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Making the Goodwin Monument Sing

Once you know the tune,
you'll hear the music too

UPDATE: Monument Rededicated

carved pumpkin Dull monuments, like dull history teachers, can turn fascinating tales from our past into lifeless gray blocks of information. But in fact, if you listen closely, monuments can sing to you.

Entertainer Steve Allen used to pull a stunt on his old TV show by "playing" phone numbers on the piano. Members of the studio audience would shout out their seven-digit numbers and the comedian then tweaked the patterns into clever tunes. His point was to show that nothing is inherently dull. Life effervesces. And so I will, here in this column, attempt a similar parlor trick this Veteran's Day, by selecting a local monument at random - and making it sing for you.

Let's try the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Goodwin Park on Islington Street in Portsmouth. Perhaps you've never even noticed it. Currently the park is getting a $250,000 facelift, courtesy of a federal HUD grant. That's appropriate because, when the park and its large "white bronze" memorial went up in 1888, it didn't cost the city a dime. Here's a few notes that I hope will produce a lively melody.

The Mayor:
Elected officials worry about their "place in history" and so did Portsmouth Mayor Marcellus Eldredge. Like local tycoon Frank Jones (another Portsmouth mayor), Mr. Eldredge owned a profitable Portsmouth brewery. The Civil War was then as fresh in the local memory, as Viet Nam is today. Mayors all over the North were erecting Civil War monuments. In fact, those who didn't might be considered southern sympathizers. No carpetbagger, Mayor Eldredge promised the local veterans group that, if they could raise a few thousand dollars by public conscription, he'd pay for the other half of a dandy new monument. No carpetbaggers either, the people of Portsmouth signed up. The smallest recorded donation was a dime from a school girl, the largest was $1,000 from Frank Jones. A company in Bridgeport, Connecticut was cranking out low cost monuments made of the revolutionary new "white bronze" alloy, and Portsmouth got the catalog and ordered up a fancy one.

The Park:
But where to put the statue? Newly re-elected Mayor Evelyn Sirrell, who is spearheading a drive to find land to reconstruct the old Portsmouth State House should take note here. When Mayor Eldredge could find no suitable piece of city property for a new park, he bought the land himself. The descendants of NH Governor Ichabod Goodwin had a nice plot called Goodwin Field along lovely residential Islington Street, across from their mansion. A private deal was struck with the Goodwins. The city could build a park and raise its monument, but the land would have to remain public for all eternity.

The Mansion:
Most people get confused at this point in the story because the stately Goodwin Mansion no longer looks out over Goodwin Park. There's a one-story brick furniture store there now. The historic house was transported to Strawbery Banke Museum on the other side of town in 1963. Good for the South End, but not so good for the once exclusive tree-lined Islington Street. Like Middle and Pleasant Streets, this was once one of the most desirable addresses in Portsmouth, before the coming of urban renewal, gas stations, commercial zoning and convenience stores - but that's another story altogether. Built during the War of 1812, the Federalist design of the Goodwin Mansion in all its gubernatorial splendor has been preserved for public viewing.

carved pumpkin The Governor:
All the pieces were falling nicely together for Mayor Eldrege in 1888. The late Ichabod Goodwin (he had died just a few years earlier in 1882) was renowned in Portsmouth as New Hampshire's "Civil War Governor." Eldredge could now erect his 42-foot Civil War statue in the new Goodwin Park. Goodwin's face was hastily designed into the monument, with the obligatory relief of Abraham Lincoln on the other side. But a few words here about Mr. Goodwin before we continue.

You couldn't find a more amazing man in local history. Born in South Berwick, Maine, young Ichabod was driven to succeed, and came to work in Portsmouth at its peak at age 14. He gained great respect as a sea captain for 20 years, then, still in his 30's became president of - two banks, the Portsmouth Whaling Company, the Portsmouth Steam Company (a giant factory), Portsmouth Gas Company, Portsmouth Bridge Company and, most importantly, Goodwin was president of the local railroad for two decades. Goodwin was such a powerful force in the state that, as governor, he was able to privately raise $650,000 for Lincoln's early war effort. The man simply had the Midas Touch. Ironically, it was the industrialization of the west end of Portsmouth under Goodwin that turned the once lovely tree-lined Islington Street into a commercial thoroughfare.

carved pumpkin The Battleship:
Three sides of Mayor Eldredge's new statue came right out of the foundry company catalog. They included life-sized cannon balls, a large sailor, a minuteman, all capped by an eight-foot "Lady Liberty". Thanks to the French gift of a gigantic statue in New York, statues of Liberty where then all the rage. Three sides of the monument honored bloody battles at Antietam, Gettysburg and Fredericksburg, but the fourth side was custom built for Portsmouth, NH - home of the USS Kearsage.

The Civil War was a boom period for shipbuilding on the Piscataqua. Next to the Merrimack and Monitor submarine attack, no US Civil War sea battle is more famous than the Kearsage sinking the Confederate ship Alabama. Built here at the Navy Yard in 1861, Kearsage was a strange combination of sailing ship and steamboat. The confrontation actually took place off the coast of Europe where the Confederate ship had been stalking Yankee merchant vessels. The Kearsage captain politely allowed Alabama five days to make repairs in a French port before the battle began in July 1884. The Alabama was sunk and the Kearsage boasted no lives lost, though one crewman died of his wounds days later.

The one hour and ten minute battle, left Kearsage veterans with a lifetime of laurels. Some of them organized to promote the annual Kearsage remembrance cermeonies and marched in local military parades well into World War I. Around here "Remember the Kearsage!" was a cry more stirring than "Alamo!"

The Monument:
What we see in Goodwin Park today is only a stumpy version of the original statue. It arrived shortly before the celebration, and the eight-foot Liberty (also called America) figure was hoisted onto a 15 foot pedestal, fastened to a hollow base on a raised piece of land. The touted "white bronze" or zinc alloy turned out to be a wholly unsatisfactory monument material. The skin cracked. Water poured in and the supporting skeleton rusted away. By 1955 the pedestal was so precariously attached that it was amputated, the cracks filled in with cement and the crowning statue lowered.

A small passageway was cut into the hollow base in the 50s and, with an official Portsmouth City flashlight, this author was allowed to crawl inside the statue recently. It was not a stirring vision. The original metal armatures are completely eaten away, the base is bowed at the center, and the guts are a patchwork of tar, cement, caulking compound and rubber sealant. Outside, the Minuteman is tilting badly, bits of the Sailor's cap have eroded away, and Lady Liberty has cracks along her wrist that look like an attempted suicide. Water still pours in through breaks in the surface.

The Celebration
None of this was on the mind of Marcellus Eldresge on July 4, 1888. He was making his indelible mark on history with a rock-solid statue that would stand its ground until Judgment Day. The town turned out in full with an estimated 5,000 outsiders coming in by trains that ran hours late. The visiting NH governor, with a pressing commitment in Amesbury, left before the action started.

There were the usual bands, parades and speeches all exhaustingly reported in the Portsmouth newspapers. Crewman from both Kearsage and Alabama were in attendance. Things went swimmingly, except when the drapery caught on one of the statues during the unveiling, and a spectator had to climb up the monument to release it. Police reported few criminal incidents and an uncharacteristic lack of public drunkenness, which often left even very young boys passed out the in the streets after days of public celebration. The ideal day was marred only by the accidental death of boy who had come in from the Isles of Shoals for the festival and was killed during the fireworks display.

The Coda:
Amid all this research, when I learned there is a marble bust of Governor Ichabod Goodwin at the Portsmouth Public Library, I had to look him up. It wasn't easy. Because the old library is too crowded even for books and people, the bust has been stored safely in the basement of the ancient building. It's under a sheet at the bottom of the stairs. For protection against falling objects, the statue is wearing a plastic construction helmet. With monuments falling down all around us, that seemed an appropriate gesture. I leaned in closely, hoping for a little advice from the former King Midas, but the governor was as silent as stone.

Back in Goodwin Park, however, the monument is singing. I hear sea chanteys mixed with bits of an old drinking song, a player piano and children's nursery rhymes intertwined with a Gilbert & Sullivan score. I've heard marching bands inside that cracked and rusting thing. Nothing dull about this monument. You'll hear it too, funeral hymns and fireworks, battle cries and political mumbo-jumbo. It's all there for those who care enough to eavesdrop on the past.

By J. Dennis Robinson

Sources: Ray Brighton, Rambles Around Portsmouth, Peter E. Randall, Publisher, 1974; vertical files at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, City of Portsmouth and Portsmouth Public Library.

1999 SeacoastNH.com
All rights reserved

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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