, Newburyport, MA

Local News

March 10, 2014

A waterfront 'boomtown'

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


“Raw sewage was dumped into the river by diffusion,” William said.

Even Market Square — now the attractive center of the city — had it problems. Where the Firehouse Center for the Arts stands today was a strip of public land that was called a “shambles” — a ramshackle of butcheries that caused such a health problem for the city, they were torn down and replaced with a brick marketplace building in 1823.

Newburyport’s heyday lasted 20 years, roughly from 1790 to 1811. It’s during that period that most of the city’s great mansions were built, its population in the North End and South End surged, its shipyards boomed and its warehouses bulged.

The year 1811 marked a major disaster — most of the downtown burned. The following year, America declared war on Great Britain, and the War of 1812 took a heavy toll on Newburyport shipping. The boomtimes weren’t over, but the downtown waterfront would never be quite the same again.

The great fill

The year 1872 marked a major milestone for the waterfront.

Williamson noted that shipbuilding and shipping was evolving, and the downtown waterfront area was not able to accommodate the larger ships. The river was too shallow here. The shipyards moved upriver a mile or so, to the area of the Ferraz Shawmut factory on Merrimac Street, where the deep river channel comes close to the shore.

The waterfront tied its future to a new technology — locomotive trains. In 1872, the city started the process of filling in the area where the wharves and mudflats were, in order to accommodate train yards and shipping. Large new areas of land were created and developed with commercial buildings. The largest of them was the enormous “coal pocket” building that stood near where the Harbormaster shack is today. It dominated the waterfront skyline. It stored coal brought in by ships, which was offloaded onto railway cars and shipped throughout New England.

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