Maritime Log #40 – Merrimack Valley was the Center for Shipbuilding 1790-1810

By Dyke Hendrickson, Custom House Maritime Museum Outreach Historian

Summer is coming, and visitors will soon be asking about the region’s remarkable nautical history.

One notable fact is that Newburyport is the birthplace of the Coast Guard. The year was 1790, and the Newburyport-built Massachusetts was the first revenue cutter produced at the direction of General George Washington and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.

The Coast Guard wasn’t so named until 1915 but this is the birthplace.

Another fact of note is that the lower Merrimack Valley was the national leader in shipbuilding from 1770 to 1815. There were fewer communities then, of course, but Newburyport and environs outpaced Essex, Gloucester and Boston in most tonnage produced.

(The vessel pictured here later in the 19th century is the Symington, and the whole town came out for the launching).

Historian Paul Hudon wrote that “the shipyards of the Merrimack – at Salisbury, Amesbury, Bradford, Haverhill and Newburyport enjoyed great prosperity.”

In 1770, one observer reported 90 ships were launched in Newburyport alone. What a huge number! 

 (The book is “Lower Merrimack: The Valley and Its Peoples,” 2004, American Historical Press, Sun Valley, Calif.)

Hudon added, “In the boom years that covered a decade to either side of 1800, the Merrimack yards saw the construction of more than 1,000 vessels of all sizes and descriptions.

“In the year 1810, Newburyport had 160 vessels in the European and West Indian trade, and 54 more in the Banks fisheries.”

Visitors found Newburyport “one of the finest on their itineraries.”

Hudon added, “Its High Street became the site of grand mansions in the newest federal style, and a new courthouse was built in 1805, inspired by the famous Charles Bulfinch.”

That courthouse is still on the Mall here and is considered the oldest original courthouse in the country.

So there it is.

Most locals are somewhat aware of Newburyport’s shipbuilding history.

But one statistic that isn’t widely known is that more than 1,000 ships were built in the Merrimack River yards over a 20-year period (1790-1810).

That is a fact worth knowing – and repeating.

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