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NH's first post office &
custom house were here

See Brewster's "new" Custom House (scroll down)

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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.

New Custom House and Post Office - Former Custom Houses - Eleazer Russell - His peculiarities - Collector and State Postmaster - His death.

So our fair city is having a public building erected, on which our tax payers may look without feeling that their eyes are feasted at the immediate expense of their pockets. The new Custom house is a noble structure, perhaps adapted to what Portsmouth is to be, rather than what it now is: a place where the business of entering and clearing a thousand ships a year may be accomplished, and in the Post-Office under the same roof the letters of fifty thousand inhabitants can be received and delivered with the greatest facility.

Previous to occupying the present rooms of the Custom House, which have now been in use over forty years, Col. Joseph Whipple was Collector, and transacted the business in the office adjoining his residence, (now the mansion of the heirs of the late Jacob S. Pickering,) on State street. Many years previous the office of the Collector was in Merchants' Row; and yet further back, for many years, probably from the Revolution up to 1798, the business was transacted in a more antiquated building, and by an antiquated man, yet further North on Market street.

ELEAZER RUSSELL, whom we now introduce to the reader, occupied as his residence and as the Custom House, a building on the south side of the ferry landing, exactly on the spot where the stone store now stands. This building was also the first Post Office, as Mr. Russell was the first postmaster in New Hampshire. Here all letters addressed to New Hampshire were deposited, to be sent for from other towns. For some years this was the only Post Office in the State. Being on the orchard of President John Cutt, it was probably erected in his day, and might have been the "new ware house" which is referred to in his will of 1680. Mr. Russell's mother was Margaret Waldron, a grand daughter of President Cutt, and the property around the ferryways and up Russell street (which took its name from his family) came to him by inheritance. Market street then terminated at the ferryways; and the land between Russell street and Bachelor's lane (now Green street) was Russell's orchard, with a few house lots on the west near Vaughan street.

Have you a vessel to clear? brush up and put on your best coat, for although the house with its little diamond windows and carpetless floor is nothing to command extra respect, yet the occupant is a man of bows, and so dignified that you may feel awkward if to a rough address you are conscious of a rough exterior. A knock at the door brings at once to your view a spare man somewhat advanced in life, of sharp countenance, with a cocked hat and wig, a light coat with full skirts, a long vest with pocket pads, light small clothes, with bright knee buckles, and more ponderous buckles on his shoes. Your business is asked; and if it is not his hour for breakfast or dinner, the clearance papers are soon prepared. The way of delivery of the papers is rather peculiar, and is a specimen of house clearance which allowed of no hanging on in the old Custom house. The fee stated and paid--the official, with the papers yet in his hand, steps to the door, opens it, and with a bow gives up the papers; and with a wish for a prosperous voyage, closes the door and the interview.

Eleazer Russell was a bachelor. He had a brother Benjamin who died on the coast of Africa, and four sisters, all of whom died single. Three of his sisters resided with him for many years. He was a man of strict integrity and regular habits. Nine o'clock was his hour for retiring, and no invasion of his prerogative would he permit. One evening Col. Clapp called for a social hour, and from the interest of the interview did not mind the flight of time. Mr. Russell, however, did. It was a splendid evening, and Mr. Russell invited the Colonel to the door to see the stars. They looked but a moment, when following his office routine, he bid the Colonel good night, closed the door, and left him to admire the stars, while he retired. There was an apparent lack of courtesy in this proceeding, but it may be a question whether a fixed, correct habit should not be as much respected as the feelings of those who encroach upon it. At another time, he invited some mechanics in his employ to dine with him. As soon as the meal was despatched, he rose and addressed his guests: "Joiners, I have done with you."

While he was courteous to his neighbors, he always expected respect to his most trivial rights. "Leave is light," said he one day, touching a neighbor on his shoulder, who had put some fence boards on his side of the street, without asking permission. Attention to these three words would doubtless add to the peace of many neighborhoods.

His house was glazed with diamond glass, the windows opened on hinges, and the space between the inner and outer walls was so capacious as to allow fuel, after being split for the winter fire, a depository in closets beneath the window stools. Such was the only Custom House in New Hampshire in the early days after the Revolution; and such the individual who sat at receipt of customs.

Mr. Russell built the Market-street House (now owned and occupied by C. W. Walker), in 1788, for his own occupancy. He kept his office in it for a few years, but died before removing his sisters into it. His property he gave to Daniel Waldron, a nephew, whom he had brought up and watched over with fatherly care.

Eleazer Russell did not bear the title of Collector, but that of Naval Officer; he performed, however, all the duties of Collector. He held several important offices under government, among them that of sole Postmaster of New Hampshire, the duties of which he performed with faithfulness and ability. He was one of the Sandemanian brotherhood, full of Christian love, and his domestic relations are spoken of as the most harmonious and happy kind. He was always in great fear of small-pox and of foreign epidemics. When a vessel arrived and the papers were carried to the Custom House, he would receive them with the tongs and submit them to a smoking before he examined them.

When the yellow fever appeared in Portsmouth, in 1798, it first broke out in his neighborhood. His fear of contagious diseases no doubt tended to hasten his end. For although he did not take the fever, he died on the same week in which one of his sisters and another female died of it at his house. His death occurred on the 18th of September, 1798, at the age of seventy-eight years, and he was buried in the North burying-ground.

We have thus brought forth in our ramble an indistinct daguerreotype of one of our old citizens, of whom we can find no public record before made, except the single line which records his death and age.

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