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The Maritime log #26 - Newburyport Developed International Trade Despite Hazardous Harbor

October 25, 2018

The Maritime Log by Dyke Hendrickson

Newburyport Developed International Trade Despite Hazardous Harbor

by Dyke Hendrickson
Custom House Maritime Museum Outreach Historian

Newburyport was once a dynamic shipbuilding community, despite the fact the entrance to the harbor was narrow, shallow and prone to developing dangerous sand bars.

This modern photo shows the north end of Plum Island, and the shallow harbor entrance to the upper left.

Plum Island

One reason for the growth of shipbuilding was a reliable source of timber. From 1650 to almost 1850, trees would be felled upstream in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and floated down the Merrimack River for use on new vessels.

Such construction created jobs in almost 30 trades, from caulkers to carpenters and from painters to iron mongers. Workers turned out masts and hulls and sails and twine and cabins and galleys.

In the book, “History of Newburyport” author Euphemia Vale Smith wrote, “In 1834, there were 28 ships (a specific type of large vessel), 26 brigs, 145 schooners, four barques and four sloops in Newburyport.”

In the Age of Sail, the sight of tall ships could be spectacular. In 1820, a fleet of more than 40 vessels, detained for a week by easterly winds, sailed from Newburyport at about noon. A local newspaper wrote, “We believe our river never was whitened with so much canvas at one time as was spread yesterday. It was a delightful sight.”

Newburyport traded with the world. Historian John J. Currier wrote (in 1905), “From 1784 to 1794, vessels arrived in Newburyport from Guadeloupe, Port au Prince, St. Martins, Surinam and Martinico, with cargoes of molasses, sugar, coffee and cotton. And ships came from Madeira with wine, from Turk’s Island or Cadiz with salt, from Ireland with linen, from Rotterdam with gunpowder, from Dunkirk with earthenware and carpeting, and from Bilboa with silk handkerchiefs, silk gloves and glassware, according to Custom House officials.”

In modern Newburyport, about 1,500 recreational vessels are registered annually with the local harbormaster. Many captains still have difficulty navigating the entrance to the harbor, where the mighty Atlantic meets the fast-moving Merrimack.

If your organization would like me to speak at an event, please get in touch. I can be reached at

Thanks. Dyke Hendrickson

Dyke Hendrickson, Outreach Historian, The Maritime Log

The Maritime Log by Dyke Hendrickson

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