, Newburyport, MA

Local News

March 10, 2014

A waterfront 'boomtown'

Port's serene 'open' waterfront was once crowded, loud, dangerous

Editor’s note: As Newburyport celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, The Daily News is publishing a series of stories that look back at the city’s legacy and history. Today, we focus on the city’s commercial waterfront along the Merrimack River.

Newburyporters have gotten used to an open waterfront along their downtown shoreline, a place where babystrollers mingle with benchsitters and casual walkers, all enjoying the view along a straight and neatly treelined boardwalk.

Turn back the clock a century or more ago, and none of them — walkers, sitters, or babies — would have felt welcome here. This was a crowded, loud, dirty, busy, smelly, bawdy and in later years a somewhat dangerous place, thick with buildings perched on wharves that stretched far out into the Merrimack River. Vessels came and went from ports all over the world, and the riverside rang loud with the clang and bang of shipbuilding yards that lined the shore.

In local historian Ghlee Woodworth’s comprehensive online guide to historic Newburyport, she notes a description Newburyporter Minnie Atkinson (1868-1958) made of the waterfront of old:

“From time to time, as I have thought of the past of Newburyport, I seem to see a brisk but sorely puzzled little old lady whose wraith-like figure flits about the old shipyards and hurries through the narrow old streets as if lost. She seems to look here and there for the sail lofts, the mast yards, the rope walks, and the places of all the other craftsmen and merchants that once fitted her vessels for voyages to all the seas there are. Avoiding what was harsh to the ears and laborious to the workers, she lifts her aristocratic nose for the odors that used to linger about the wharves and the lower part of the city and which the east wind would send through every street. They were the odors of tea and molasses, of spice and rum, of oakum and new lumber, of bales of Indian cotton and French silks, of brandy and wine, of tar and brown sugar, of coffee and salt — the blended odors of merchandise from all the world.”

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