Portsmouth City Hall is located at 801 Crawford Street, Portsmouth, VA 23704; phone: 757-393-8000.
The city occupies a waterlocked point of flat land penetrated by numerous arms of the oily Elizabeth River and its southern and western branches. Its geometric blocks, bisected by many railroad tracks, spread from a rich truck-farming section on the southwest to the circling water's edge, lined on the east with piers that look across the river to the jagged Norfolk skyline. The two cities are connected by a toll bridge and profitable ferries commercial shuttles that are crowded with weekend pleasure vehicles. Along Portsmouth's treelined streets, walled in by close-set rows of comparatively modern residences, are occasional survivals of eighteenth-century buildings, many overlooking narrow gardens planted with boxwood, magnolia, and other shrubbery of the South. From dingy Crawford Street, divided by railroad tracks and edged with raucous beer bars intermingled with commercial houses, streets run at right angles to cut their way through the old town, the center of which is occupied by the extensive Seaboard Air Line Railway shops. The commercial life of Portsmouth flourishes along wide and lengthy High Street, which begins opposite the ferry landing, runs between shops and restaurants, lighted at night in a blaze of neon, then past churches and the courthouse, traverses a Negro section, and finally leads into an area of homes. Residential Court Street, a wide north-south artery, begins at the water's edge, runs through midtown, and ends in a cluster of all-night food and beer bars at the guarded entrance of the Navy Yard. During working hours Navy Yard employees hurry along the shaded length of these two thoroughfares, while at night ship-bound sailors and marines trudge its darkened sidewalks. Westward stretch the suburbs, densely populated, shaded, flat, and frozen or cooled, according to the season, by winds sweeping across the wide mouth of the Western Branch. Living in numerous sections is Portsmouth's Negro population 41 per cent of the whole), which supplies the city with seafood workers, fishermen, marine yard employees, and domestics. Along parts of County and High Streets, and for several blocks on streets extending toward Scott's Creek, life teems in ramshackle houses that rise flush from the sidewalk. The homes of the business and professional class meet much higher standards. Despite too evident poverty, the Negroes support a theater, and many "cook shops" and general stores.
Portsmouth's industrial life is carried on in the 40 freight piers that edge the water front, in buildings on the ragged peninsula just beyond the Navy Yard, and in various factories and mills scattered about the city. Cottonseed oil, fertilizer, paint, hosiery, chemicals, foundry products, and lumber constitute the major part of the city's industrial output. The aggregate annual pay roll exceeds $12-million. The palisaded village of the Chesapeake Indians had long disappeared when Captain William Carver, mariner, acquired a plantation in 1664 along the brackish southern banks of the Elizabeth River. Later, despite the high offices he held, Captain Carver, "deciding to risk his old bones against the Indian rogues," participated in Bacon's Rebellion (1676), even attempting to capture Governor Berkeley. For this treasonable escapade, he was afterwards hanged. His confiscated land was granted in 170 to Colonel William Crawford, who in 1750 laid out a parcel of land into one hundred and twenty-two lots, commodious streets, places for a court house, market, and public landings for a town ... and made sale ... to divers persons ... desirous to settle and build thereon speedily." Naming the place Portsmouth, he presented it to Norfolk County. In 1752 the general assembly "enacted ... that the said ... parcel of land be ... established a town ... and retain the name of Portsmouth." Among the traders, merchants, and shipbuilders, chiefly Scots, who flocked to the new town, was Andrew Sprowle. Acquiring land immediately to the south, he started the village of Gosport named after the town opposite Portsmouth, England by building a marine yard and tenements for workers. The British Government, recognizing the value of this enterprise, soon took over the yard as a repair station and appointed Andrew Sprowle navy agent. When royal government ended in Virginia in 1775, Governor Dunmore fled to Sprowle's home in Gosport, where he lived "riotously upon his friend." For several months, he rallied Tories and Negroes about him and plundered the countryside, until his defeat at Great Bridge. Immediately afterwards he joined the British fleet, accompanied by Sprowle.
Following the burning of Norfolk in 1776, Dunmore and his Tories took possession of Portsmouth and remained until the eccentric General Charles Lee arrived with his forces, and Dunmore sailed away with his whole following. Finding the town a hotbed of Tories, General Lee, "to quell this Toryism," had the houses "of the most notorious Traitors" demolished. Sprowle's property and the abandoned marine yard were seized. Later, Fort Nelson, named for General Thomas Nelson, was erected on Windmill Point. One May morning of 1779, a great gray British fleet, carrying 2,000 men and commanded by Sir George Collier, anchored in Elizabeth River. General Edward Mathew of the fleet burned Fort Nelson and the marine yard, and the British departed. Portsmouth was the landing place and base for three other invading British expeditions under Leslie, Arnold, and Phillips.
The Revolution had repercussions in Portsmouth. Filled with refugees from burned Norfolk, the town, tolerant at first, soon flamed with indignation. About 1784 "those execrable miscreants called Tories" were told "to leave this town immediately" or "measures" would be taken. Thus banished, the "Tories" went back to ruined Norfolk. In 1784 Andrew Sprowle's confiscated property, Gosport, was divided into lots and made a part of Portsmouth. A decade later, the navy yard, which the State had retained, was lent to the Federal Government, Captain Richard Dale was placed in command, and the keel of a frigate was laid. The Chesapeake, the first ship built by the Federal Government, was completed in 1799. In 1801 the Government purchased the Gosport Navy Yard (now Norfolk Navy Yard) for $12,000. In 1798 a visitor remarked that "one might walk from Portsmouth to Norfolk on the decks of vessels at anchor." In an attempt to take Portsmouth and the navy yard during the War of 1812, the British landed 2,600 men at Port Norfolk (now a part of Portsmouth), but the guns of Fort Nelson and Fort Norfolk stopped the invasion. A fresh onslaught was made on sandy Craney Island, lined with redoubts. Approaching in barges, the British were met with a bombardment that sank several vessels and caused an immediate retreat. After extending its town limits in 1811, Portsmouth witnessed the opening of the Dismal Swamp Canal in 1812, a "boat containing 10,000 shingles" being the first to pass over the mingled waters of Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. In 1821, when the first horse-boat ferry was built, the town was swept by a fire of incendiary origin, but it was soon rebuilt. The land on which Fort Nelson lay was augmented by a 61 acre tract in 1826, the old fort was demolished, and on its site a naval hospital was begun. The town's first railroad was chartered in 1834, and public schools were established in 1846. During this period Portsmouth attended its jockey, cricket, and quoit clubs; frequented racecourses; watched the launching of the Lady of the Lake (1830), which "moved by its own steam" and welcomed such visitors as Andrew Jackson (1833) and Henry Clay (1844). Yellow fever, brought by a ship just returned from the tropics, decimated the inhabitants of Portsmouth in 1855. Of the 4,000 people who remained in the town during the epidemic, 1,089 died. In 1858 Portsmouth was chartered as a city. When Virginia seceded from the Union, the Gosport Navy Yard was evacuated and burned, after which Virginia troops occupied the area. In May 1862 the Confederates burned the navy yard and evacuated the area. Then Federal forces moved in, established martial law in Portsmouth, and again took possession of the navy yard. Another phase of Portsmouth's commercial era began in 1837 with the completion of the Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad. Subsequently this line was incorporated in the Virginia and Carolina Railroad, which in 1900 became the Seaboard Air Line Railway, with its coastal terminus at Portsmouth. Branches of two other railroads, the Atlantic Coast Line and the Southern, bring inland produce to the city. Since taking over the lines of the Atlantic and Danville Railway in 1894, the Southern has built an elaborate system of freight piers on the Western Branch. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Portsmouth started extending its wharves along the water front, and, as necessity demanded, demolished its old houses to make way for modern business establishments.