By Andrew Feight, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Public History
Shawnee State University
Located in southern Ohio in the western foothills of Central Appalachia, the City of Portsmouth stands at the confluence of the Scioto and Ohio Rivers and the crossroads of two major US Highways (US 23 - the Country Music Highway intersects US 52 - the old Atlantic & Pacific Highway). Long-serving as an Ohio River crossing point, where the South greets the North, Portsmouth serves as the gateway to Ohio's Little Smokies, a region whose hills and hollows, lakes and waterways are an outdoor enthusiast’s dreamland.
The city’s famous flood wall murals provide an introduction and overview of the city’s two-thousand years of history. From the prehistoric Native Americans to more recent times, the murals help orient visitors to Portsmouth in time and place. Start your visit with a walk in the Boneyfiddle Historic District, along Front Street, and explore over two-thousand feet of local history depicted by famed American muralist Robert Dafford.
The city is built upon what was once the center of one of the largest Native American Earthwork Complexes in North America, and this ancient past is a reminder of the long history of human habitation in southern Ohio. Visitors can explore the earliest chapter of Portsmouth’s past by visiting the “Art of the Ancients” exhibition at the Southern Ohio Museum, which displays thousands of Native American artifacts documenting the material culture of prehistoric Portsmouth. Visitors can then go deeper by touring the Horseshoe Mound in the city’s Mound Park on Grant Street or by heading over to the west side of the Scioto River to visit the world famous Tremper Mound, located at the intersection of Ohio 73 and 104. Protected by the Arc of Appalachia’s nature preserve, the Tremper Mound is widely recognized as one of the most sacred Native American places in Ohio and significant archeological sites in North America.
The Shawnee, who once located their principal village here in the 1730s and 1740s and lay claim to the surrounding hills and valleys as their ancestral lands, would ultimately give way to the American frontiersmen and settlers in the 1790s, but not without a fight. From the time of the French and Indian War (the Great War for Empire) in the 1750s until the administration of President George Washington in the 1790s, the future location of Portsmouth was the scene of repeated, violent clashes between the Indian nations of Ohio, the French, the British, and lastly the Americans. This stretch of the Ohio River had long been one of its most dangerous, with numerous deadly ambushes and attacks on Americans as they floated down the Ohio and passed below Raven Rock, the noted Indian Lookout. Visitors today can explore this frontier era history by walking the Allan W. Eckert Trail in the Earl Thomas Conley Riverside Park, or by hiking up to Raven Rock, a State Nature Preserve, or by camping at Shawnee State Park’s nearby Ohio River Campground, all of which are located just west of Portsmouth on US 52.
In 1796, American pioneers established their first settlement in what became Scioto County. Named Alexandria in remembrance of the ancient Egyptian city located in the delta of the Nile River, Alexandria, Ohio was established on the site of what had been previously known as Lower Shawnee Town. River flooding, however, would lead settlers to abandon Alexandria in favor of Portsmouth, which was located on the east side of the Scioto River’s mouth, upon higher ground. First platted in 1803 by Henry Massie and selected as the new county seat, Portsmouth would be officially charted as a city in 1815. To learn more about life and material culture of Portsmouth’s pioneers visit the homestead of Aaron and Mary Kinney, which is known today as the 1810 House and Museum on Waller Street in the city’s Hilltop neighborhood.
With the completion of the Ohio and Erie Canal in the early 1830s, Portsmouth was connected to Cleveland, Ohio and ultimately New York City. The future prosperity and growth of the city was secured. The construction of the canal marked the first boom in Portsmouth’s growth and ensured the city would develop as a center of iron production, which was supplied by numerous charcoal-fired furnaces in what became known as the Hanging Rock Iron Region. Visitors can explore canal era history by touring Lock 50 at Union Mills, near the intersection of Ohio 73 and 239. Here, in the nineteenth century, water from the canal powered a flour mill, which ground corn, much of which was then turned into whiskey at the Union Mills Distillery.
In the 1850s, with the arrival of Scioto and Hocking Valley Railroad Portsmouth made its first connection to the emerging national rail network, triggering another growth spurt as its steel, stove, shoe, brick, and railroad industries came to employ thousands of workers, who, in turn, supported a prosperous class of wholesalers, retail merchants, bankers, and other professionals.
From its earliest days, Portsmouth was home to a small, but significant African American community, as demonstrated by the founding dates of their own religious societies. Portsmouth’s African Methodist Episcopal Church (today’s Allen Chapel on Waller Street) was established in 1834. And Black Baptists were holding their own services in the city as early as 1862. Once formally organized as Pleasant Green Baptist Church in 1864, they joined the Providence Anti-Slavery Baptist Association, the nation’s oldest Black Baptist association of churches, which had its beginnings in the Appalachian counties of southeastern Ohio. Together, with their allies in the white community, Portsmouth’s black residents were at the center of an interracial Civil Rights Movement that would establish the city as an important station on the Underground Railroad. Members of Portsmouth’s First Presbyterian Church (founded, 1817) and an antislavery Methodist society, known at the time as the “Radical Church,” also provided assistance to Freedom Seekers who crossed the Ohio River from Kentucky in search of liberty and a new life in Ohio and beyond.
It was in Portsmouth that the noted abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor James M. Ashley spent his youth, studied law, and developed his antislavery religious and political convictions. As an Ohio Congressman in 1863, Ashley introduced what became the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime.” Visitors to Portsmouth’s Boneyfiddle Historic District can walk in Ashley’s footsteps, as it was here in the 1840s and early 1850s, that he kept his residence on Second Street and worked as a newspaper editor on Market Street. Portsmouth’s steamboat landing, at the foot of Market Street, was the scene of many dramatic escapes, where Freedom Seekers took their first steps on the north shore and made their connection with the city’s secret Network to Freedom.
Portsmouth sent its young men, white and black, to fight for the Union and the defeat of the Confederacy. While these men served heroically at Gettysburg, the Battle of the Crater, and other important Civil War battles, the city itself became an important staging ground for the Federal campaign to capture General John Hunt Morgan and his Confederate Raiders. Portsmouth iron workers at the Gaylord Mill and Bloom Forge on Front Street would also produce the iron plates that shielded the Union’s famous ironclad warships. Visitors to Portsmouth’s Greenlawn Cemetery can walk Soldiers’ Circle, where you will find the final resting place of many of the city’s Civil War veterans, including that of Joseph Love, who is now remembered for his work on the Underground Railroad and his service with the U.S. Colored Troops.
Large Federal contracts for munitions and other war material during the Civil War, along with additional connections to the national rail network ensured the continued growth of Portsmouth in the Gilded Age. During these decades, Portsmouth became home to a large community of German immigrants whose contributions would shape the city’s history going forward. Visitors interested in exploring the German immigrant experience can visit St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Market Street. Built in 1870 by members of the German community, the church’s bell tower and steeple, with its gold-plated cross on high, punctuates the city’s signature nineteenth-century skyline.
When the people of Portsmouth marked the city’s centennial in 1903, Portsmouth had emerged as a major center for steel, cast iron stoves, firebrick, whiskey, and shoe production. With multiple boot and shoe factories, including Selby, Excelsior, Williams, and Drew, the city also became home to shoe last, shoe box, and shoe string manufacturers, such as Vulcan, Patterson, and Mitchellace. A major expansion of the Norfolk and Western Railway yards and repair shops in 1902 would also help fuel dramatic population growth in the first decades of the twentieth century, when Portsmouth became known as the Peerless City.
The city would also play an important role in the development of professional sports, particularly football and baseball. It was here, in 1927, on Labold Field, that professional football began in the city with the arrival of famed Olympian gold medalist Jim Thorpe. The Native American star would coach and play some of his last games with the Portsmouth Shoe-Steels, the city’s first professional football team. Today, visitors to Spartan-Municipal Stadium can experience one of the last standing, original NFL stadiums. The Portsmouth Spartans joined the National Football League in 1929 and went onto to play in the first ever post-season championship game in 1932. That season also witnessed the greatest football game in Portsmouth history — the Iron Man Game, which pitted the Spartans against the Green Bay Packers, the then reigning champions of the NFL. Most notably, the Spartan victory was accomplished by just eleven “Iron Men.” The triumphant Spartan starting lineup played the whole game, on both offense and defense, without a single substitution. The Spartan victory ensured that Portsmouth would play the Chicago Bears in the first ever NFL post-season playoff game, the forerunner of today's Super Bowl. In 1934, the Spartan franchise would be purchased by a group of investors in Michigan, where the team was reborn as the Detroit Lions and went on to win the NFL championship in 1935.
Portsmouth and its residents would survive the Ohio River Flood of 1937, which submerged two-thirds of the city and forced more than 32,000 people from their homes. The flood changed the course of the city’s economic development. In its aftermath, flood defenses, including the city’s now famous flood wall, would be constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers, creating the blank canvas for today’s series of historic murals. Visitors to Front Street will find a memorial in mural form to Bessie Tomlin, a city resident who perished in the Flood of ’37. Portsmouth’s connection to the history of professional baseball and the Civil Rights Movement is also memorialized on the wall with a mural depicting Branch Rickey, who is remembered today for his work as General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, when he signed Jackie Robinson and shattered the “color barrier” in professional baseball in 1947.
For those interested in exploring the local history of the Civil Rights Movement, the Eugene McKinley Memorial Pool, which was built in the 1960s as “a place in the sun for everyone,” provides a pleasant experience in the summer time for those who are also seeking to escape the heat. McKinley’s tragic drowning in 1961 helped spark the local movement for integration that culminated in a series of non-violent protests that ended segregation at the then whites-only Terrace Club, which is today remembered as Dreamland Pool.
Portsmouth’s past is deep and richly layered. From the Native American earthworks of prehistory through the turbulent Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and beyond, lovers of American history will find much to explore and learn when they visit historic Portsmouth, the Peerless City on the Ohio.
To learn more about the city’s past visit sciotohistorical.org, which puts the history of Portsmouth and Ohio’s Little Smokies in the palm of your hand. The Scioto Historical Project is an initiative of the Center for Public History at Shawnee State University.