Living around the Merrimack River was not always fun; it was dangerous. Did you know the river has also been known by the people who lived around it as the glass-bottom river?
Through the centuries, sailors, merchants and others carried considerable amounts of liquor and rum on their ships, pulled into the harbor and temporarily settled along the river. They drank their whiskey, and when they finished drinking, they just tossed the bottles over their heads into the water.
There were also many people who lived in this area who would take their bottles of liquor down to the river's edge and drink. They'd toss the empty bottles into the river.
Many years ago, there was no public landfill. The river was the landfill. Donkeys pulled carts, and horses pulled wagons full of all sorts of debris down to the river. Each driver would then get down from atop the wagon or cart and pull a large peg out, which attached the rear of the cart or wagon, releasing it. It would then tip backward and off to its side, emptying its contents right into the river. I personally saw this take place many times.
Where did you think they dumped all the fire debris and demolition debris, etc., through the years? As the old saying goes: "Out of sight, out of mind."
When engineers recently came to Newburyport looking for tunnels and other relics, the only things they found were water-soaked wood and lots of old whiskey bottles, some dating as far back as George Washington's days and earlier. I believe they left the city somewhat in disappointment. However, they didn't realize they'd struck on a unique piece of history ... a bottle ... a valuable antique on the bottom of the river ... a glass-bottom river!
You can dig anywhere there and find bottles and old glass — and new glass — buried in the muck of the river. The bottles tell a story of Newburyport. Each bottle is unique; all are different in size and color. Some bottles are square, some round, some embossed. I, and other wharf rats living and working in the area, would swim in the river during the 1920s and 1930s. When tide was "chuck" high, you couldn't see the bottles 10' to 12' deep at the bottom of the river in the deep mud.
I cut my feet there two different times. They were very bad cuts. Scars still remain under my arches. I recall one time, we jumped in the water and went straight down and landed on piles of broken bottles. I came up, and my feet were both cut under the bottoms of my arches, bleeding profusely. I sat atop the wharf keeping my feet in the water, thinking the bleeding would stop, but it didn't.
I went home, feet bleeding. My mother got a pan of water and put my feet in. A friendly neighbor, another wharf rat, said to my mother, "That's not the way to stop the bleeding." My mother didn't understand. He explained, "You must get peroxide. It will heal the cuts. It's not expensive, but you must have it."
My sister went to Bow Murphy's corner store at Unicorn and Pleasant Streets. Luckily, Bow carried it. She ran back with it. We poured the whole bottle of peroxide in the pan. It stopped the bleeding, and I lay on the couch for a few days. Finally, the cuts healed but left scars. We'd never heard of peroxide until then.
The phrase "glass-bottom river" lasted for years, and was heard into the 1940s, as far as I know. I wonder what else is buried within the muck along all the wharves at the bottom of the Merrimack River in Newburyport.
There was an antique store in Market Square at the head of Water Street. The owner would purchase found items from us for 25 cents and sell them. We wharf rats would occasionally find old bottles, teapots, doorknobs, hinges. I found round doorknobs made out of wood and exquisitely hand-carved. I wonder what those doorknobs — some still lurking in the muck — are worth today.
That day when I cut the bottom of my feet, I realized why it was called "the glass-bottom river." Take warning, even today, when in and around the waters of the Merrimack River. There are still bottles buried and shards of glass still lurking and protruding up through the muck ... waiting.
Rivers are beautiful; they are also dangerous. The river has served the people well, but it always had its counter face. People of today may easily fall victim to the glass, as I did, particularly when it's "chuck" high tide.
There are many people who don't understand this hidden danger. Future developers, builders, boaters, fishermen, swimmers, everyone — take note of the treasures, but be aware of the dangers.
Long live the mighty Merrimack River.
John Lagoulis is a columnist for The Daily News and writes about Newburyport as he lived it, particularly in the early 1900s. John is 92 and has recently authored and self-published Volume I of "Newburyport: As I Lived It!" He has also produced a DVD, "Recollections of Newburyport in the 1920s and 1930s." You may visit him at www.NewburyportWharfRat.com or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.