Portsmouth is a small seaport city that has managed to hold on
to its 18th and 19th-century history and charm for nearly 250
years. Still standing is the original downtown intersection that
the city's founder, Col. William Crawford, dedicated to public use
- one corner each for a church, a market, a courthouse, and a jail.
In fact, Trinity Episcopal Church on that corner founded in 1762 -
still rings its bells across the street from the 1846 Courthouse
that now serves as a museum. With five districts listed on the
Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic
Places, Portsmouth is a history lover's paradise.
Portsmouth's history dates back to the settlement of Jamestown in
1607. Captain John Smith, while mapping lands surrounding
Jamestown, sailed down the Elizabeth River and marvelled at the
lush beauty of the terrain. The first settler on the land which is
now Portsmouth was Capt. William Carver, who was issued a land
grant in the mid- 1600s. In 1672, Capt. Carver stabbed Thomas
Gilbert and followed Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. Capt. Carver was
captured, recalled to England, was tried and hanged. His land was
forfeited and given to Col. William Crawford in 1715. The original
town was enlarged a number of times: in 1763, in 1811 and in
It is believed that the town was named after Portsmouth, England,
due to similarities in street and square or block names. Streets
were organized in a grid pattern with street widths alternating
between 32, 60 and 100 feet. Each block or square was named for
noted Virginians, Englishmen or places in England or the United
States. Streets were named similarly. High Street was named for the
main commercial corridor in Portsmouth, England. It is 100
feetwide, with two narrow streets of 32-foot widths (Queen and King
streets), located to the north and south. Narrower streets served
as alleys for High Street, facilitating the access of commercial
buildings from the rear.
Because of its excellent location on the Elizabeth River, early
Portsmouth was rich in waterfront commerce. The town grew from the
river inland. Col. Crawford built his home on Crawford Street, and
most of the houses were built in the eastern portion of the city.
In 1793 there were 300 homes and a population of 1700 people, and
by 1806 there were 700 homes and 3000 inhabitants. A rail line was
built to handle the shipping of goods to and from the wharves.
During the American Revolution, Portsmouth was spared as Norfolk
burned following the defeat of Lord Dunmore at Great Bridge,
however, a number of homes were set afire by the American
Revolutionary War Colonel Charles Lee because he felt that many of
the Portsmouth inhabitants were too sympathetic to the British
cause. In 1779, Commodore Sir George Collier invaded Portsmouth,
ransacked the town and destroyed 137 vessels in the harbor. A year
later General Benedict Arnold took command of the town. He returned
to New York to be with his pregnant wife, and General Cornwallis
took command of the town, only to leave shortly thereafter to fight
Washington and Lafayette at Yorktown.
The War of 1812 followed after only 35 years of peace. The British
were repelled at Craney Island and Olde Towne was never
Portsmouth grew as a maritime center, and in 1827 the U.S. Navy
built its first hospital in Portsmouth at the Revolutionary War
site, Fort Nelson. In 1833, the Navy constructed the first dry dock
in North America at the Gosport Navy Yard, now the Naval Shipyard
in Portsmouth. Both facilities are still used by the Navy.
In 1861, Virginia seceded from the United States. John Porter
designed and converted the USS Merrimac into the CSS Virginia and
the famous battle between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor, the
first battle between iron-clad ships, was fought just down the
river at the junction of the Elizabeth and James rivers. Pieces of
the iron-clad are on display at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
Nineteenth Century Portsmouth relied heavily on shipbuilding. In
1894, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad came to town. For the next 60
years the railroad dominated Portsmouth, giving the city its motto,
"where rail meets sail".
The first World War turned Portsmouth into a boom town, bringing
thousands of new jobs to the area due to construction of dry docks
and ships, but in 1923 the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty
stopped all warship construction and the shipyard laid off 75
percent of its workforce.
World War 11 provided rapid economic growth for Portsmouth. In 1943
43,000 people were employed in the shipyard. In order to house this
huge influx of people, many of the large, older homes in Olde Towne
were converted to apartments. After the war, the first of two
tunnels opened in 1952; and the Elizabeth River passenger ferries,
which had served as a major means of transportation, ended.
Olde Towne Portsmouth has survived wars, fires, plagues,
depressions, occupation by foreign troops and will continue to
survive due to the spirit of the people who call Portsmouth