By Dyke Hendrickson, Custom House Maritime Museum Outreach Historian
The presence of the Nao Santa Maria along the waterfront (May 31 – June 10) reminds us that a great number of sailing ships once called Newburyport home.
The community had scores of shipyards and was the nation’s leading shipbuilding center in late 18th and early 19th centuries, according to the august historian Samuel Eliot Morison.
(Here is a photo from the mid-19th century that pictures close to a dozen boats of different sizes).
Mrs. E. Vale Smith, who wrote the comprehensive “History of Newburyport” in 1854, said, “In 1834, there were 28 ships, 26 brigs, 145 schooners, four barques and four sloops in the district of Newburyport.” (A “ship” was a classification of a large ocean-going boat).
Historian John J. Currier said (in his 1906 history of the city) that the vessels built here enabled local merchants to develop unique trade opportunities
Currier wrote, “From 1784 to 1794, the number of vessels arriving in Newburyport from Guadeloupe, Port au Prince, St. Martins, Surname and Martinico with cargoes of molasses, sugar, coffee and cotton were unusually large, and ships came from Madeira with wine, from Turk’s Island with salt, from Ireland with linen, from Rotterdam with gunpowder, from Dunkirk with earthenware and carpeting, from Bilbao with silk handkerchiefs, silk gloves and glass ware, were frequently reported by the custom-house officials.”
The Age of Sail could be beautiful as well as profitable. Currier wrote that on May 1, 1820, a fleet of more than 40 vessels, detained for a week by easterly winds, sailed from Newburyport about noon. According to the Newburyport Herald, “We believe our river never was whitened with so much canvas at one time as was spread yesterday at noon; it was a delightful sight.”
The presence of the Nao Santa Maria during early June has been a reminder us of the majesty of those long-ago vessels.
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