Newburyport is a city with a long and rich history. A city where historic preservation has been the key to economic revitalization. A city whose foundation is based on maritime trade. A city who values its historic sites.
Newburyport has a long and rich history. Located on the south bank of the Merrimack River before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean, the area was originally inhabited by the Pawtucket Indians. It was settled in the 1630’s by European immigrants who founded the city of Newbury. The small port of Newbury was quickly settled and became a fishing and trading center with the rest of Newbury turning to agricultural pursuits.
Newburyport breaks from Newbury
By 1764, the port was so prosperous and densely settled that it broke off from Newbury to become Newburyport. Maritime trade fueled the city’s economy, sparking extraordinary building activity in the decades following.
In 1811, a catastrophic fire leveled the downtown. That event, coupled with restrictive federal trading policies and embargoes implemented in response to the War of 1812 and the national financial panic of 1816, resulted in the city’s economic downfall. Ironically the 1811 fire led to stringent fire safety building codes, which helped in the preservation of the handsome brick downtown facades.
Newburyport Becomes a City
In 1851, the city annexed portions of Newbury and incorporated into a city. At the same time, technological innovations led to steam powered mills and provided a financial boost to the city. Many of the large red brick mill buildings scattered throughout the city were built in this time period. By the early twentieth century, Newburyport had gone into another decline and many remember the slumbering town of the 1950’s. In the 1970’s the city launched an extraordinary urban renewal project that transformed Newburyport’s decaying downtown and waterfront buildings into a picturesque brick and cobblestone retail center with an attractive waterfront park and boardwalk.
Past & Present
Many traces of Newburyport's past can still be found. Churches and cemeteries evoke remembrances of local personalities. The Tannery district, close to downtown is an extension of old steam mills and tanneries of the past. There were ropewalks, clammers’ shacks and shipyards. Victorian houses, federal mansions and colonial houses are cherished by today’s homeowners. Newburyport draws visitors from around the world to this seaport rich in history and beauty.
The Mighty Merrimack River
Captain Paul White built the first wharf on the river in 1655. The 177-mile long Merrimack River has been used in many ways over the years - as a conduit for food and transportation for Native Americans, a commercial port in the colonial town, a protected harbor during the Revolutionary War, and a center for privateers and shipbuilders during the War of 1812. It was the source of water that powered the Industrial Revolution, and a place to launch ships for 100 years.
Although each of its services to the town was successful, the Merrimack gained special importance as the base of operations for Newburyport Privateers, privately owned vessels licensed to attack enemy shipping. Newburyport privateers captured hundreds of British vessels during the Revolution and the War of 1812, but suffered heavy losses themselves.
Trading in Newburyport
Vessels from all over the world registered their cargoes with the port surveyor at the Custom House. They brought cloth goods and hardware from Liverpool, wine from Madeira, gunpowder from St Petersburg, and molasses and sugar from the West Indies. Ships built in Newburyport brought wealth and prestige to their owners.
In the shipbuilding district in Newburyport, ships were built well into the late 1800's. The Currier yard built 97 ships as well as barques and schooners. High Street mansions recall the names of those who made and lost fortunes in the maritime trade; Cushing, Bartlet, Greenleaf, Marquand, Prince, Tracy and others. In 1844 Donald McKay introduced clipper ships, and the last square-rigged ship built in Massachusetts was launched in Newburyport.
The Coast Guard - Born in Newburyport
For over 100 years the Coast Guard has plied the waters of the Merrimack River, beginning as revenue cutters that enforced navigation laws. Today they rescue and supervise boats and yachts that have difficulty navigating the “most dangerous river mouth on the east coast.” Increasingly, the Coast Guard functions as an important national security force. You can spot three lighthouses erected by the Coast Guard on Water Street and Plum Island. The Lighthouse Preservation Society is restoring the Range Lights. Call 1-800-727-BEAM to make reservations for dinner for two at the top of the Water Street lighthouse.
Cushing House Museum & Garden
98 High Street, Newburyport
This 21-room brick Federal home houses the Historical Society of Old Newbury. Visitors are treated to the treasures of the area’s rich historic past, encompassing every aspect of life from the countryside to the city and its merchants. There are guided tours, exhibits, special events, and lectures. Open June - October, Wednesday - Friday, 10am - 4pm, Saturday - Sunday 12pm - 4pm. Last tour begins one hour before closing. Admission Charged.
Custom House Maritime Museum
25 Water Street, Newburyport
Built in 1835, the Newburyport Custom House was designed by Robert Mills, architect of the Washington Monument and the U.S. Treasury Building. The Museum features ship models and maritime art as well as exhibits on ship building, the Coast Guard, and author John Marquand. Open from May 15 - December 15 Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 4pm; Sunday & holiday Mondays 12pm - 4pm. Admission charged.
Old South Church
29 Federal Street, Newburyport
Old South Church was built in 1756 and is one of the oldest wood frame churches in continuing use in New England. Its bell was made by Paul Revere, and its steeple guided ships to safe harbor in Newburyport. Built for the Rev. George Whitefield, a prime mover behind "The Great Awakening," and who is buried beneath the church's pulpit.
Newburyport Harbor Light, Plum Island
Plum Island Point, Newburyport
Newburyport was an important port in the late 1700s, but the entrance to Newburyport’s harbor was dangerous due to the shifting currents at the mouth of the Merrimack River. To aid ships entering the river, two wooden lighthouses (one of which is now known as Newburyport Harbor Light) were erected in 1788.
The original two towers were built on movable foundations so their positions could be changed easily as the sandbars around Plum Island shifted. The two towers served as range lights; mariners knew if they lined up the lights that they were following the best channel into the harbor.
The Newburyport Harbor Light was designated as a historical light in 1981. Today,it is a single, green, fully automated, 4000 candle power Fourth Order Fresnel light. It is visible for twelve miles and is a familiar beacon to mariners along our coast. The lighthouse is maintained and operated by the Friends of Plum Island Light. Educational tours are open to the public from May through October and can be scheduled by calling ahead.
Old Hill Burying Ground
Located adjacent to the Bartlet Mall is a cemetery where many prominent and colorful citizens including Lord Timothy Dexter, Nathaniel Tracey, as well as sea captains and revolutionary war veterans are buried.
Oak Hill Cemetery
Brown Street - off State Street
Walk through the Oak Hill Cemetery and you'll find the gravesites of clipper shipbuilder Donald McKay; authors; past mayors; and other prominent citizens. Consecrated in 1842, OakHillCemetery is one of the first rural garden cemeteries in the United States. Still an active burial ground, Oak Hill is a place for reflection and quiet walks through beautiful landscape, to enjoy bird watching and photography, and to reminisce about the rich history of Newburyport. Oak Hill is listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Historic Cemetery Tours
"Tiptoe Through the Tombstones" - Stories, secrets and legends as well as local history are features of leisurely walks through Oak Hill Cemetery, Old Hill Burying Ground and Highland Cemetery. To schedule a tour, email: TipToeThroughTheTombstones@yahoo.com
William Lloyd Garrison Statue
Brown Square, Newburyport
William Lloyd Garrison remains one of the most famous American voices from the city of Newburyport. One of the most outspoken abolitionists of his time, Garrison began his career as an apprentice at the "Newburyport Herald," which catalyzed his career as a publisher and avid activist. Sculpted by D.C. French.
The Powder House
Powder House Park and Learning Center, Newburyport
Located on Low Street in Powder House Park and Learning Center stands a restored powder house carrying significant historical relevance. Built as a result of the war of 1812, the powder house was utilized first for military purposes including the storage of flints, gunpowder and camp kettles. After the Civil War, the powder house was re-purposed and used for building bridges and roads throughout the area. The structure deteriorated over the ages and saw preservation only 10 years ago. In an effort to maintain its historic building technique, the powder house was rebuilt with materials like square wooden pegs in place of nails.
Statue of George Washington
Bartlet Mall, corner of High & Pond Streets, Newburyport
Washington said of one of his visits to Newburyport: "In visiting the town of Newburyport, I have obeyed a favorite inclination, and I am much gratified by the indulgence. In expressing a sincere wish for it's prosperity, and the happiness of its inhabitants, I do justice to my own sentiments and their merit." Sculpted in 1879 by J.Q.A. Ward.
14 High Road, Newbury
Built c.1678, this house chronicles the evolution of domestic life in rural New England. Located just over the city line, it is open seasonally and operated by Historic New England.
289 High Road, Newbury
The Dole-Little house was built around 1715 with materials salvaged from an earlier structure. Its first owner was Richard Dole, a cattleman, who built a two-room, central-chimney house with a small kitchen shed at the rear. This shed has since been replaced with a larger lean-to. Decorative carpentry and finishes include chamfered edges, molded sheathing (especially in the hall and parlor), and possibly original stair balusters.
Rocky Hill Meeting House
4 Portsmouth Road, Amesbury
The Rocky Hill Meeting House is one of the best preserved examples of an original eighteenth-century meeting house interior. It was built in 1785, replacing a c. 1715 meeting house for the West Parish of Salisbury. The Rocky Hill Meeting House was strategically placed along the only road that crossed the swift Powow River (via ferry) and led travelers to the Salisbury Point area, and then onward toward Portsmouth. In fact, George Washington paused here to greet the townspeople on his northward journey in 1789.
5 Little’s Lane, Newbury
This 230-acre farm exemplifies the area’s rich farming heritage and features a unique c.1690 stone and brick manor house. Open seasonally and operated by Historic New England.
4 High Road, Newbury
The Swett-Ilsley House is an important early structure. Its original portion was built in 1670 by Stephen Swett, one of the first settlers. It was one room deep, and later additions during the 18th and 19th centuries more than doubled the size of the house. Over the centuries, the building served as a tavern, chocolate shop, chandlery, and press room, in part due to its location on Newbury's most traveled road.
Lowell’s Boat Shop
459 Main Street, Amesbury
Opened in 1793, this is the country’s oldest continuously operating boat building business still producing hand-built wooden dories. Lowell's Boat Shop is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
For more information on these and other historic sites in the area,
please visit Historic New England.