The area around the mouth of the Merrimack River has always been an important transportation route and fishing ground. European settlers were setting up a town called Newbury by the 1630s. By 1764 when the port section of the community seceded from Newbury to become Newburyport there was a 100-year tradition of shipbuilding in the town. There would be another 100-some years of seafaring prosperity to come. In 1793 the seeds of the United States Coast Guard were cast on the waters here with the launching of the USRC Massachusetts built by William Searle and commissioned by President George Washington.
By the middle of the 19th century the town was dotted with steam-powered brick mills to complement the riches brought back from the sea. In 1851 the city annexed portions of Newbury and incorporated into a city. However, the end of the age of the wooden clipper ships was not far off and “Clipper City” would fall into serious decline in the early 20th century.
Nothing ever appeared to pull the old maritime town out of its reversal. By the 1950s, with federal money in hand, the bulldozers were ready to level the entire downtown area. There was no definite plan really. Maybe a strip mall or just a parking lot. Just clear the decaying eyesores away. Portions of the waterfront and downtown were razed but before the wrecking balls swung too often the citizens recoiled in horror and a grassroots protest turned the future of Newburyport 180 degrees. Instead of annihilation there would be preservation and restoration.
And so our walking tour can take in buildings by two of America’s most famous early architects, Charles Bulfinch and Robert Mills and houses built in the 1700s by wealthy sea captains and traders. We’ll begin by the banks of the Merrimack River, once bustling wharves, then decaying ghost buildings, and now a waterside park...
Merrimac Street at Green Street
Captain Paul White built the first wharf on the Merrimack River in 1655. For the next two hundred years vessels from all over the world would dock in Newburyport. The last square-rigged ship built in Massachusetts was launched here in 1883. By the 1970s the historic waterfront docks had fallen apart, and the shoreline was ragged and crumbling. The sight ofrubble and the waste from demolished waterfront buildings was more common than sailboats on the Merrimack. In 1975 the City began shoring up and replacing pilings and constructing a boardwalk on the bulkhead. The original plans called for two miles of unobstructed river views. That didn’t materialize but the stretch that was built helped bring the waterfront back to its rightful place at the heart of town.
WALK DOWNSTREAM ALONG THE BOARDWALK TO ITS END AT CUSTOM HOUSE WAY AND TURN RIGHT AWAY TROM TH ERIVER AND WALK UP TO WATER STREET AND TURN LEFT.
25 Water Street
This gray stone federal building was constructed in 1835, the handiwork of Robert Mills, considered the first American-born architect. As supervising Architect of the United States Treasury, Mills used the Greek Revival style seen here in many famous early American buildings, including government buildings from South Carolina to Massachusetts. Later Mills designed the Washington Monument. Today the Custom House presents 300 years of maritime history along the Merrimack River as a museum.
Rear Range Light
61-1/2 Water Street
Fires were routinely set on the beach at Plum Island to guide mariners to the mouth of the Merrimack River until the Marine Society of Newburyport erected two day beacons in 1783 and employed men to hoist lanterns atop them at night. Regular lighthouses were erected on the island in 1788. This is one of two range lights built in 1873 to guide ships up the Merrimack River into Newburyport. Range lights, also known as leading lights, are typically a pair of lights displayed at different heights and located far enough apart to enable mariners to line one above the other to indicate the center of a channel. Normally, the front light is shorter than the back or rear light. In this case the front light was a 14-foot iron tower and this brick pyramidal tower rose 47 feet above sea level. In 1961, both range lights were decommissioned and the Rear Range Light was sold to private interests. today you can dine atop the lighthouse with the proceeds going to preserve the lights.
TURN RIGHT ON FEDERAL STREET.
William Pierce Johnson House
17 Federal Street
This beautifully preserved brick Georgian-style mansion was completely restored in 2003 and won awards for the make-over. It probably didn’t look this good when William Pierce Johnson constructed the gambrel-roofed house in 1777. Johnson was a successful shipmaster who owned a good-sized fleet plying the West India trade. He built a wharf at the foot of Ship Street in 1798, four years before he died at the age of 57. The house stayed in the Johnson family until 1876.
William Bartlett House
19 Federal Street
William Bartlett was born in Newburyport in 1748 and lived in the town for 93 years. Receiving no formal education was no impediment to his business career as he amassed a fortune as a merchant, most of which he gave away. More than $250,000 went to the foundation of the Andover theological seminary in 1807. He constructed this fine Federal-style house in 1797.
Old South Church
29 Federal Street
Reverend George Whitefield, an Anglican Protestant, was born in 1714 and first came to the American colonies as a missionary. He arrived in Newburyport in September, 1740 and the revival that followed his labors, brought into existence Old South Church. Whitefield would cross the Atlantic Ocean thirteen times and preach more than 18,000 sermons about “the Great Awakening.” His audiences often numbered as many as 15,000 people. Old South Church was built in 1756 and today is one of the oldest wood frame churches still in use in New England. Whitefielddied in Newburyport in 1770 and is buried beneath the church pulpit.
WALK BACK A FEW STEPS AND TURN LEFT ON MIDDLE STREET (THIS THREE-WAY INTERSECTION IS NOT MARKED BY A STREET SIGN - IF YOU SEE BECK STREET ON YOUR RIGHT, YOU HAVE GONE TOO FAR.) MIDDLE STREET RETAINS MUCH OF THE FEEL OF ITS DAYS AS A MIDDLE-CLASS ENCLAVE IN THE 1800S.)
13 Middle Street
Civil War veteran Alfred W. Thompson returned from the war and opened a “Ladies and Gents Eating and Oyster House” on Middle Street. It became the Pilot House after Prohibition an in 1969 the eatery was rechristened “The Grog” after the English Navy’s traditional ration of rum and water.
TURN LEFT ON STATE STREET.
Grand Army Building
57 State Street
This brick mid-block building began life in 1853 with a hardware store on the first two floors and quarters for Newburyport’s Company A Cushing Guard on the top floor. Company A would later distinguish itself during the Civil War on the battlefield at Antietam. The building served many masters until 1877 when it was bought for $8,300 by the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for veterans of the Civil War. As the veterans passed away, however, maintenance became spottier and spottier. By the 1950s, when no one was left who could remember the Civil War, the post was virtually uninhabitable. In 1960 William Page moved the insurance business started by his father in 1922 on Pleasant Street here and executed the first building renovation in Newburyport in many years, all with private capital.
Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank
63 State Street
The Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank was organized on April 24, 1854 with authority to take deposits of as little as five cents. Those first deposits were taken in a second floor office of the old Mechanicks Bank at 51 State Street. In 1873 land was purchased opposite Charter Street and then the headquarters bounced back to this site in a hybrid Revival style. The brick building and entrance are Neo-Georgian in style and appended to that are Greek Revival embellishments, including a pediment supported by classic columns.
Newburyport Public Library
94 State Street
This handsome brick building was constructed by Patrick Tracy for his son Nathaniel in 1771. Nathaniel Tracy was a fervent supporter of the American cause during the Revolution and George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams were among theluminaries who enjoyed the hospitality in Tracy Mansion. Nathaniel Tracy was the first privateer to send his ships against England with twenty-four cruisers that captured 120 vessels. Tracy became the richest man in Newburyport owning large amounts of waterfront property. He owned houses across the colonies and it was said he could travel to Philadelphia and sleep under his own roof each night. His fortunes changed precipitously, however, and he lost all but one of his privateers and 97 of his merchant ships. He also provided many donations to the American forces, and lost money dealing with the French and Spanish. He was forced to sell his house and lived out his life on a nearby farm, supported by wealthier friends until his death in 1796 at the age of 45. His house went on to lead a long and interesting life. It was used as a hotel and a bowling establishment and even a dentist office. And after the Newburyport Public Library was founded in 1854 it hosted the library beginning in 1866. Four years later the first newspaper reading room in the United States could be found in the library. In 1881 the building received a fashionable Victorian makeover and in 2001 the building was greatly expanded and renovated but not so much that Nathaniel Tracy wouldn’t recognize his old home.
Institution for Savings
93 State Street
The bank opened its teller window on April 5, 1820 in a room in Town Hall and collected $465.10 in deposits on its first day. The bank pursued a peripatetic existence around town until 1870 when it landed in this elegant Victorian brownstone headquarters. The building shows elements of early Georgian style with its symmetry and rooftop balustrade, splashes of Greek Revival style with its Corinthian pilasters and the popular Italianate style of the day with corner quoins and vertically elongated windows.
95 State Street
Built in 1746 by Michael Dalton and later owned by son Tristram Dalton, who was one of the first U.S. senators of Massachusetts, if the ample size does not speak to the great wealth of the Daltons then the grand entranceway surely does.
TURN LEFT ON HIGH STREET.
98 High Street
This is the only National Historic Landmark in Newburyport. Shipbuilder and sea captain William Hunt constructed this elegantly proportioned Federal house in 1808. When he died in 1822 the widow of a fellow sea captain, John Newmarsh Cushing. The house would remain in the Cushing family for 138 years. The most noted of the Cushing residentswas Caleb, President John Tyler’s commissioner to China. Caleb Cushing negotiated the 1844 Treaty of Wanghia, securing for the United States diplomatic and trade privileges by opening five major ports, establishing consular offices, and paving the way for American interests in the Far East. Today the 21-room brick house is home to the Historical Society of Old Newbury.
THE TOUR ONLY GOES ONE BLOCK DOWN HIGH STREET BUT THIS IS THE STREET WHERE THE GREAT SEAFARING WEALTH OF NEWBURYPORT MOST MANIFESTED ITSELF IN DAYS GONE BY. EXPLORE AS FAR AS YOU LIKE BEFORE TURNING AND HEADIN GBACK TOWARDS STATE STREET. GO PAST STATE STREET ON HIGH STREET TO CONTINUE THE TOUR.
George Washington statue
Bartlet Mall, High Street at Pond Street
George Washington was a frequent visitor to Newburyport and New Yorker Daniel I. Tenney determined to present the town of his childhood a statue of the general. He commissioned John Quincy Adams Ward to create a life-size bronze. Ward represented Washington in the half military dress in which he was accustomed to appear while Commander-in-chief. The statue was dedicated in the snow on the occasion of the 148th anniversary of Washington’s birth on February 22, 1879.
Essex County Superior Court
Bartlet Mall, 145 High Street
In 1804 Newburyport’s coffers were bursting with shipping money and it was no problem to lure America’s first celebrity architect, Charles Bulfinch, to design a courthouse. Bulfinch had the job done by 1805 and the building has served as a courthouse ever since - the oldest regularly operating courthouse in the United States. Unfortunately Charles Bulfinch would have a hard time recognizing his work here. He provided the courthouse with an open arcade of graceful arches across the front and a central gable on the roof. Both were eliminated in 1853 when the town sold the courthouse to the county. Actually, you can get a better feel for Bulfinch’s hand by walking around to the back and viewing the elevation overlooking the Frog Pond. The area around the Frog Pond has been used as a town common since the 1600s. The promenade known as the Bartlet Mall was created in 1800 through the efforts of Captain Edmund Bartlet by filling in a ravine. The bombshell on display in the front of the building was brought back from the Siege of Louisburg in 1759 during the French and Indian War.
TURN RIGHT ON GREEN STREET.
The Clark Currier Inn
45 Green Street
Thomas March Clark, a wealthy shipbuilder, constructed this fine Federal mansion in 1803. His son, Thomas March Clark, Jr., was born in the house on Independence Day 1812; he would later become Bishop of Rhode Island for nearly half a century. Ernest M. Currier, a notable New york silversmith, bought the house in the early 1900s as a summer retreat.
TURN LEFT INTO THE GREENSPACE THAT IS BROWN SQAURE AT PLEASANT STREET.
11 Brown Square
Moses Brown began his business career as an apprentice carriage-maker and by the age of 21 in 1763 he was operating his own carriage business. He branched into shipbuilding and began making rum from molasses coming up from the West Indies. In time Moses Brown owned more land in town than any other man. He built Brown Square in 1802 and the Brown Square House as a residence in 1809. It later became a boarding house and hotel and now operates as the Garrison Inn. Newburyport-born William Lloyd Garrison apprenticed as a printer and became editor of the Newburyport Herald in 1824 at the age of 19. He evolved into one of the most outspoken abolitionists of the age, establishing an anti-slavery newspaper called The Liberator and even being jailed for libel when he criticized a merchant involved in the slave trade. The statue of Garrison on Brown Square in front of the inn was sculpted by Daniel Chester French, who later executed the sitting Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Central Congregational Church
14 Titcomb Street on Brown Square
Central Congregational Church was formed in 1909 by the union of three downtown Congregational Churches: North, organized in 1768; Prospect Street, organized in 1793, and Whitefield, organized in 1849. The first sanctuary on this spot was a wooden one built in 1768. It was replaced by a red brick one in 1826, which was extensively damaged by fire in 1861. The rebuilding altered the steeple but retained the general appearance of the sanctuary.
TURN AND WALK BACK THROUGH BROWN SQUARE AND ACROSS GREEN STREET ON PLEASANT STREET.
26 Pleasant Street
The First Parish was founded around the Merrimack and Parker rivers in 1635, the same time settlement began. In 1694 parishioners in the westernmost segment of the colony, now West Newbury, broke from the mother church to found the Second Parish. By the early 1700s settlers were drifting away from their farms more and more as a seafaring town developed down by the Merrimack River. As Newburyport formed, Third Parish - this congregation - organized to meet the religious needs of the townsfolk in 1722. This is the second meetinghouse for the parish, constructed in 1801. The previous church stood on Market Square and before it was torn down the organ, bell, clock, and weathercock were moved to the new building The lasted until 1816 when a larger one was carted in from the foundry of Paul Revere and Son. A larger organ arrived in 1834 as well, crafted by Joseph Alley, one of Newburyport’s two early organ builders. The late 18th century “act of parliament” clock still hangs on the gallery rail, and the glass-eyed gilded weathercock, said to have been imported from England and recently restored, still look down on the town.
RETURN TO GREEN STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
60 Pleasant Street at Green Street
Newburyport was chartered as a city in 1851 and the cornerstone was laid and dedicated for the home of the new government on July 4, 1850. The brick building with brownstone trim constructed in the Italianate style was ready for business just eight months later.
15 Green Street
The Colonial Revival Strand Theater from the 1920s is a survivor from the aborted wave of urban renewal that struck Newburyport in the 1960s. The movie house closed in the 1970s and then did duty as an unemployment office and most recently as retail space.
TURN RIGHT ON MERRIMAC STREET.
State, Merrimac, Liberty, and Water streets
Townsfolk gathered in Market Square in 1773 to burn British tea to protest those taxes without representation. Most of the downtown area was leveled in the 1811 fire and the buildings seen today date from that time.
CROSS THE STREET INTO WATERFRONT PARK TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.