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.