NEWBURYPORT — A pre-Colonial wharf remnant unearthed during the renovation of the wastewater treatment plant last year has returned home to a hero’s welcome.
The seemingly non-descript piece of wood, buried for decades under a 4-foot layer of mud and fill along the city’s waterfront, was introduced to a crowd of about 80 guests who turned out to the Custom House this month for a celebration of its return.
And it looked a sight better than it did one year ago, when the city stumbled upon it as it was rebuilding the plant, and lifted it piece by piece from a goopy mix of river water, fill and environmentally tainted soil in hopes of learning something from it.
Unveiled at its new home at the Custom House, it doesn’t look like much at first glance, but the 45-inch piece of preserved pitch pine is the only surviving evidence of the network of wharves that once lined our city’s shores before America’s War of Independence.
If one looks closely, visible are the markings made upon the wood by an 18th century saw, and the trunnels that show where the remnant once joined with another in a manner used early on in America’s history. One begins to imagine how this small piece of wood served an important purpose.
“Once it’s pointed out, you can see some of the construction techniques,” explained Custom House curator Kevin MacDonald. “For example, it has a lap joint cut into it — two pieces of timber joined together at right angles — that would have been the construction of the actual wharf at one point. You can see a trunnel — a hole and a peg that would have nailed the two together — the remains of that are on there. And you can see some tool marks from a saw where you can see it was cut with a hand tool as opposed to a steam tool. This gives you an idea of its date.”
The wharf was originally built in 1760, experts believe, by Philip Coombs, a shipbuilder who purchased his waterfront land at the foot of Lime Street in the 1730s. According to an Archaeological Report issued to the city to accompany the wood wharf remnant, Philip and his son, William, traveled to Canada to build ships on behalf of England and America during the French and Indian War. They were captured and held in a French prison, where the elder Coombs passed away. His son William, however, returned home to Newburyport and took up work on the land left to him by his father, expanding the wharf to accommodate a growing business.
“Like every wharf in Newburyport, they were really economic engines of the town,” said MacDonald. “They were used to export and import. The wharves would have a lot of buildings on it — storage and warehouses — where these ships and merchants would come and unload all sorts of goods from all around the world.”
But what made William Coombs’ wharf particularly interesting, said MacDonald, is that Coombs was one of a handful of privateers in the city of Newburyport vested with authority (letters of marque) during the Revolutionary War to seize foreign ships and their cargo.
“Initially, letters of marque were designed to allow people to redress personal wrongs, and Coombs and other Newburyport merchants who had their vessels seized by the British and suffered heavy losses and/or felt constricted by British rule certainly wanted to make up for their losses,” explains the archaeological report, available in its entirety on the city of Newburyport’s website.
“Beyond national waters, the approving authority also encouraged these operations as political tools that allowed engagement with an enemy, even preceding or without an open declaration of war. The Merrimack River gained special importance as a base of operations for Newburyport privateers who captured hundreds of British vessels during the Revolution and the War of 1812.”
Coombs played an integral role in the Revolutionary War, risking his life to embark on what’s considered the first unauthorized importation voyage to purchase gunpowder and munitions from the French island of Guadaloupe on behalf of the Continental Army and Gen. George Washington. Later on in the war, he set out on a second mission when stores of gunpowder in the state had been depleted, and served on numerous safety and tactical committees.
In later years, he rose to financial prominence as a merchant, ship owner, selectman, school committee member and state representative among countless other posts, ranking at one time the fourth wealthiest man in the city.
A diverse investor, he was one of several men in town to be offered the work of constructing a turnpike road from the head of State Street to the Chelsea Bridge, a route we know today as Route 1.
When he was 76, Coombs was lauded for saving the 9-year-old son of Paul Plummer, and the description of the near drowning from a variety of sources speaks to the man as seen by his townsmen.
“Throwing off his hat and wig, William Coombs immediately leaped into the water, caught the child in his arms, and succeeded in rescuing the boy ‘from impending death,’ reads the report. “Subsequently, the trustees of the Merrimac Humane Society awarded Coombs, for his heroic and “distinguished act of humanity,” a gold medal, its highest mark of honor.
An 1863 article in the Newburyport Herald described the event and affirmed Captain William Coombs was a “venerable old man;” the last man in town to wear a wig “of the Revolutionary days” that was a “whitened, full-bottomed one, pasted over with lard and then covered with fine flour.”
This tale, along with other revelations about Coombs and his contemporary William Bartlett, who owned the adjoining wharf, will soon become part of a permanent display at the Custom House. MacDonald believes the installation will be unveiled sometime in January 2014.