NEWBURYPORT — The workhorse of the early American economy, the merchant sailing ship, will be on display through Aug. 28 as the Custom House maritime Museum presents its ship model exhibition, Clipper & Merchants.
Merchant sailing ships reached their golden age during the mid-1800s when beautiful and graceful clipper ships sped passengers and cargos from East Coast cities to the California gold fields and in the China tea trade.
"We want to make people aware of the history of the golden years of sail when these magnificent ships set speed records between the East Coast and San Francisco," said Lloyd Sanborn, model ship exhibition chairman. "And one of the best-known builders of American Clippers was Donald McKay, a shipbuilder who started in Newburyport."
The 22 featured models representing a cross-section of merchant ships will give museum-goers an up-close view of these commerce workhorses that carried fish, lumber and rum from Newburyport and other Northeast ports to international locations. The voyages brought back molasses from the West Indies, wool, rice and cotton from the South and from Russia, and tea, porcelain goods and silks from China. This trade produced much of the taxable income that ran the government during this period.
Philip Fournier of Peabody, the shipwright whose model of the La Gallega will be on display, said that the 4 1/2-foot model was built totally from scratch over about two years. The La Gallega, officially a carrack, was used in trade between the low countries of Europe and Spain. This ship became better known as the Santa Maria after Queen Isabella of Spain recommissioned the ship for Columbus' voyage to the New World.