TMS Architect’s guest historian, J. Dennis Robinson, is back with a piece for us on a mysterious pile of stone in Portsmouth Harbor. If you live on the Seacoast of New Hampshire or travel in the area by boat, you have probably seen the structure’s ghostly presence on the banks of the Piscataqua River. Dennis provides us with some insight into the building and its murky history.
If there is a real Limbo, it’s right here in Portsmouth Harbor. “The Castle,” as locals still call it, is the most fearsome, least visited building in the seacoast. It hunkers on what used to be an island in Kittery, Maine. It looms over the Piscataqua River like the white cement kingdom of a lost civilization. It is the Portsmouth Naval Prison, and not even the commander of America’s oldest shipyard has been allowed inside.
I recently got a glimpse into the 1908 prison. No, I did not get to go indoors. The rusting jail cells and the crumbling walls are too dangerous the shipyard spokesman tells me. Legend says the foul smell is overwhelming and the rats are too huge.
My glimpse came from a new book by ex-Navy, ex-engineer, now historian Rod Watterson. His study, released this month from Naval Institute Press, is called WHIPS TO WALLS. Amazingly, Watterson focuses his research on the good times at Portsmouth Prison, if such a thing can be imagined. During World War I, for a brief moment in history, the hellish jail for sailors and marines conducted a brave experiment in kindly rehabilitation. Treating prisoners like human beings instead of caged animals apparently worked miracles. But the Navy shut the project down and it went back to being a harsh penal colony.
The experiment was conducted by prison reformer Thomas Mott Osborne who is the focus of Watterson’s book. At least half of the prisoners in WWI were men who had simply run away from life at sea or were insubordinate or troublesome. In earlier days they would have been flogged, but the Navy had been forced to abandon corporal punishment prior to the Civil War. Osborne’s job was to punish the offenders and get them quickly back into service during the battle. He chose, instead, to give these men a dose of self-respect and self-reliance.
Over 86,000 men lived and suffered inside The Castle. It closed permanently in the mid-1970s. Efforts by developer Joe Sawtelle to turn the prison into usable commercial real estate were abandoned in 2000 when Sawtelle passed away. Since then, this enormous chunk of property continues to rot. There are currently no plans to tear it down and no plans to rehabilitate this architectural behemoth. But thanks to Rod Watterson’s research, we at least know a little bit more about what once went on inside.
For more information read my latest history feature on the Portsmouth Prison http://www.seacoastnh.com/History/History-Matters/Heavenly-Days-at-the-Hellish-Portsmouth-Naval-Prison/
J. Dennis Robinson is editor and owner of the popular Web site SeacoastNH.com and author of 11 books about history. His latest titles are UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS about archaeology and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER about the War of 1812. He is currently finishing a book on the 1873 Smuttynose Island murders due this fall.