“The fathers of Newburyport said, ‘how can we reinvent ourselves,’” Williamson said.
But the economic landscape was changing fast. In the early 1900s, antitrust laws broke up the coal manufacturing industry, which had a ripple effect on Newburyport. In 1928, the enormous coal pocket building caught fire and burned. It took weeks for the fire to go out.
The next few decades would be even harder on the downtown waterfront.
The decline went on and on. Callahan worked as a firefighter based in what was then the city’s firehouse, now the Firehouse Center for the Arts. In the 1950s and 1960s, the waterfront behind the firehouse was mostly a no-man’s land.
“It was a disaster, it really was,” he recalled. “The wharves were falling apart. It was a great hangout for drinkers. Very few people went down there. It was a dumping ground for all kinds of junk. It was not like it is now.”
The area from the Firehouse downstream to the Custom House was particularly bad. It was a tangle of old buildings, junk, and rot. And lots of rats — big rats, Callahan recalled. For young and adventurous Newburyport boys it was a wild playland — mysterious, forbidden and scary. But overall, it was a shunned and dangerous place.
That was one of the reasons why Newburyport embarked on its redevelopment in the 1960s. While the downtown’s historic buildings were rehabbed, the waterfront buildings were not. The land was taken by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority and the buildings were torn down en masse in 1968, with the intent that the area would be completely cleared and redeveloped into retail, condominiums, and a hotel. Some of the buildings torn down were considered historical and worthy of preservation, but efforts to save them failed.
Since the demolition of 1968, there have been many proposals by the NRA to build hotels, condos, and the like. All have failed, but some small pieces of the area have been successfully redeveloped — the waterside park behind the Firehouse and the boardwalk in particular. Most of the land remains open parking lots, land that was once a beehive of commerce.
Today, the NRA is again proposing some development on its waterfront lots. Public sentiment appears to lean toward keeping that land open. Newburyporters have gotten used to having a large swath of clear land on their waterfront.
Newburyport’s great ship captains of the 18th and 19th century would find today’s central waterfront unrecognizable — too quiet, too neat, too big, and too open.