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Newburyport - A City of History and Architecture

Staying in the theme of traveling for research, we had the opportunity to visit Newburyport, Massachusetts about five years ago. Newburyport holds a significant part in my story but I was having trouble interpreting the historical maps. This was my opportunity to answer some of my questions about terrain, the port’s history and the architecture.

I chose Newburyport as a brief setting in my story for three reasons: I needed a coastal port that was close to Lowell, I needed a whaling/triangle-trade-focused, sea-faring family, and I needed a city close enough to Boston to realistically have my characters meet. How about a little history about the city?

Here goes my quick summary (there’s so much more):

Newburyport was recognized as a town in 1764 but wasn’t deemed city status until 1851. Its main industries were shipbuilding, whaling, textiles and silverware manufacturing. Sea captains participated actively in the triangular trade: importing West Indian molasses and exporting rum distilled from it. Whaling in the Atlantic played a prominent role in Newburyport’s economy in addition to other types of fishing. And, in Newburyport was one of the first sea ports where clipper ships were built.

Massachusetts had an early law against the selling of African and Native American slaves but ownership of slaves purchased elsewhere was not illegal until slavery was abolished in Massachusetts, post-Revolutionary War. This led to a strong abolitionist culture fueled by William Lloyd Garrison (born in Newburyport) and many who contributed sanctuary on the Underground Railroad in the 1840s.

In 1812, Newburyport was home to many privateers (private ship captains hired by the government during war to raid enemy ships and disrupt enemy merchant shipping) because of their superior source of clipper ships. The 1840s are considered the heyday of shipbuilding in Newburyport given the transportation requirements of the nearby textile mills, the 1849 Gold Rush and the establishment of packet lines (ships sailing from America to Europe with packets of mail, freight and passengers that maintained a regular departure schedule) all of which required fast vessels. When the railroad came to the North Shore in the late 1840’s and tracks were laid along the river in 1872, the face of the waterfront was altered forever.

Upon our arrival in Newburyport, I was thrilled to learn that a three-masted sailing ship was in port and available for tours as part of an annual celebration. As a mountain girl, a sailing ship, no matter its type, was a novel experience. The ship was styled after a Spanish Galleon with all the modern conveniences but still had all the rigging and other aspects that I so badly needed to understand in order to write about them intelligently. I took a ton of pictures trying to preserve the experience, to get an idea of ceiling height and berth space along with a feeling for deck dimensions.

From there we walked through the town square on our way to the boulevard where many of the whaling captains built their family homes. Again, I didn’t have a clue about this culture so I was all eyes and ears. As we walked along the cobbled street, we passed the Institute for Savings Bank on State Street, founded in 1820 in Newburyport. As it happens, my story needed a bank in just that location! I took this as a good omen.

Continuing further, we passed beautiful brick buildings, many built a long time before Colorado even became a state. I thought it was wonderful that many of the private residences on High Street had the date of construction on a brass plaque either on the house or on a lawn sign. Coming from a tourist town, I can see the posting as an act of self-defense against a million people knocking on their doors with questions. I selected the house I think best fits my story’s character’s family house and we returned to the Customs House Maritime Museum for more information.

The Customs House Maritime Museum is housed in the 1835 constructed customs house that handled all maritime trade and tax collections on imported goods coming into Newburyport. It is full of amazing information, model ships and maritime artifacts. As is the case with most museums, I could have stayed for hours.

All in all, my visit to Newburyport was extremely satisfying and has made my story better for the time and effort made to get there.

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