NEWBURYPORT - A Brief History

The history of Newburyport prior to 1764 is largely the history of Newbury. As a farming community, Newbury expanded rapidly, outgrowing the land along the Parker River. In 1642, a "New Town" was laid out beside the Merrimack River and residents were offered new lots there in exchange for their old land near the Parker River.

By 1700, New Town was still predominantly rural although the waterfront was becoming a commercial center for ship building, trading, and live stock butchering and fishing. Between 1681 and 1714 over 100 vessels were built in Newbury.

During these years, trade with the West Indies and Europe developed a commercial relationship that dominated Newbury Port's economy, for better and for worse, until the early 1800's. Lumber, fish and other goods left Newburyport while sugar and molasses for the distilleries were a major import.

In support of the shipping related businesses, Newbury Port attracted merchants, traders and artisans, people whose interests conflicted with the farmers in the rest of Newbury. By 1764, a dispute over the location of a new meetinghouse resulted in the granting of a petition to establish a separate town of Newburyport. With 2900 residents and bounded by today's Bromfield and Oakland streets, the community of 640 acres was important far beyond its physical size.

Newburyport became the commercial center for the towns of southern New Hampshire and northeastern Massachusetts. Ship building continued with 72 ships under construction in 1766 and as many as 90 launched in 1772. The city's first commercial setback came with the Revolutionary war. English ports were closed and British firms could no longer use American ships for transportation. Newburyport switched to privateering with mixed success. Some 24 ships and 1,000 Newburyport men were lost during the war.

With the end of the war, prosperity returned and Newburyport's Golden age began. From 1776 to 1810, the population doubled from 3681 to 7634. The sailing fleet increased from 118 ships of 12,000 tons in 1790 to 176 ships of 30,000 tons by 1800. Great wealth resulted from ship building, fishing and as the neutral carriers for warring European nations. Shipping peaked in 1805, when imports in just one month totaled $800,000. Although the building of new homes along High street began about this time, the prosperous days were numbered.

Continuing problems with the British resulted in the Embargo act of 1807 and finally the war of 1812. Newburyport's favorite foreign ports were closed again and ships along the coast lay idle at the wharves. In the midst of this trouble came the great fire of 1811, destroying most of the Newburyport commercial district. Although the area was quickly rebuilt, in the style remaining to this day, the war and fire dealt blows from which Newburyport never fully recovered.

Between 1810 and 1830 the population actually declined by 1300 as many of Newburyport's young men left to seek opportunity elsewhere. This decline was halted in the middle of the 1830's with the construction of textile mills, changing the focus of the local economy from shipping to manufacturing. Because the mills needed raw materials, and with the opening of the California gold fields, ship building revived, reaching its peak in about 1850 and then declining until 1901 when the last major ship was built on the Merrimack, ending a 250 year old industry.

The railroad from Boston reached Newburyport in 1840 further weakening the dependence on shipping. By the 1870's, large areas of the waterfront had been filled in to make room for railroad lines and storage for the import and distribution of coal.

Newburyport became a city in 1851 and annexed a large portion of Newbury, extending the city boundary from Plum Island to the Artichoke river. The next century was marked by economic surges and declines, the latter best remembered in the depression. Textiles and shoe making had surpassed ship building in importance and when the mills began closing, as they did through out the Merrimack river valley, Newburyport suffered along with the rest of the Northeast

The rebirth of Newburyport stems from not following the tide of destruction and rebuilding which characterized the urban renewal mania of the sixties. Newburyport chose the route of rebuilding and restoration, preserving for generations to come, its architectural proud heritage.

Newburyport today, continues that proud heritage with a revitalized commercial district maintaining the beauty of the past and a people dedicated to our New England heritage.

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Last Updated February 23, 2005