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Portsmouth

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The Southern approach of Mount Hope Bridge connects with the largest island in Narragansett Bay, Aquidneck Island. The west shore of Aquidneck faces the east channel of Narragansett Bay proper. Its east shore faces the broad mouth of the Sakonnet River (or Sakonnet Bay), which is actually one of the three major channels that are lumped together as “the bay.” Its short southern end faces the open Atlantic. Although the English came to call Aquidneck Island by the name eventually applied to the colony and state, native Rhode Islanders have always preferred the Indian name. With a little imagination the island could be seen (appropriately) as a lobster in profile, tail (north) at the mouth of the Sakonnet River directed toward the Massachusetts city of Fall River; a single claw at the mouth of the bay projecting toward open ocean. Three towns slice the lobster: Portsmouth at the tail, Middletown (indeed in the middle) at the upper body and head; Newport at the claw. Portsmouth's jurisdiction also includes a scatter of seven smaller islands in the bay. The largest of these, Prudence and Hog Island, are home to summer cottages reached by a ferry from Bristol (Hog Island only during the summer season, Prudence year round to serve a small permanent population). Prudence Island's tiny satellite, Patience, also has a few summer cottages; but most of it and the northern and southern parts of Prudence are state conservation areas. Portsmouth's other islands—Hope, Dyer, and Despair in Narragansett Bay and Gould in Sakonnet Bay—are tiny and uninhabited.

Portsmouth, the second oldest town in Rhode Island after Providence, was founded by John Clarke, a physician, and William Coddington, a “man of wealth and position,” both of whom fled Massachusetts because of their support of Anne Hutchinson and her Antinomian theology, deemed heretical by the Puritans. Shortly after their arrival in 1638, Hutchinson and some of her supporters visited Portsmouth, creating so much new dissension among followers there that Coddington went off and founded Newport. Although it is blessed with the largest coastline of any Rhode Island town (49 miles, including its islands), Portsmouth's lack of good harbors prevented maritime development. Like the so-called Narragansett Planter towns on the west side of the bay, both Portsmouth and Middletown were primarily agricultural. They supplied Newport and, through Newport, shipped meat and agricultural products up and down the coast. Cattle, sheep, hogs, and horses flourished on grasses lush with the moisture of the bay, in a climate moderated by the surrounding water. Patience and Hog islands provided natural pens, once carnivores had been trapped, for pigs to run wild, while Portsmouth's equivalent to the town common elsewhere in New England was Common Fence, a peninsula opposite Tiverton which had only to be barricaded across a narrow isthmus to provide a “fenced” common land for grazing. Common Fence remains the curious holdover name for the community of cottages that now crowds it.

Nothing like the culture of the Narragansett Planters developed in Portsmouth during the colonial period or the early nineteenth century—although two large estate farms established during the colonial period in the southeastern corner of the town overlooking Sakonnet Bay did set a precedent for comparable farms toward the end of the nineteenth century. Most of the early farms were small or merely subsistence, backed onto the high ridge of hills along which runs East Main Road. Portsmouth had more windmills through the middle of the nineteenth century than any other Rhode Island town. One only remains, on Prescott Farm ( PO18). Virtually without waterpower except from small brooks, Portsmouth was hardly touched by the early Industrial Revolution; nor, in its waterlocked location without harbors, was there particular reason to locate industry here after the advent of steam, especially in a locale so thoroughly committed to agriculture. Processing of fish for oil and fertilizer was an industry for several decades starting in the 1860s, as in Tiverton. Surprisingly, there was also a sporadic coal mining industry, unique to Rhode Island, along the west shore of Portsmouth in the area at the end of Willow Lane. Close to the site of the defunct coal mine, at the end of Weyerhaeuser Lane, in 1923 Weyerhaeuser completed a huge depot for lumber storage with trussing so impressively labyrinthine that there must always have been more wood in the building than in storage. It was demolished in the 1980s. Such fitful efforts toward a more industrial economy notwithstanding, agriculture remained the occupation of Portsmouth until well into the twentieth century.

Increasingly toward the end of the nineteenth century, catering to clusters of summer residents became a second aspect of Portsmouth's economy. The two converged when certain Newporters and other elite decided on Portsmouth as the ideal place for large gentlemen's farms. Like their colonial predecessors, they favored the Sakonnet side of the town (though there were exceptions), one of the idyllic rural areas of the state, fantastic for its trees and with long, sloping fields down to the water.

The fixed order of things in Portsmouth began to change during and after World War II with the coming of industry, mostly high tech, attracted by the Newport naval base nearby. Change also occurred with the shift from farming to development, restrained in some areas by the holdings of the elite. But these too began to give way to development by the end of the 1970s. East and West Main roads, running the length of the town, stream with traffic from Portsmouth's own new suburbanites, from increased tourism, and from through traffic seeking to skirt the Providence metropolitan area. The old Portsmouth is not yet quite lost, except in patches; but how will the spoilage be stopped?

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.

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