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0105_001E Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Oldport Wharves

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It is still the same ungoverned ocean which, twice in every twenty-four hours, reasserts its right of way, and stops only where it will. At Monckton, on the Bay of Fundy, the wharves are built forty feet high, and at ebb-tide you may look down on the schooners lying aground upon the mud below. In six hours they will be floating at your side. But the motions of the tide are as resistless whether its rise be six feet or forty; as in the lazy stretching of the caged lion's paw you can see all the terrors of his spring.

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Our principal wharf, the oldest in the town, has lately been doubled in size, and quite transformed in shape, by an importation of broad acres from the country. It is now what is called "made land,"--a manufacture which has grown so easy that I daily expect to see some enterprising contractor set up endwise a bar of railroad iron, and construct a new planet at its summit, which shall presently go spinning off into space and be called an asteroid. There are some people whom would it be pleasant to colonize in that way; but meanwhile the unchanged southern side of the pier seems pleasanter, with its boat-builders' shops, all facing sunward,--a cheerful haunt upon a winter's day. On the early maps this wharf appears as "Queen-Hithe," a name more graceful than its present cognomen. "Hithe" or "Hythe" signifies a small harbor, and is the final syllable of many English names, as of Lambeth. Hythe is also one of those Cinque-Ports of which the Duke of Wellington was warden. This wharf was probably still familiarly called Queen-Hithe in 1781, when Washington and Rochambeau walked its length bareheaded between the ranks of French soldiers; and it doubtless bore that name when Dean Berkeley arrived in 1729, and the Rev. Mr. Honyman and all his flock closed hastily their prayer-books, and hastened to the landing to receive their guest. But it had lost this name ere the days, yet remembered by aged men, when the Long Wharf became a market. Beeves were then driven thither and tethered, while each hungry applicant marked with a piece of chalk upon the creature's side the desired cut; when a sufficient portion had been thus secured, the sentence of death was issued. Fancy the chalk a live coal, or the beast endowed with human consciousness, and no Indian, or Inquisitorial tortures could have been more fearful.

It is like visiting the houses at Pompeii, to enter the strange little black warehouses which cover some of our smaller wharves. They are so old and so small it seems as if some race of pygmies must have built them. Though they are two or three stories high, with steep gambrel-roofs, and heavily timbered, their rooms are yet so low that a man six feet high can hardly stand upright beneath the great cross-beams. There is a row of these structures, for instance, described on a map of 1762 as "the old buildings on Lopez' Wharf," and to these another century has probably brought very little change. Lopez was a Portuguese Jew, who came to this place, with several hundred others, after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. He is said to have owned eighty square-rigged vessels in this port, from which not one such craft now sails. His little counting-room is in the second storey of the building; its wall-timbers are of oak, and are still sound; the few remaining planks are grained to resemble rosewood and mahogany; the fragments of wall-paper are of English make. In the cross-beam, just above your head, are the pigeon-holesonce devoted to different vessels, whose names are still recorded above them on faded paper,--"Ship Cleopatra," "Brig Juno," and the like. Many of these vessels measured less than two hundred tons, and it seems as if their owner had built his ships to match the size of his counting-room.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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