Shoring up Port’s role as birthplace of Coast Guard

By Victor Tine, Daily News Staff writer

The organization that operates Newburyport’s Custom House Maritime Museum is working to expand awareness of the city’s maritime heritage and at the same time strengthen its ties with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Newburyport is the official birthplace of the Coast Guard, which dates its origin to the Aug. 4, 1790, launch of the revenue cutter Massachusetts here. The Newburyport Maritime Society, which operates the museum, is planning to throw a 220th birthday party for the guard this summer.

The museum, based in the 1835-vintage granite structure designed by Robert Mills, the architect of the Washington Monument, officially opened for the season in mid-May, with a number of special exhibits and events planned for the months ahead.

This year, the museum will make a special effort to highlight the city’s seagoing past to students in the Newburyport school system.

The society has received a grant from the Edmund and Ruth Burke Education Foundation and the Kennard L. Bowlen Charitable Trust to fund a series of lectures displays and field trips to expand the awareness of the Clipper City’s role in American history.

Among the programs being developed by the grant is a Maritime Adventure Walking Tour for third- and fourth-graders, focusing on key sites, such as old shipyards, sea captains’ homes and the Coast Guard station on Water Street.

In addition to the walking tour, programs will include exploring the role of African-Americans in Newburyport’s maritime history and looking at the architectural significance of Mills’ work. The grant will also help underwrite the establishment of a “learning kiosk” in the museum that will allow visitors, students and teachers to access materials digitally from the society’s archive and collections.

“Fighting Sail: Conflict at Sea in the Age of Canvas” — the museum’s featured exhibit of the season — opens June 22. It will feature intricately crafted models of warships from ancient times to the era just before the start of the Civil War. The exhibit runs through Sept. 26.

The museum for several years has mounted model ship exhibits arranged around a common theme (last year for example, it was the ships of World War II). The Custom House is also the home of the Merrimack Valley Ship Model Club, which meets there monthly.

For members and their guests — as well as prospective newcomers to the Newburyport Maritime Society fold, the nonprofit group is hosting First Friday evening socials featuring conversation, discovery and refreshments. June’s First Friday event on June 4 will feature a presentation on the U.S. Coast Guard surfmen, who will highlight their life-saving mission and heritage dating back to the earliest lifeboat stations, including those on Plum Island.

While exploring Newburyport’s maritime history is the paramount mission of the society, there are other events on the calendar that will appeal to wider audiences.

The society plans a “duty free” yard sale in early October, followed by its Oct. 9 Chowder Fest. Restaurants from around the region — not just Newburyport — will put their recipes on the line to win the title Best Chowder of 2010, as judged by the crowd in attendance.

The display and auction of handmade wreaths has become an annual holiday tradition. The Custom House will once again be decorated with an array of wreaths created by local artisans and businesses. The silent auction for the wreaths will culminate on Dec. 11, coinciding with the society’s annual Holiday House Tour, a self-guided tour of special homes decorated for the holidays.


What: Custom House Maritime Museum.

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sundays and holiday Mondays, noon to 4 p.m. Museum docent tours available Friday through Sunday, 1 to 2 p.m.

Where: 25 Water St., Newburyport.

How: $7 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, active-duty military and children under 12 free. Annual memberships available for $40. Call 978-462-8681or visit