If there’s one place you should see a sunset in Portsmouth, it’s over the Piscataqua River from the historic gundalow, aptly named Piscataqua. When I went out on the gundalow for their speaker sail featuring David “Lou” Ferland on August 7, 2013, it was the perfect evening for a sunset sail—the Memorial Bridge was set to open the very next day, Judy Collins was about to play at Prescott Park that very evening, and the weather was absolutely perfect. It was warm but breezy, and as we set out for the mouth of the river, we were told that we’d be sailing back (by sail!) in once we power-motored out.
We got a lovely history lesson from the fine gentleman pictured below, who told us the history of the gundalow, which took what was a 2 MPH commute on a carriage up to 4 MPH on the water, and was the precursor to the flatbed trailers of the 1700s. The construction of bridges, which came along in the 1770s, necessitated the evolution of the mast that would fold over to go underneath the bridges.
Next up, the headliner, former Chief Ferland, with a history of the area surrounding modern day Marcy Street, then called Water Street, the area surrounding current Prescott Park.
Lou Ferland clearly knows his Portsmouth history. He started on the Portsmouth Police Department in 1982, and was chief for last 3 years, before retiring last year in 2012. He said it wasn’t the 3 years as chief that spurred him to retire—it was the preceding 27 years on the force that had worn him out, and “nothing’s worse than a grumpy cop.”
Lou set the scene of 1890-1912 in Portsmouth, which needed a corrupt Marshall (Thomas Entwhistle) to turn a blind eye to the Water Street (present-day Marcy Street) bars and houses of “local ladies” to keep the town’s economy afloat when there was no other business in town. The ladies would parade down to the train station every week dressed in crazy clothes, wigs, and jewelry, and the local paper would brazenly describe it as “The Parade of Whores”—further establishing the public nature and level of acceptance the community had for the way things were.
We learned that Four Tree Island was unclaimed by either New Hampshire or Maine for about 20 years, so no laws were enforceable there. It was 5 cents to go out and 5 dollars to return from the island after an evening’s debauchery (talk about a smart pricing plan!). Once the local economy started to pick up and the crime rate skyrocketed, the community finally reached a point that they would take the goings-on at Water Street no more. They promptly ousted Marshall Entwhistle and his corrupt cronies, and voted in people who wanted to clean up the area. The very next day after a new Marshall was elected, the madams were all behind bars and the “local ladies” given a day to get out of town or be arrested. Soon, the Prescott sisters bought the Marcy Street land and started planning Prescott Park, and the rest is history. The community needed the corrupt Marshall for a time, to turn a blind eye to the business that was the only thing keeping the town afloat in those early days, but once the town no longer needed it, they enacted change. Once a community is ready for change, Lou said, they will make it happen.
A huge oil tanker passed us by while we were bobbing on the water, and we all watched it pass. “You know, it’s one of the things I’m the most proud of about Portsmouth—that it’s still very much a working port,” Lou said. As much as we are a tourist and historical and arts destination, we still are very much a working port—as evidenced by our big scrap metal heap, oil tanker industry, salt piles (which apparently drunk people often try to climb?), and fishing trades.
We heard a story about the last police officer that Lou swore in while he was on the job. Normally, they’d swear in new cops in a different locale, but something or other was going on, so he did it in his office. And after the officer was sworn in, he told Lou, “You know, I was born in this room!” What a fun coincidence! [I, too, was born where the police station now stands—on City Hall hill, as was my mother and father before me.]
One of the reasons that it is so difficult to get replicas of old police uniforms made is the lack of photographs of police officers from decades ago. Photographs used to cost a lot of money, and police officers generally couldn’t afford to have their photo taken. Photographers usually didn’t have much of a reason to take pictures of anyone who couldn’t pay, so photos of cops from early times are hard to come by. Eagle Photo got a nice shout-out for printing 8×10 glossy reprints of the photo used to make the helmet replicas, one of which Lou was wearing.
The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard used to make the old police badges, and when Lou became police chief, they called him up, having heard that he was interested in them, and sent over bags filled with old badges with the number 13, which happened to be the number of the mold they still had from the factory.
We also heard the story of how Lou was given that nickname. His name is David, but on his first day on the job, his CO asked him his name, and upon hearing “David,” he said, “that won’t do, we have too many David’s already. Your name is Lou.” So he is now known mostly around town as Lou.
Lou started studying the history of Portsmouth about 5 years into his job as a police officer, and finished his dissertation around the time of his retirement—a total of about 20 years of research, with the heaviest part done in the last few years. He said that once people find out that you are interested in history, they come out of the woodwork with their stories—like the case of an officer accused of murdering a prisoner, only recently unearthed. The code of conduct for a police officer was such that when the police officer did not call out for help before striking an unruly prisoner, who later died as a result of the blow, he was found guilty of police brutality and murder—even though many witnesses saw that he was only defending himself (but didn’t call out for help, which would have saved him from being found guilty).
There were several people on board who were relations to some of the police officers in Lou’s stories—and a former commissioner was on board as well. Once Lou was finished with his talk, we enjoyed a lovely trip back in past the soon-to-be-opened new Memorial Bridge, and were just in time to hear Judy Collins announced as we pulled into the Prescott Park shoreline.
If you get the chance, I encourage you to book a trip on the Gundalow! Sunset sails afford a view unattainable from anywhere else, and bonus if you are lucky enough to score a seat on one of their speaker or music series sails! Buy tickets online at gundalow.org, or stop by their Marcy Street office.
The old Water Street looks much different now than it did 100 years ago—thankfully!