Maritime Log #34 – From Historian Samuel Eliot Morison: Newburyport Was Once THE Greatest Shipbuilding Center

by Dyke Hendrickson, Custom House Maritime Museum Outreach Historian

At least two things should be known about the Newburyport waterfront:

This is the birthplace of the U.S. Coast Guard, which locals are finally absorbing.

And, the Newburyport area was once the busiest shipbuilding center in New England, which is not universally known.

Here is an observation by Samuel Eliot Morison, dean of U.S historians in the 20th century, in his tome, “The Maritime History of Massachusetts: 1783-1860,” first published in 1921.

Morison wrote, “The lower Merrimac from Haverhill to Newburyport was undoubtedly the greatest shipbuilding center of New England in the colonial days. (Historian John) Currier’s study on Merrimac shipbuilding lists about 1,115 vessels constructed and registered there between 1793 and 1815.”

What an immense number!

So there it is: proof that this area led the land in shipbuilding in the early days. It is no coincidence that many of the great mansions on High Street were built between 1800-1815, because much money was made by selling ships and engaging in international trade.

(Pictured here is the Newburyport waterfront in the mid-19th century, drawn by local artist Richard Jones).

A key reason that Newburyport had a large volume of ship construction was accessibility made possible by the Merrimack River.

Timber felled in New Hampshire and upper Massachusetts was floated down the 120-mile river and made available to shipyards.

Communities such as Portsmouth, Essex, Gloucester and Salem did not have such access. Much of their timber had to be delivered by horse and wagon, which was a cumbersome chore.

The Merrimack has been in the news lately for bursts of pollution caused by rainstorms that generate over-capacity in sewage-treatment plants in communities including Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell and Manchester, N.H.

The river has gone through tough times in the past. Textile mills, some the largest in the country, dumped refuse into the river in the 19th century.

Local and state officials are now seeking ways to limit the releases by sewage-treatment plants.

At the least, they want managers to inform the public when these discharges take place.

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Thanks. Dyke Hendrickson