New England on a Pedestal

102. Vigilance

September 09, 2021 Doug Season 1 Episode 2
New England on a Pedestal
102. Vigilance
Show Notes Transcript

Travel with us to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where we begin our exploration with a stunning statue outside of the Portsmouth Fire Department. 

Hello and welcome to another episode of the New England on a Pedestal podcast. I am your host, Doug Farquharson.  If you have returned after listening to our first episode, The Starter, thanks for giving us another chance! And if this is your first visit, please consider going back and listening to our first go round. I think you will enjoy it.  In that first episode, we were in Hopkinton, Massachusetts exploring some of the history around the Boston Marathon through statues found at or near the start line and along its route as the race winds its way into the city.

The concept behind New England on a Pedestal is rather simple. Travel around our six-state area, find some interesting statues and discuss them. We have a growing database of statues and monuments that we will be covering over time, but we certainly do not know all of them. That is where you can assist us. Shoot us an email at and tell us about a favorite or unique or odd statue you know. If you have additional information or maybe a correction about something we have already shared, please send it our way and perhaps, we will add an addendum to a later episode.

So, here we are at the beginning of episode two. We are headed a bit north from our last stop. We hopped in the trusty old Wrangler and drove up Route 495, merging onto 95 and crossing the border into New Hampshire. Just before the Piscataqua River and the bridge crossing into Maine, we take the exit and travel into Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It is an old port city with a long history and a fantastic downtown area with many wonderful restaurants, pubs, and music venues. It is a great weekend getaway destination.

Years ago, I stumbled upon the subject of this episode while looking for a place to park near the performing arts center where Gaelic Storm were about to take the stage. Being a fire fighter myself, I figured the guys at the fire house would point me in the right direction and they did. My Portsmouth brothers had me park out back and it was on my walk over to the concert hall that I first saw this unique and moving statue. I was running late, so the statue would have to wait until another time. Well, that took more time than I thought. It was not until a year or two later that I was again in front of the Portsmouth Fire Department’s Central Station on Court St and looking at the monument to fire fighters and the fire service that had originally caught my eye. I am glad I came back to it. It is a stunning piece of artwork.

Vigilance in Portsmouth, NH

The Portsmouth Fire Department’s Central Station at 170 Court St is a few short blocks from the waterfront and in an area of town rife with historical buildings. It was built in 1919 and serves as home to several companies as well as the department’s administration and fire prevention branches. 

When we recently visited here during the research for this episode, the firehouse, statue, and property next door were all under construction and renovations. The statue itself was behind a fence and barrier and could not be well seen. Hopefully, that will change soon.

Incorporating two 400 lb. bronze figures, 6000 bricks, and 600 gallons of water, Vigilance is a thirteen-foot-tall monument sitting just to the front and side of the old firehouse. It was dedicated October 15, 2009, as part of the city’s campaign to bring public art to the downtown area. Originally, a previously existing statue was going to be moved to this location when a new quarters was being built for the fire department’s Station 2. However, the city opted to have that statue remain with the Station 2 companies in their new home. Renowned New Hampshire artist Emile Birch is behind the stunning design, which he has said “is based on the concept of the enduring gift of vigilance: “To be always on watch.””  He said he was inspired by his hometown fire station and watching fire fighters responding to emergencies as they raced past his house.

In the center of the piece is a tall brick archway illuminated by amber lighting from below the fountain’s flowing water. On one side, is a fire fighter from days gone by wearing a long rubber coat and pull up boots, wielding a pick head axe. His vintage helmet bears the name of one of the original firefighting companies, Kearsarge. He represents Portsmouth’s long history of firefighting. On the other side of the archway and wearing more modern bunker gear is a fire fighter of today with the responsibility of protecting the future. He carries a set of irons, meaning he is holding an interlocked flat head axe and a Halligan tool. His helmet bears the number 9, representing the year 2009. The fountain and lighting represent fire and water. Birch said in an interview with Seacoast Online that his goal was to “express symbolically the bravery and fortitude that is, and forever has been, necessary to continue the fight of quenching the flame, knowing full well it will never be extinguished completely and will surely show its treachery again.” 

Statues and sculptures, like most artwork, can evoke different feelings and different meanings to different people. When I look upon Vigilance and see the two fire fighters from two different eras both looking at and preparing to enter opposite sides of the same entryway, I see that the firefighter of the past has built the foundation for those of us on the job now. His sacrifices make our job easier and safer today. I see that the modern-day fire fighter has the responsibility to those who came before him to carry on the traditions of the fire service and carry the flag forward building upon what came before us and protecting our cities and towns for the future. The stories and lessons learned by the old guys are invaluable to the probies and the new generations of jakes. Today’s fire fighters need to be there and take care of their retired brothers and sisters and their families.  It’s all about the fire service brotherhood. I think the statue has different meanings to different people and can be looked at from several angles. It really is quite the interesting piece of artwork!

The sculptor, Emile Birch hails from Canaan, NH and is responsible for many public art sculptures throughout the Granite State including The Sunapee Mandala at Sunapee Park, The Founders Gate in Exeter, The New Hampshire Law Enforcement Officers Memorial at the statehouse in Concord, and Pollyanna in Littleton. These are all entered into our ever expanding database and will likely be discussed in future episodes.

Vigilance is not the only statue to be found outside a PFD station.  Station 2 at 3010 Lafayette Rd which covers the southern portion of the city, is the home of Rusty. Rusty was moved here to his present location in 2010 when the District 2 companies moved into their new quarters. As mentioned earlier, once Rusty was given the go ahead to move to his new home on Lafayette Rd, the planning process and competition to create Vigilance began. Peter Happny, a city blacksmith sculpted the metal figure and the city dedicated it in 1994. The statue depicts a fire fighter rescuing a child while descending a ladder. Why call it “Rusty?” Well, apparently, the metal was designed to rust over time and thus the name.

Just down the road a piece from the Court St firehouse, is the African Burying Ground on Chestnut St. It is a memorial park on the site of an 18th century cemetery for freed and enslaved Africans. Several sets of remains were unearthed during a city maintenance project in 2003. Over the course of several years, work was done to confirm the remains were of African descent and by finding and using historic maps, confirming that there once was a burying ground at that location. A committee was formed with the intent on constructing a suitable monument and park on the site. The memorial park was dedicated in 2015 and the remains were reinterred. It is a somber and moving park. It is well worth a visit there and will be the subject of a future episode of New England on a Pedestal.

There are several other pieces of public art of interest in the area as well, including the Foundry Place Garage Project. It’s a roughly ten-minute walk northwest of Vigilance. The two art pieces here are a testament to the history of foundries and the local businesses that were part of building America and of Portsmouth’s shipbuilding heritage. Spanning most of the garage’s five story stairwell is a glass etching of two foundry workers toiling away done by Maine artist Seth Palmeter. “Working” by Terrance Parker, also of Maine, consists of three large steel hammer heads minus their handles. They appear to be working on a large pulley wheel and railway tracks. It is an interpretive sculpture capturing the human work experience in the local foundries producing the tools and materials that pushed an industrial revolution.

Over on Market St Extension is an interesting museum dedicated to the submarine the USS Albacore. She was an experimental boat that helped make the transition from the old diesel electric subs of WW II to the sleek nuclear attack subs of the modern Navy. There is a beautiful statue of a dolphin in the garden area out front. 

Now an area for picnicking, the Four Tree Island Recreational Area off Mercy St was once supposedly the site of a house of ill repute that sailors and others could reach by a small ferry boat. The story goes that the operator would charge just fifty cents for the ride over but the ride back would cost you five dollars! Today, and interesting sculpture by Cabot Lyford depicts a whale’s tail and a human face with an inscription that reads “For those that sailed here to find a new life.”

And like most large New England cities with long histories, you can find numerous other statues and monuments dedicated to local war veterans, founding fathers, and industrialists. You can find a list of interesting sites on the official website for the City of Portsmouth.

And so, we come to the end of Episode 2, Vigilance. This episode covered a monument that holds a personal connection for me and one that really moved me the first time I saw it all those years ago. Are there statues or monuments that have moved you? What was it about them that made you react the way you did? I’d love to hear what your reaction is if you visit the Court St firehouse.

If you do find yourself in Portsmouth, bring your appetite! There are some wonderful restaurants all within walking distance of Vigilance. New England on a Pedestal is not sponsored by any of them, but hey, if they’re listening, we open to discussing it! Breakfast or brunch must be had at The Friendly Toast on Congress Street. Incredible meals and a fantastic cocktail selection. All very creative! And if local craft beer is your thing, you need to stop into Portsmouth Brewing on Market St. There’s a lot to enjoy in this town!

We would love to hear from you. Let us know what you think. What we are doing right? What we can do better? Let us know of a statue with a story near and dear to you. We can be reached via email at That’s New England on a Pedestal all one word at F A R Q I E dot com.  Go to Facebook and like the New England on a Pedestal page. Follow us on Instagram. We will be posting photos and links on those social media platforms and on the New England on a Pedestal page at as well.

It takes a lot of effort and a lot of people to produce something like these podcasts. I want to acknowledge the equipment help from Alec of Hello Generic video fame and the social media savvy and marketing help from Bekka over at the Happy Pixie Dust podcast. The New England on a Pedestal logo was designed by Natick artist Jason Cheeseman-Meyer. The theme music is by local musician Sam Checkoway and was recorded, mixed, and mastered by Jake Checkoway of Honest Face Records. I want to thank my wife Gail, Ethan, Steffani, and Max for their help and support in getting this podcast up and running.

Join us next episode when we venture north to the Pine Tree State and another of my favorite quick getaway cities, Portland. Until next time, be safe, be well, and keep discovering. Thanks for joining us!