufacture Navy submarines until 1969. The tragic peacetime sinkings of USS Squalus in 1939 and USS Thresher in 1963 – already detailed in this series – placed Kittery in the global spotlight. Today, the facility is recognized as the Navy’s premier facility for the overhaul and modernization of its submarines.

Although not much talked about anymore, for decades a fierce debate raged between Maine and New Hampshire over which state had jurisdiction over the job site. Personally, I never understood how New Hampshire could claim the yard as its own when anyone attempting to visit the facility by land could only do so by passing through Kittery.

The granite state, of course, sought to avoid taxation of its citizens who happened to be employed at the yard. The boundary dispute was ultimately settled by the United States Supreme Court in favor of Maine in 2001 by an 8-0 vote, with Justice David Souter (former New Hampshire Attorney General) abstaining.

Another whole article could be devoted to the shipyard’s role as a cog in the economic engine of the Seacoast. In fact, such an article just appeared in the Herald this month.

After:Portsmouth Dockyard’s $1.3 billion economic impact: Here are the cities with the most workers, payrolls

The Seacoast Shipyard Association recently released a report estimating the shipyard’s economic impact at over $1.3 billion in 2021. This represents a substantial increase of almost 40% over the previous year. And as recently as 2018, the economic impact was “only” $882 million, according to the advocacy group.

These results are calculated on the basis of the shipyard’s civilian employee payroll, military payroll, cost of goods and services purchased, and contracted services. Surprisingly, Kittery ranks third among cities with the most civilian workers in the yard, behind Sanford, Maine, and Rochester, New Hampshire. According to the report, 438 Kittery residents were employed at the facility, earning nearly $37.8 million.

Either way, you get the point. Kittery and the yard have long been linked and will likely remain so for quite some time. You can’t look back on 375 years of local history without recognizing an institution that has been its cornerstone for more than half.

Several events are taking place this year in Maine’s oldest town to mark Kittery’s 375th anniversary. Information about these festivities is available at www.kittery375th.com.

D. Allan Kerr is an old Navy man, but has a reluctant great respect for the heroes of the Coast Guard.

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