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Portsmouth, Virginia facts for kids

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Portsmouth, Virginia
Downtown Portsmouth on the Elizabeth River
Downtown Portsmouth on the Elizabeth River
Flag of Portsmouth, Virginia
Location in the Commonwealth of Virginia
Location in the Commonwealth of Virginia
Portsmouth, Virginia is located in the United States
Portsmouth, Virginia
Portsmouth, Virginia
Location in the United States
Country  United States
State  Virginia
Founded 1752
 • Type Council–manager
 • Total 46.68 sq mi (120.91 km2)
 • Land 33.30 sq mi (86.25 km2)
 • Water 13.38 sq mi (34.66 km2)
20 ft (6 m)
 • Total 97,915
 • Density 2,940.39/sq mi (1,135.29/km2)
Time zone UTC−5 (EST)
 • Summer (DST) UTC−4 (EDT)
ZIP Codes
Area code(s) 757, 948 (planned)
FIPS code 51-64000
GNIS feature ID 1497102

Portsmouth is an independent city in Virginia southwest and across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk. As of the 2020 census, the population was 97,915. It is part of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area.

The Norfolk Naval Shipyard and Naval Medical Center Portsmouth are historic and active U.S. Navy facilities located in Portsmouth.


Portsmouth is located on the western side of the Elizabeth River directly across from the City of Norfolk. In 1620, the future site of Portsmouth was recognized as suitable shipbuilding location by John Wood, a shipbuilder, who petitioned King James I of England for a land grant. The surrounding area was soon settled as a plantation community.

Historical Collections of Virginia - Portsmouth
Harbor at Portsmouth in 1843; the Naval Hospital is visible in the background

Portsmouth was founded by Colonel William Crawford, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. It was established as a town in 1752 by an act of the Virginia General Assembly and was named for Portsmouth, England.

In 1767, Andrew Sprowle, a shipbuilder, founded the Gosport Shipyard adjacent to Portsmouth. The Gosport Shipyard at Portsmouth was owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia after the American Revolutionary War and was sold to the new United States federal government.

In 1855, the Portsmouth and Norfolk area suffered an epidemic of yellow fever which killed 1 of every three citizens. It became an independent city from Norfolk County in 1858.

During the American Civil War, in 1861, Virginia joined the Confederate States of America. Fearing that the Confederacy would take control of the shipyard at Portsmouth, the shipyard commander ordered the burning of the shipyard. The Confederate forces did in fact take over the shipyard, and did so without armed conflict through an elaborate ruse orchestrated by civilian railroad builder William Mahone (soon to become a famous Confederate officer). The Union forces withdrew to Fort Monroe across Hampton Roads, which was the only land in the area which remained under Union control.

In early 1862, the Confederate ironclad warship CSS Virginia was rebuilt using the burned-out hulk of USS Merrimack. Virginia engaged the Union ironclad USS Monitor in the famous Battle of Hampton Roads during the Union blockade of Hampton Roads. The Confederates burned the shipyard again when they left in May 1862.

Following the recapture of Norfolk and Portsmouth by the Union forces, the name of the shipyard was changed to Norfolk Naval Shipyard. The name of the shipyard was derived from its location in Norfolk County. The Norfolk Naval Shipyard today is located entirely within the city limits of Portsmouth, Virginia. The Norfolk Naval Shipyard name has been retained to minimize any confusion with the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which itself is actually located in Kittery, Maine, across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The Lightship Portsmouth is part of the Naval Shipyard Museum

Portsmouth was the county seat of Norfolk County until 1963 when the new city of Chesapeake was formed in a political consolidation with the city of South Norfolk. Portsmouth's other county neighbor, the former Nansemond County, also consolidated with a smaller city, forming the new city of Suffolk in 1974.

One of the older cities of Hampton Roads, in the early 21st century, Portsmouth was undergoing moderate urban renewal in the downtown.

The APM "MAERSK" marine terminal for container ships opened in 2007 in the West Norfolk section.

Historic sites

Portsmouth Courthouse, former Norfolk County Courthouse, in Olde Towne Portsmouth, Virginia
Built in 1846, the Portsmouth Courthouse is a historic landmark in the center of the Olde Towne Historic District.

Olde Towne

The Olde Towne Historic District features one of the largest collections of historically significant homes between Alexandria, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was built by slaves and free men and is the second-oldest building in Portsmouth and the city's oldest black church.

The city contains a number of other historic buildings, as well, including the Pass House, which was built in 1841 by Judge James Murdaugh and occupied by Union troops from 1862 to 1865. Federal forces required Portsmouth residents to obtain a written pass to travel across the Elizabeth River and beyond. These passes were issued from the English basement and thus the name "Pass House" was derived.

Naval Medical Center Portsmouth

Formerly the Naval Hospital Portsmouth, the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth is a United States Navy medical center adjacent to the Olde Towne Historic District and Park View Historic District. Founded in 1827, it is the oldest continuously running hospital in the Navy medical system with the motto "First and Finest."

Seaboard Coastline Building

Located at 1 High Street in the Olde Towne Historic District, the Seaboard Coastline Building is a historic train station and former headquarters of the Seaboard Air Line railroad company.

The Hill House

Four-story 1825 English basement home furnished entirely with original family belongings. It is evident from the furnishings that the Hill family were avid collectors and lived graciously over a period of 150 years. The house remains in its original condition, with limited renovation through the years.

Cedar Grove Cemetery

Established in 1832, Cedar Grove Cemetery is the oldest city-owned cemetery in Portsmouth. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places listings in Portsmouth, Virginia, the cemetery is noted for its funerary art and the civic, business, maritime, religious and military leaders who are buried there. Historical markers placed throughout the cemetery allow for self-guided tours. The cemetery is located between Effingham Street and Fort Lane in Olde Towne Portsmouth. Entrance is through the south gate to the cemetery, located on London Boulevard.


Newport news norfolk portsmouth
Newport News, Hampton, Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia from space in July 1996. (Portsmouth is in the center right portion of the photo)

According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 47 square miles (120 km2), of which 34 square miles (88 km2) is land and 13 square miles (34 km2) (28.0%) is water.


Portsmouth's mild humid subtropical climate means outdoor activities can be enjoyed year round. The weather in Portsmouth is temperate and seasonal. Summers are hot and humid with warm evenings. The mean annual temperature is 65 °F (18 °C), with an average annual snowfall of 3 inches and an average annual rainfall of 47 inches. No measurable snow fell in 1999. The wettest seasons are the spring and summer, although rainfall is fairly constant all year round. The highest recorded temperature was 105.0 °F in 1980. The lowest recorded temperature was -3.0 °F on January 21, 1985.

Additionally, the geographic location of the city, with respect to the principal storm tracks, is especially favorable, as it is south of the average path of storms originating in the higher latitudes, and north of the usual tracks of hurricanes and other major tropical storms. Snow falls rarely, averaging 3 inches (76 mm) per season.


Historical population
Census Pop.
1840 6,477
1850 8,626 33.2%
1860 9,496 10.1%
1870 10,590 11.5%
1880 11,390 7.6%
1890 13,268 16.5%
1900 17,427 31.3%
1910 33,190 90.5%
1920 54,387 63.9%
1930 45,704 −16.0%
1940 50,745 11.0%
1950 80,039 57.7%
1960 114,773 43.4%
1970 110,963 −3.3%
1980 104,577 −5.8%
1990 103,910 −0.6%
2000 100,565 −3.2%
2010 95,535 −5.0%
2020 97,915 2.5%
U.S. Decennial Census
1790-1960 1900-1990
1990-2000 2010-2013

2020 census

Portsmouth city, Virginia - Demographic Profile
(NH = Non-Hispanic)
Race / Ethnicity Pop 2010 Pop 2020 % 2010 % 2020
White alone (NH) 38,526 34,912 40.33% 35.66%
Black or African American alone (NH) 50,327 51,586 52.68% 52.68%
Native American or Alaska Native alone (NH) 379 355 0.40% 0.36%
Asian alone (NH) 994 1,244 1.04% 1.27%
Pacific Islander alone (NH) 104 134 0.11% 0.14%
Some Other Race alone (NH) 118 490 0.12% 0.50%
Mixed Race/Multi-Racial (NH) 2,168 4,781 2.27% 4.88%
Hispanic or Latino (any race) 2,919 4,413 3.06% 4.51%
Total 95,535 97,915 100.00% 100.00%

Note: the US Census treats Hispanic/Latino as an ethnic category. This table excludes Latinos from the racial categories and assigns them to a separate category. Hispanics/Latinos can be of any race.

2010 Census

USA Portsmouth city, Virginia age pyramid
Age distribution in Portsmouth

As of the 2010 census, there were 95,535 people, 38,170 households, and 25,497 families residing in the city. The population density was 3,032.7 people per square mile (1,170.9/km2). There were 41,605 housing units at an average density of 1,254.7 per square mile (484.4/km2). The racial makeup of the city was 53.3% African American, 41.6% White, 0.4% Native American, 1.1% Asian, 0.1% Pacific Islander, 1.0% from other races, and 2.6% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 3.1% of the population.

There were 38,170 households, out of which 30.6% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 41.1% were married couples living together, 10.9% have a female household with no husband present and 33.2% were non-families. 27.5% of all households were made up of individuals, and 10.8% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.51 and the average family size was 3.05.

In the city, the population was spread out, with 25.7% under the age of 18, 11.1% from 18 to 24, 29.1% from 25 to 44, 20.3% from 45 to 64, and 13.8% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 34 years. For every 100 females, there were 93.5 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 90.6 males.

The median income for a household in the city was $46,340, and the median income for a family was $53,769. Males had a median income of $39,871 versus $33,140 for females. The per capita income for the city was $23,108. About 13.5% of families and 16.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 27.1% of those under age 18 and 10.8% of those age 65 or over.

Arts and culture


Portsmouth has a long history as a port town and city. The Olde Towne Business and Historical District is located in the downtown area, where a combination of preservation and redevelopment has been underway. An example is Hawthorn Hotel & Suites at The Governor Dinwiddie Hotel, which was renovated and reopened in 2005 after being closed for more than 10 years. It has been recognized by Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historical Preservation that identifies hotels that have maintained their historical integrity, architecture and ambiance and provides resources for their preservation. (Dinwiddie County near Petersburg was also named for him).

Other points of interest include the Portsmouth City Park, featuring the 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge Portsmouth City Railroad with an operating Chance Rides C.P. Huntington locomotive named Pokey Smokey II. The original Pokey Smokey locomotive was built by Crown Metal Products and ran at the park for many years before being sold at auction. It now runs on the Mideast Railroad in Ederville in Carthage, North Carolina.

Sister cities


The Portsmouth Cavaliers were a basketball team founded in 2010 and played in the American Basketball Association for the 2011–12 season. Based in Portsmouth, Virginia, the Cavaliers played their home games at the Chick-fil-A Fieldhouse on the campus of Portsmouth Catholic Regional School. The club spent one season in the American Professional Basketball League (APBL) before folding.

Each April since 1953, the city hosts the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, where college basketball seniors play in front of scouts from the NBA and top European leagues. Many top basketball stars played in the PIT before successful pro careers, including Jimmy Butler, Scottie Pippin, Dennis Rodman, and John Stockton.


Primary and secondary schools

Portsmouth Public Schools operates public schools. There are three public high schools in Portsmouth, Virginia, located at three corners of the city. In the northwest section of the city, off Cedar Lane, is Churchland High School. In the downtown section of the city, between London Blvd and High Street, is I.C. Norcom High School. In the southwest section of Portsmouth, on Elmhurst Lane, is Manor High School.

Higher education

There are a number of institutions of higher education in and in close proximity to Portsmouth. The city is home to the Tri-Cities Higher Education Center of Old Dominion University (ODU), a public research university founded in 1930 whose main campus is located in Norfolk, Virginia. Portsmouth is also home to the Fred W. Beazley Portsmouth Campus of Tidewater Community College, a two-year higher education institution founded in 1968 in South Hampton Roads with additional campuses located in Chesapeake, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach. Angelos Bible College was established in 1984.



From the earliest development, Portsmouth has been oriented to the water. In the 1830s, it was the first community in Hampton Roads to receive a new land transportation innovation, railroad service. The Portsmouth and Roanoke Railroad, a predecessor of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, extended to the rapids of the Roanoke River on its fall line near Weldon, North Carolina. It was to be 20 more years before its bigger neighbor, the city of Norfolk, also received a rail line, in 1858, when the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad was completed. The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad operated passenger trains #36 and #5 to and from its North Portsmouth Station to Rocky Mount, North Carolina until 1954. In earlier years ACL ran trains including the Tar Heel all the way south to Wilmington, North Carolina.

Seaboard RR Terminal Portsmouth VA
Seaboard Terminal, which served passenger trains until 1968.

From Seaboard Terminal the Seaboard Air Line and then the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad operated #17 and #18 to and from Raleigh, North Carolina, where the train joined with those companies' Silver Comet. The SAL also operated a local all-coach train (#3-11 southbound/#6-10 northbound) to Atlanta from the terminal. The 17/18 trains ended in 1968.

Portsmouth is primarily served by the Norfolk International Airport (IATA: ORFICAO: KORFFAA LID: ORF), now the region's major commercial airport. The airport is located near Chesapeake Bay, along the city limits of neighboring Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Seven airlines provide nonstop services to twenty-five destinations. ORF had 3,703,664 passengers take off or land at its facility and 68,778,934 pounds of cargo were processed through its facilities. Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (IATA: PHFICAO: KPHFFAA LID: PHF) also provides commercial air service for the Hampton Roads area. The Chesapeake Regional Airport provides general aviation services and is located five miles (8 km) outside the city limits.

In the 21st century, the city has access to lines of CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern and three short line railroads. Amtrak provides service to points along the Northeast Corridor from Newport News station across the Hampton Roads, and from Norfolk station across the Elizabeth River.

Portsmouth is served by Interstate 264 and Interstate 664, which is part of the Hampton Roads Beltway. U.S. Route 17 and U.S. Route 58 pass through. The Elizabeth River is crossed via the Midtown Tunnel, the Downtown Tunnel and Berkley Bridge combination.

Transportation within the city, as well as the other cities of Hampton Roads, is served by a regional bus service, Hampton Roads Transit.

Notable people

  • V. C. Andrews (1923-1986), bestselling novelist
  • James P. Berkeley (1907-1985), USMC general and expert in Military communications
  • Marty Brennaman (1942-), long-time Cincinnati Reds radio broadcaster
  • Ruth Brown (1928-2006), R&B singer and actress
  • John T. Casteen III (1943-), President of the University of Virginia, born in Portsmouth
  • Deborah Coleman (1956–2018), blues musician
  • Fanny Murdaugh Downing (1831-1894), author and poet
  • Jamin Elliott (1979-), former NFL wide receiver with the Chicago Bears, New England Patriots, and Atlanta Falcons
  • Missy Elliott (1971-), recording artist, award-winning producer, singer-songwriter, dancer, actress and clothing line designer
  • Perry Ellis (1940-1986), fashion designer, founded a sportswear house in the mid-1970s
  • Dorian Finney-Smith (1993-), Professional basketball player for the Dallas Mavericks
  • Mordechai Gifter (1915-2001), among the foremost American religious leaders of Orthodox Jewry in the late 20th century
  • Melvin Gregg (1988-), American actor and model
  • Chandler Harper, (1914-2004), winner of the 1950 PGA golf championship
  • Ken Hatfield, classical guitarist
  • James W. Holley III (1926-2012), politician, first African-American mayor of any city in the Hampton Roads region (Portsmouth)
  • W. Nathaniel "Nat" Howell (1939-2020), State Dept. Foreign Service officer, former Ambassador to Kuwait; Professor emeritus, the University of Virginia
  • Chad Hugo (1974-), American record producer and songwriter
  • Ben Jones (1941-), actor "Cooter" on The Dukes of Hazzard; U.S. Congressman, moved to Portsmouth as a child
  • Jillian Kesner-Graver (1949-2007), actress
  • Jack T. Kirby (1938-2009), historian of the southern United States, awarded the Bancroft Prize for his 2006 book Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South
  • Erik S. Kristensen (1972-2005), US Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander and highest decorated SEAL to be killed in Operation Red Wings
  • Rita Lavelle (1947–), assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • Nathan McCall (1955-), African-American author who grew up in the Cavalier Manor section of Portsmouth, Virginia
  • Pete Mikolajewski (1943-), football player
  • James Murphy (1967-), metal guitarist, member of the bands Death, Testament, Obituary and Disincarnate
  • Wendell Cushing Neville (1870-1930), 14th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps
  • Tommy Newsom (1929-2007), assistant bandleader for the Johnny Carson Band
  • Patton Oswalt (1969-), writer, stand-up comedian, and actor
  • John L. Porter (1813-1893), President of the first City Council, a naval constructor for United States Navy and the Confederate States Navy.
  • Dave Robertson (1889-1970), MLB outfielder 1912–22, played in World Series for New York Giants; born in Portsmouth
  • William Russ (1950-), actor
  • Dave Smith (1942-), poet, novelist
  • Wanda Sykes (1964-), writer, stand-up comedian, and actress
  • Ted Thomas, Sr. (1935-2020), Pentecostal African-American preacher, pastor of New Community Temple Church of God in Christ
  • Mike Watt (1957-), bassist, singer and songwriter
  • Nicole Wray(1979-), R&B singer and songwriter

Images for kids

See also

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