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Making rope has gone
the way of the clipper ship

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By Charles W. Brewster

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.

Ropewalks in former times on Islington road, Elm and Middle streets--Present Ropewalk on South street--Improvements in machinery--Longfellow's hempen

"In that building, long and low,
With its windows all a-row
Like the port-holes of a hulk,
Human spiders spin and spin,
Backwards down their threads so thin,
Dropping, each, a hempen bulk."

"Spinning of street yarn" is the rambler's occupation; it is therefore not out of place for him to give some attention to spinning generally--and in the first place to the most important branch, the stoutest thread, that of Rope Spinning.

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Rope Spinning in the Early Days

The time was, and that not very distant, when the ropewalk was the only imposing factory building any town in New England presented. Our cotton and woolen fabrics were either imported or woven at the homestead--but our ropes required more room for spinning and laying, and the long, long structure was extended out and out until a man at one end looked small as a mouse from the other, and the wheel in the converged distant point like the whirling toy top.

"At the end, an open door;
Squares of sunshine on the floor
Light the long and dusky lane;
And the whirling of a wheel,
Dull and drowsy, makes me feel
All the spokes are in my brain."

With the four hundred per cent increase of tonnage in the last thirty years, there is now a less number of ropewalks in operation than there were in 1825. The improvements of machinery have enabled a vastly greater amount of work to be accomplished in the same time and space, and have thus rather diminished than increased the number of cordage factories long drawn out.

The first ropewalk in Portsmouth, of which we can find any trace, was built a few rods east of the present location of the Jail, about where Rock street is, and extended north from the front of Supply Ham's, on Islington street, to the water. After some years the ropewalk was either removed or rebuilt near the same vicinity. The tar-house of the latter was on the spot where the garden of Ira Haselton now is, and was for many years the residence of Robert Bartlett. The ropewalk extended west from this spot parallel with Islington street, about two hundred feet from it, to where Cornwall street now is. This walk was down before the recollection of our oldest inhabitants, but the elevated ridge of ground was visible until the recent improvements have leveled it out of sight. This walk was owned by Mr. Myrick and conducted by George Boyd, a practical ropemaker, who afterwards built a ropewalk on Elm street for a son.

At the time when this walk was in use, there was no bridge to shut out the direct connection of Islington Creek with the river. Ships were built at the west end of the Creek on the south side, opposite the Ham premises. A ship and two schooners have been on the stocks there at the same time. There were also saw and grist mills in the vicinity. The north mill bridge was built in 1764, after which time the mills at the head of the creek were suffered to decay, and ship building in the creek was suspended.

On the spot where the Eastern Railroad depot now is, and extending west to the water, were two ropewalks, both erected before the Revolution. They were in pretty constant use until after the war of 1812. After that time the most northerly walk, belonging to Daniel Wentworth, went to decay. John Underwood kept the other walk (formerly owned by John Hart) in operation for many years after. It was here that the cordage of the Washington seventy-four was made--and many will long remember that procession of eighty sailors which passed through our streets bearing from that walk, on their shoulders, the monster cable of that ship of the line.

There are other recollections of this ropewalk, as the place for public dinners on the 4th of July, in the war of 1812. The room was ample for the most extensive companies. Tables were extended to the length of five hundred feet through the decorated walk, and seven hundred seats were here occupied. We can yet see the processions of 1813 and 1814 moving from the Fire and Marine Insurance office, (now the Atheneum reading room), escorted by the Gilman Blues under Col. Joshua W. Pierce, and the dignified Col. E. J. Long performing the duty of Chief Marshal on both occasions. The orator on one occasion was the then boisterous Capt. William Ladd, and on the next anniversary, the mild and retiring Nathaniel A. Haven, Jr. Rev. Dr. Parker was the chaplain, and Sewall the reader of Washington's Farewell Address. Though some of the yarns spun in this walk in those days might have been immediately picked into oakum by political opponents, yet when such men as Webster, Mason, Sheafe, Cutts and Haven were the spinners, cables were probably laid which held in safety the great Ship of State. Some sixty or seventy years ago, a ropewalk was erected by John Akerman, on Middle street, extending south from Wibird's hill. This was not much used after 1825, and the last vestige of it has not been seen for more than a dozen years.

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Portsmouth's Last Ropewalk

On the south side of the South Mill pond is now located the only ropewalk in Portsmouth--in fact the only cordage factory in operation between the Kennebec and Salem, Mass. Our first most vivid impression of that locality was the sight of a ropewalk in flames, in 1814. The conflagration is more vividly impressed from the circumstance that the week previous an Eliot seer had prophesied that on that evening it was to be burnt. The subject was commonly talked of among the boys on that day, and sure enough at seven o'clock in the evening it was in flames. In this case, as in many others, the prophecy doubtless led to its own fulfillment: the incendiary was prompted to the deed by the visionary lunatic. This ropewalk in the time of the war of 1812, was used for the barracks of a portion of the soldiers drafted from other towns for the defence of Portsmouth. Among those who here found quarters, was Ichabod Bartlett (afterward member of Congress), a drafted militiaman from the town of Durham.

The walk was rebuilt after the fire, put in use, and in ten years after it came under the superintendence of Jeremiah Johnson, from Newburyport. >From a practical knowledge of his business and strict oversight of his work, he was successful in producing superior cordage, and bore off the first premium in the Mechanic's exhibitions of other States. For three or four years past, in company with John N. Handy, the business of the establishment has been much extended. Another fire in 1854 having swept the factory to ashes--it has since been rebuilt and very desirable improvements made. In our recent walk we spent an hour in its various apartments. The whole building is now about eight hundred feet long, and half that distance it is two stories in height. It is operated by steam.

For thirty years we had not entered a ropewalk, and the improvements in the machinery and modes of operation struck our eyes as the change of things did Rip Van Winkle after his long nap. In this establishment, with thirty or forty men and boys, double as much cordage is now manufactured annually, as the product of all the other walks in Portsmouth when in full operation in former times. In 1855 there were turned out between three and four hundred tons of cordage, of the first quality. Nearly all the ships built here are rigged from this factory--as well as a large number built in Maine and Massachusetts. Among the ships of high reputation owned abroad, built within a few years, and rigged with this cordage, might be named many of the world-renowned clippers. The Dreadnought, harnessed in their strong ropes, plunges confidently on in its fearless career--the graceful Nightingale, spreads her full wings to the breeze, safe in rapid flight in its strong stays; thus confidently rushes on with equal speed the Highflyer and the Dashing Wave; and then comes up that good representative of strong-headed network, the Webster--all clippers of the great commercial emporium--and heading a fleet of others is the strong-muscled Coeur de Lion of Boston--each bearing aloft the product of the Portsmouth cordage factory. South-end feels just pride in having so important a branch of domestic industry prospering in its midst.

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Longfellow's Rope Spinner

That Rope Spinning is a matter of general interest, Longfellow has most elegantly illustrated in a recent poem, on visiting a ropewalk. He spun out the following hempen threads, and neatly laid them down in a six-line chord:

As the spinners to the end
Downward go and reascend,
Gleam the long threads in the sun;
While within this brain of mine
Cobwebs brighter and more fine
By the busy wheel are spun.

Two fair maidens in a swing,
Like white doves upon the wing,
First before my vision pass;
Laughing, as their gentle hands
Closely clasp the twisted strands,
At their shadow on the grass.

Then a booth of mountebanks,
With its smell of tan and planks,
And a girl poised high in air
On a cord, in spangled dress,
With a faded loveliness,
And a weary look of care.

Then a homestead among farms,
And a woman with bare arms,
Drawing water from a well;
As the bucket mounts space,
With it mounts her own fair face,
As at some magician's spell.

Then an old man in a tower
Ringing loud the noontide hour,
While the rope coils round and round,
Like a serpent at his feet,
And again in swift retreat
Almost lifts him from the ground.

Then a school-boy, with his kite
Gleaming in a sky of light,
And an eager, upward look--
Steeds pursued through lane and field--
Fowlers with their snares concealed,
And an angler by a brook.

Ships rejoicing in the breeze,
Wrecks that float o'er unknown seas,
Anchors dragged thro' frithless sand;
Sea-fog drifting overhead,
And with lessening line and lead
Sailors feeling for the land.

All these scenes do I behold,
These, and many left untold,
In that building long and low;
While the wheels go round and round,
With a drowsy, dreamy sound,
And the spinners backward go

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
Design Copyright © 2000

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