1811 brick structure was the second powder house for the City of Portsmouth

Bill Warren

The Powder House on the corner of Islington Street and Essex Avenue is one of Portsmouth’s oldest buildings and is being saved and restored. This is the second powder house the city had; the first one in part of the North Cemetery became so unstable by the remnants of black powder that were stored in it that in 1810 it had to be destroyed. The following year (1811) the city built the current powder house in the “well out of Portsmouth” location on the way to The Plains. The city should be congratulated on its wisdom to save, restore and make available as a tourist attraction our powder house.

In the course of understanding the significance of Portsmouth and our sister town, New Castle, gun powder has played an important role in the history of the United States of America. It was in New Castle on December 13, 1774 that a body of men raided the powder house (fort) and liberated about 100 barrels of black powder from the British Fort William and Mary. This military action is considered to be the first act of the War of Independence. The American militia that took the black powder, stored it in the basement of the old South Church on Meeting House Hill. Part of the black powder seized in that incursion was later used at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Early in the 19th century Portsmouth had three big fires: 1802, 1809 and 1813. The stores of black powder for the first two fires were out of the fires’ ways in the first powder house. By 1810 spilled black powder that had worked its way into the ground had made that building unstable so another one had to be built. The location chosen for the second powder house was on Islington Street well out of the sprawling city near the outer area known as The Plains. This is the building that the city of Portsmouth is wisely saving because its location is one of the indicators that shows us how the residential town spread north and south before it developed on the west side.

Portsmouth Powder House.  Photo by Jim Cerny

In times of war, stores of powder were held in areas near where our militias were billeted. These areas were called forts. Powder needed to be securely held and in close proximity to the cannon and troops that defended our river heads and shores from invasion. The importance of having availability to get to stores of powder and, at the same time, to have the powder kept well away from where people lived was evident when fire broke out. For most of the time in our history of living in built up communities, fire was the biggest threat, because once started there were no ways to put out large fires other than hand-to-hand bucket brigades.

Gun powder, being a fire accelerant, was very dangerous in high density areas especially in New Hampshire where the majority of houses were made of timber. It seemed to make sense, therefore, to build special brick structures, in areas where most of the population did not live, in which to store the powder.

September, 2007