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The Maritime log #24 - Shipbuilding Thrived Here Until Vessels Were Too Heavy to Clear Harbor Entrance

October 16, 2018

The Maritime Log by Dyke Hendrickson

Shipbuilding Thrived Here Until Vessels Were Too Heavy to Clear Harbor Entrance

by Dyke Hendrickson
Custom House Maritime Museum Outreach Historian

Newburyport was a great shipbuilding community – until it wasn’t.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, its yards produced hundreds of vessels from tall ships to small fishing schooners.

Here is the Symington, a ship constructed in about 1893. It was one of the last tall ships to be built here.

One reason for the vibrant industry is that Newburyport had access to much wood. Thousands of logs would be cut throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire and floated down the Merrimack River.

The shipbuilding industry permitted the community to enjoy what might be known today as “full employment.”

Ship-building yards employed carpenters, sailmakers, rope producers, caulkers, iron mongers, and related industries included banking, export-import services and fish markets.

The remarkable thing about Newburyport’s success was that the inlet to the harbor was narrow, shallow and treacherous. It was one of the worst harbors on the East Coast.

The incoming tide would meet the current of the Merrimack River to create serious navigation problems.

The shallow draw – perhaps 12 to 16 feet of depth– was the key reason why the shipbuilding industry ended.

Heavy ships (some over 1,000 tons) could leave the harbor but they could not return with cargo. They rode too low in the water.

When the Age of Steam developed in the late 19th century, those heavy iron ships could not clear the shallow harbor.

Clipper ships, built here in the 1850s, were fast and light.

But they disappeared as the end of the 19th century approached.

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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