A Wharf, A Doc & A Warehouse

The Newburyport waterfront has changed drastically in the 365 years since the first wharf was constructed in 1655. 

The waterline originally came up farther, almost lapping at today’s Newburyport Art Association building. Beginning with simple wooden docks, the area soon became crowded with stout piers reaching far into the Merrimack. They supported a lucrative shipping industry that brought wealth and worldly influences to our port city. 

The area we know as the Newburyport waterfront, was once simply a stretch of shore used by the local native peoples to catch and dry fish. 

The original English settlers of Newbury arrived in 1635, but chose to use the protected bank of the Parker River as their docking area. Throughout the mid-17th century, Common Land along the river was initially controlled by 92 Newbury proprietors who had no interest in maritime trade. They preferred to stay insular, protecting their carefully curated Puritan social structure by eschewing outside influences. 

It was not until 20 years after its founding that the town of Newbury “granted to Captain Paul White a parcel of land not exceeding half an acre…for to make a dock, a wharf and a warehouse, provided he do build a dock and warehouse as afore-said.” 

At this time, the water’s edge would have reached almost to today’s Market Square and the dock may have been located near where the Firehouse Center for the Arts is now. White’s pier was followed slowly by the construction of more docks used for local trade, a practice that was judiciously controlled by town officials. 

Long strips of land were reserved by Newbury as roads to and from the burgeoning harbor. In 1678, the town created the a “highway for the town’s use to the dock for to unlade hay, wood, timber, boards, or anything else which is produced in or upon the river.”  

Despite the town’s careful efforts, these wharves and highways began the “improvement” of the waterfront which inexorably led to the development of Newburyport as a center of industry and trade. 

The upriver, protected area also served as an ideal ship building location. 

Detailed may of Newbury, circa 1700, drawn by Sidney Perley (1858-1928). Image courtesy of the Newburyport Preservation Trust. 

By 1705, shipyards were interspersed between the ever-growing number of docks and wharves. Newbury quickly rose to prominence, producing substantial numbers of new vessels, lagging only behind Boston and Charlestown, Massachusetts. 

In 1764, the maritime-focused Waterside community separated from agricultural Newbury to form the new town of Newburyport. 

At only 600 acres in size, the settlement was centralized along the bank of the Merrimack River. The town was founded on economic advancement, rather than religious zeal, and relied on foreign trade for its significant and swift development. Ships from Newburyport traded all over the world, making the waterfront active, densely populated and diverse. 

Engraving by Benjamin Tucker, circa 1796. From the collections of the Museum of Old Newbury. 

He started a trend! 

While embargoes beginning in 1807 and the War of 1812 weakened foreign trade and the Fire of 1811 damaged the local economy, shipbuilding in Newburyport boomed until the mid-1800s. 

The imposing Custom House, built in 1834, and the large federal mansions along High Street, including the Cushing House, are a testament to the success and wealth of the city. 

Wharves and docks eventually became so dense that the waterfront stretched farther into the Merrimac River. They were flanked by buildings dedicated to the maritime industry such as ropewalks, sail lofts, warehouses, rum distilleries and counting houses. These flourished, grew and land was filled in, creating a bustling center of trade where there was once only water. 

This industrial boom lasted until the introduction of steamships and railroads began to erode the power of the clipper ships, essentially changing the nature of the waterfront in the latter half of the nineteenth century.