The waterfront of the 1700s through the 1970s was no place for a pleasant Sunday stroll. But without it, there would be no Newburyport. It was the economic engine that created immense wealth for some Newburyporters, and steady jobs and decent incomes for thousands of others.
Jay Williamson, director of the Historical Society of Old Newbury, said the genesis of the city’s shipbuilding can be traced to the rich fishing grounds offshore. The gently sloping riverfront land was suited for the building of small ships. It was good business, and it quickly grew.
“Back in the 1720-50s, this was when Newburyport was like a start-up company,” he said. “This was like a boomtown.”
By 1764, when Newburyport officially split from Newbury, the waterfront was vibrant and growing. Shipyards lined the shore, and they in turn attracted related businesses — rope manufacturers, sailmakers, pump makers, flag stitchers, to name a few. Newburyport was also a merchant port, with a steady stream of goods being sent and received. The long wharves were crowded with buildings, including warehouses that were stuffed with goods.
An excerpt from the History of Essex County, published in 1889, gives a flavor for what a walk along the waterfront was like during the height of the city’s seafaring days, prior to the War of 1812. It describes the scene at Moses Brown’s wharf, located where the Black Cow restaurant stands today:
“If we take a look down the Brown Wharf, as it was in ‘ye olden time,’ we come first to his counting room on the right, in which half a dozen of clerks and employees were busy. On the left hand is his distillery, in full blast, changing his molasses to New England rum.”
“As we pass down, we see his blacksmith shop on one side and his cooper shop on the other, and farther down where his riggers, the Pipers, did work, and on the floor above, Sailmaker Haynes is cutting the canvas... ships from the Baltic and the Mediterranean Seas, and barques and brigs from the West Indies could be seen unloading their cargoes. Within sight there is a full acre of molasses in casks, and along the sides of the piers are ships and brigs and schooners, loading or unloading or waiting in the stream for a chance to reach the wharves.”