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Hurricanes, Fallout, Dynamite & Y2K

Impending doom can look
pretty silly by dawnlight

See more pictures of Henderson's Point

The Blow Up I was almost packed and just tearing off some Saran Wrap for my toothbrush when the phone rang. "Due to the potential danger posed by the imminent arrival of Hurricane Floyd," the caller recited mechanically, "all passenger ferry service to the Isles of Shoals has been canceled."

Ouch! A long awaited four-day vacation blown away by the hot breath of some storm named after the mild-mannered barber on "Andy of Mayberry." Of course, Floyd didn't seem too meek at that moment. Television reports showed wind-swept cities, flooded and abandoned as the biggest hurricane on record tore its way up the Carolina coast.

By Saturday Floyd was a memory, and the Seacoast was overtaken by the most gorgeous weather of the year. "Better safe than sorry," another jilted "shoaler" called out when we passed downtown, but I was sorry just the same.

And so it goes with hindsight, which is just another word for history. I never laugh when I see those 1950s "duck and cover" films of school kids hiding under their desks in defense of a nuclear explosion. As goofy and senseless as that looks to Generation-Xers, I can still taste the fear from the Kennedy-Kruschev days. We were, it was certain, going to be disintegrated at any second. That fear and distrust of government certainly fueled the Seabrook protests back in my college youth. Now here I am decades later, powering this laptop on the waning watts of the almost spend nuclear reactor we all feared. No three-eyed mutant fish -- not yet. No deadly China Syndrome glowing in the darkness. Last night's impending doom can look so silly in the morning light.

Now comes Y2K and the four horsemen of the Millennium to fuel our future nightmares. Well to those who ignore the lessons of history and again cry "Armageddon", I have only two words --- Henderson's Point.

There is no Henderson's Point today, of course. It flew away in chunks and bits as high as 140 feet above the Piscataqua when 60,000 tons of dynamite went off at 4:11 pm on Saturday, July 22, 1905. The event was, at the time, the largest man-made explosion ever attempted.

"I've heard that people in Portsmouth panicked," a history buff told me. "Oh, yes," another concurred, "they thought the explosion was going to be the end of the world."

"Like Y2K?" I asked?

"Same thing, exactly. There were traffic jams all over town, people got hurt. I think somebody died," the history buff explained.

Those are the juicy kind of statements that send a history writer into a fit of deep research. Floyd had already ruined by trip to the Shoals, so I packed off to the archives for the weekend.

There's plenty of data on the explosion for those who care to dig. There's plenty of maps and photographs showing the three years of excavation. President Teddy Roosevelt's administration had just ponied up $749,000 to remove the rocky spit of land. It was an obstruction to navigation and Teddy wanted to build ships, ships and more ships for his great White Fleet. Teddy was into digging and exploding things like the Panama Canal. And he had a soft spot in 1905 for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was the home of John Paul Jones, and he had just rediscovered the admiral's dead body in Paris. Plus, there was the big Treaty of Portsmouth getting underway.

Henderson's Point Local sailors had always called the outcropping Pull-or-be-Damned Point, due to the deadly currents there. Blowing it up widened the river by 400 feet and, when dredging was completed in 1912, left us with a deep water channel reaching 35 feet even at low tide, ideal for creating the new force of submarines that were under development at Portsmouth Navy Yard.

The newspapers covered the story with the calm integrity typical of turn of the century journalism. Take this gem from the front page of the "Portsmouth Daily Republican With the Herald" on the day before the explosion:

"Nothing like the great event of Saturday has ever before occurred since man first breathed the atmosphere of this terrestrial globe -- The explosion at Hell Gate was a mere slide show compared to that at Henderson's Point."

Okay, so the media panicked, but what about all those poor citizens fleeing like extras in a Godzilla movie? Some people left town, we read, but 35,000 were on hand for the event. Even the downtown merchants got into the act, one advertising their grand opening as the second biggest event of the day. The local photo shop ran a large ad all week warning readers: "Kodak the Blast at Henderson's Point: You will never again have such a chance."

after the blast At least three local professionals captured astonishing photos that were immediately transformed into postcards and prints for sale. Caleb Gurney's often reproduced shot shows a great plume of rock, water and flying debris. In the next photo, minutes later, those lucky enough to obtain special passes have crowded on to an observation platform down by the shore. They don't seem very frightened.

A framed display in an obscure corner of the Portsmouth Athenaeum contains memorabilia from the blast, including a wooden bit of shrapnel, a complementary pass to the VIP viewing area and a souvenir booklet from the Frank Jones Brewery instructing thrill-seekers "Where to See the Explosion." There is also a press badge, a button really, with a sepia-toned photo of the naval shipyard. Below the button is a red forked ribbon with the words: "Blowing Up Henderson's Pt with 60 Tons Dynamite."

Judgment Day, it appears, was as neatly orchestrated as any Market Square Day. Trolley schedules were posted, viewing areas defined, hotels booked, dining reservations made, tours of the Frank Jones Brewery ready to role as the crowds dispersed. 220,000 cubic yards of rock and 50,000 cubic yards of soil did exactly as the civil engineers had predicted.

What about the exodus, the carnage, the apocalyptic fervor? From where do we derive these impressions of our ancestors? My weekend of research was about to hit the pavement, so I pulled the ripcord and called Dr. Dorothy Vaughan, Portsmouth's former librarian and historian emeritus.

I'd just been to her 95th birthday party, a grand affair, in which Mayor Sirrell gave her the key to the city. "I had the key to the library for 53 years," Dorothy quipped, "but never the whole city!"

I explained my plight on the phone. Her encyclopedic mind started flipping pages. I once asked her about some drawings I had found in the archives of the public library. She remembered the exact year they were delivered (sometime in the 40s), the exact address of the painter (somewhere on Broad Street), and most of the digits of the delivery man's phone number.

Dorothy Vaughn "I don't remember the explosion," Dorothy said moments later. "I was only a year old, though I wish I'd been born a little earlier so I could have seen it. I've got a good memory, but not that good."

In those days Dorothy lived in Pembroke, but her family was in town on the day of explosion, visiting relatives at the Martingale. She recalls hearing later that her aunt had protected the windows with surgeon's tape.

"Nothing happened," she says. "Nobody got hurt, except one fellow who got hit on the head with a tin can. He was standing too close to the river at Pierce Island, I think, and a piece of the Point came down and hit him on the head, and he got a bad head - but that was about all."

Well, there was also the trolley accident. The papers later downplayed what at first appeared to be a crash between trolley cars filled with people fleeing town. In fact, Dorothy says, there was just a little accident when a car in from Exeter "missed the switch" and got off schedule with all the trolleys added to usher the crowds to and from the observation points. Seems there was a baby on board one and the baby got tossed onto the field down by the Plains area of town.

"I know that story because I went to school with that baby," the senior historian recalls. "She was a classmate of mine."

"I think a lot of people were just scared," Dorothy Vaughan says, waxing philosophical, and she could be talking about the Millennium instead of 1905. "It was something new to them, something frightening, something they could not control. It was just happening to them and a few of them probably got nervous."

A hundred years after Y2K, no matter what really happens to us in the next few months, our descendants will tell each other tales of the our Millennium that may reveal more about their fears than ours. Like Dorothy, given a choice, I'd skip the potential thrills of Y2K and take one of those complimentary passes for Henderson's Point. I hear tell it was a real blast.

By J. Dennis Robinson

Henderson's Point photos courtesy Portsmouth Public Library. Drawing of Henderson's point by Helen Pearson courtesy Debbie Wilson. Picture of Dorothy Vaughan by J. Dennis Robinson.

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Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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