NEWBURYPORT – The Maritime Days event hosted by the Custom House Maritime Museum was created in part to develop a greater appreciation of local nautical history.

One of the first signs this community would be dedicated to the sea came in 1764, when what is known as Newburyport broke away from Newbury.

The "water-siders" who lived near the river's commercial center petitioned to separate from the farmers who lived inland because they said their future lay in shipbuilding and trade. So, a maritime community was born.

Newburyport thrived on shipbuilding. Many who had come from England to settle in Newbury (1635) were carpenters or woodsmen. Newburyport also had access to a seemingly endless supply of lumber. Forests lay on both sides of the Merrimack River for up to 100 miles to the west, and there was never a lack of timber for shipbuilding.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison noted that in 1806, "176 vessels were registered in this community. In addition, there were 66 fishing craft."

A later estimate by local historian E. Vale Smith said that in 1834 (a high point for the community), "there were 28 ships, (a type of vessel, not a general term); 26 brigs, 145 schooners, 4 barques, and four sloops in the district of Newburyport. Most were locally owned."

The port was a center of international trade. Here is a description from the late local historian, John J. Currier:

"From 1784 to 1794, there were many vessels arriving in Newburyport from Guadeloupe, Port au Prince, St. Martins and Suriname with cargoes of molasses, sugar, coffee and cotton. Also, there were ships from Madeira with wine, from Turk's Island or Cadiz with salt, from Ireland with linen, from Rotterdam with gunpowder, from Dunkirk with earthenware and carpeting, from Bilbao with silk handkerchiefs, silk gloves and glass ware."

Merchants in Newburyport exported lumber, fish and ice, and customers in the West Indies were active buyers.

Merchants here were very patriotic. But they paid for it. 

Currier said that from 1775 to 1783, the local shipowner Nathaniel Tracy "was the principal owner of 110 merchant vessels. Of this total only 13 were left at the end of the war, all the rest taken by the enemy or lost." 

Tracy took many enemy vessels and he had more back at the dock.

While the federal government pays for war costs in the modern age, Tracy was a private citizen who lost much in the service of his country. He lived a humble existence at the end of his life and his last home is now the public library on State Street.

Perhaps because Newburyport was a vital center during the Revolutionary War, national leaders steered business this way following the American Revolution.

In 1789, President George Washington and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton determined they would generate money for the national treasury by collecting tariffs in ports along the Atlantic.

Ten "revenue cutters" were commissioned to patrol harbors and collect money.

Two of the 10 were built in Newburyport and the first cutter, the Massachusetts, was constructed here.

The revenue cutters eventually became the basis of the U.S. Coast Guard, and Newburyport is considered the birthplace of the Coast Guard because of its production of those ships.

In 1853, the swift clipper ship Dreadnaught was built here and went on to set a record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic — nine days. There is a stone monument today at the base of Ashland and Merrimac streets that notes this once-famous achievement.

Besides shipbuilding and merchant shipping, fishing was a key industry.

Over the years, hundreds of fishing schooners, such as the Alabama and Adventure, worked out of Newburyport.

Men entering the fishing trade generally were the uneducated and unskilled, in part because this was such a dangerous occupation that didn't pay well.

Boats were frequently lost, and it was said there were more orphans here than in most inland communities.

During the "Yankee gale" in 1851, 92 fishing vessels from the North Shore were destroyed in a sudden Atlantic storm. Twenty-four of the craft were from Newburyport, and their loss meant misery and destitution for numerous families.

Newburyport became a leading port despite having a very narrow and shallow harbor.

The entrance has been altered over the years but records at the Maritime Museum reflect that scores of wrecks occurred off Plum Island and Salisbury Point. 

Because of frequent wrecks, the community was an early adapter of lifesaving methods.

Even on good days, captains would have to fight a strong river current while sailing through a section of the river that might not be deep enough for the ship — depending on the tide.

Today, the depth is about 16 feet, according to harbormaster Paul Hogg, but many "modern" tall ships draw 20 feet or more.

Historians say that one of the reasons the city's shipbuilding trade declined was that ships got too large for the harbor. A ship of sail weighing 500 tons or more might be able to leave at high tide but it could not return weighed down with cargo.

One of the last large wooden ships of sail, the Symington, was built here in 1893.

Newburyport shipbuilders didn't move into the construction of metal steam vessels in the late 19th century because they were too heavy to leave or re-enter the harbor.

Dyke Hendrickson can be reached at 978-961-3149 or at dhendrickson@newburyportnews.com

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