One of the surprising things that I have found as I have been doing research on the smuggler tunnels under Newburyport (Assuming, of course, they were used for this primary purpose) that my understanding of the city’s history has greatly expanded.

In the last scene in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Dr. Jones, Sr. is asked what did he discover now that he had found what he had been seeking for most of his life.      He exclaimed, “Illumination”       As anyone can note who has seen the film, the word applied more than just winning a prize.      His understanding, his renewed connection with his son and the entire comprehension, and appreciation of the journey were all wrapped up in that word.

I had a very dim understanding of the tunnels when I started to do some digging into finding them; and though I am truthfully no closer to actually attaining a clear understanding of their fact; the process has been most enlightening.        I have forged contacts with like-minded fellow Newburyporters who also want to find the truth and in doing so, have gained so much insight by seeing their expertise, their discoveries and their understanding through their eyes.

And in doing so, they have steered me toward more information which has literally caused the “scales” to fall off the eyes of this blind man; and to now comprehend things which were always there, but now can be clearly seen.

It also illuminated me to see things in the big picture.

To know what connection these tunnels had to the Underground Railroad;  I had to learn about the Underground Railroad and what occurred at the Newburyport ‘Depot’ and who was involved as ‘conductors’.

To appreciate this amazing statement made several times in the 19th and early 20th century that the tunnels end up in a cemetery (how wildly romantic!); has led me to learn about our ancient cemeteries and in particular, the rather unique status of Oak Hill Cemetery which for some reason has the most miserable assemblage of self-deprecating famous people who insist on understating their importance.  (One historically famous person has a 9″ x 9″ headstone.    Oh really!   Wouldn’t you’d think future Americans would appreciate a much bigger memorial!      They can’t even find John Bromfield’s gravesite.)   Or the fact the cemetery is designed as a park with picnics encouraged.     I could go on but there is more illumination further to be told.

To differentiate between some storm water and water-delivery systems; I had to learn about them.       It has also explained how a water-system which is setup much like the Dead Sea; could have thrived with happy frogs.      As a recent Joe Callahan article and by eye-witnesses by photographers, reporters and local city officials recently; we know now what was only conjectured.       Now that’s gettin’ illuminated!

And then the issue of Smuggling.      Maybe embarrassing when it occurred and probably embarrassing to descendents; it was very much closely linked to Newburyport.     From Hamilton to Jackson; there was a reason, our port was a major concern.      I am just beginning to see this is an entire field that hasn’t ever really been touched in our archives.

You don’t have disaster after disaster occur from 1807 to 1825 in which Newburyport’s population was greatly reduced and many left the city scattering across New England; and not see the obvious connection.       Desperation, fueled with still plenty of old cash available; points to the making of a cool discovery in the 21st century.  (Possibly)

We’ll see.

Regardless of the outcome of this adventure; it will be in arguable that we will have a vastly expanded understanding of Newburyport’s history during those tough years.

Illumination, indeed.

-P. Preservationist


Posted in Archeology, Art & Culture, Education, History, Planning | Leave a comment

Smart Growth on live tonight

I know this is last minute but I wanted everyone to know that the Planning Board meeting on Smart Growth will be taped but also live on PortMedia.

This will be the last time before it enters into the environment of City Council for the public to speak.

This is not a simple for and against situation.    To keep the Common Pasture open and businesses and residences safe from flooding the plan has always been to encourage development around the rather meager looking traffic circle.

This is an issue that is complicated and I hope my series on Minco had helped.

The issue is what type of development are we seeking and will it produce a healthy addition to our town or become a disappointing nightmare.

For my part I worry about the undue focus on rental apartments.     Both Amesbury and Newburyport have had horrible experiences in the past.

Will it happen again or will good planning win out?


-P. Preservationist

Posted in Open Space | 1 Comment

Trashing our heritage tourism industry to save a few ‘bucks’

I was aghast to see a notice put into the DPW page of the City’s website asking if the citizens would rather forego brick sidewalks on Green Street for concrete lined with brick.

The reason: to save a few dollars in the process.

John Bromfield, a merchant from Newburyport, fled the city after the Great Fire of 1811 and went on to make a vast fortune in Boston.    He co-founded the prestigious Boston Athenaeum and was a great benefactor to charitable organizations such as Mass General Hospital.      But he never forgot his native city.     He knew that back in 1849, most people travelled by foot and most of the streets were dirt.     He gave a large sum in which half of the money would go to sidewalks and the other half to street trees so the people would be shaded who walked beneath them.

From 1851 to 1860, the city laid these brick sidewalks from three roads all the way to the corner of Marlboro and High.    A once barren city (Check out old photo’s prior to 1850) became leafy neighborhoods.      They remained intact until approximately 1914 when the automobile and concrete began to usurp them.      Back then, nobody cared because no one thought of Newburyport as a heritage destination city.

But then came the historic restoration in 1974.     It not only brought our city back from the brink that other cities even today suffer but has made us one of the most desirable places to live.    Tourists from all over the world travel down Green Street and are herald by Mr. Bromfield’s achievement.      Former Governor Deval Patrick cited the brick sidewalks as the most signature symbol of Newburyport.          Portsmouth, which has no such rich history, has placed brick sidewalks up and down their historic neighborhoods with spectacular results.

Our affluence, our desirability as a place to live; all centers on the celebration of the Federal and Greek Revival Periods of our city.      Our Federal architecture is framed by the sidewalks that came during the Greek Revival days.

We have a huge host of new arrivals here in Newburyport who know little or nothing of our rich heritage or where our source of wealth derives.        It is shameful for the City to exploit that ignorance so they can save a few pennies.      Rather, we should be making it easier to put in brick sidewalks rather than putting up hurdles just because the State won’t give money for brick.  And we all know what the State has tried to do in the past to trash our downtown or destroy our precious High Street.

The simple irony is that brick sidewalks, unlike concrete; are the very symbols of sustainability.    You pick them up, fix what’s beneath and you lay them down.    They also last longer.    1850 sidewalks are going strong while concrete laid during the Great Depression are a crumbled mess.      Citizens, get on the Department of Public Safety Website and inform them that 150 years of tradition is worth every penny.

-P. Preservationist

PS. This was posted in the Daily News Opinion page this last week – for those who have no access to the paper of record; here is the body of the piece.

Posted in Art & Culture, Downtown, Heritage Tourism, History, Infrastructure, News and politics, Planning, Preservation, sidewalks, Tourism | 3 Comments

The History of the Underground Railroad through Newburyport

Broad tracks for the Underground RailroadSince Newburyport was an integral part of the Triangle Trade, merchants felt their livelihood threatened by the anti-slavery movement.      The ‘Trade’ involved purchasing slaves in West Africa often from other black tribes.   The slaves would be brought to the American South, sold and the ships would load up with molasses and cotton; the molasses for the rum refineries in Newburyport and the cotton for the mills.  Any action that would endanger this trade was deeply frowned upon.  John Greenleaf Whittier was unwelcome in the City and William Lloyd Garrison had to flee or face imprisonment. The Slave Extradition Act of 1850 increased the danger.   According to the Constitution of the United States, any runaway slave regardless of where captured was required to be returned to his owner.  Anyone caught aiding and abetting a runaway slave could be imprisoned.   Before 1850, even though the Constitution made it clear that any runaway slave must be returned to his master, Massachusetts at large had a growing population of slaves numbering as much as 6,000 who ended up feeling secure enough to dwell here.     But after 1850, a huge population fled to Canada ending up in St. Catherine’s where support groups would clothe, feed and educate and in some cases train in an occupation.

Map of Railroad route through RegionTo get there, Newburyport was a major stopping point for the Underground Railroad.    It had a growing number of abolitionists that matched an equal number in Amesbury.     It was a major port for intercostal traffic in particular, transport to Canada usually via Prince Edward Island though for some reason rarely used.     There was also great danger at this particular location due to the aforementioned Triangle Trade and the presence of bounty hunters.     Because the Merrimack River was in affect a bottleneck on the railroad and they had general sympathy for their efforts; these professional hunters used Newburyport as a major headquarters north of Boston.

Tension further increased as the U.S. banned the importation of new slaves.     The Coast Guard found a new role in slave trading interdiction which caused increased tension since some ship captains from Newburyport were still smuggling from Africa.    William Lloyd Garrison was imprisoned when he accused a prominent captain of doing just such a thing.      The Captain protested and accused Mr. Garrison of slander.     The Abolitionist was imprisoned due to lack of evidence against the Captain.     Only later facts came out that the accusations were actually true!

Capt. Alexander Graves, a Mr. William Jackman and Richard Plumer were all active on the Underground Railroad in Newburyport. The Plumer house had a barn in the rear (no longer in existence) where fugitives were hidden. Richard Plumer HousePlumer’s young son Wendell Phillips Plumer would ride in the wagon at night when his father drove to the south end of town to meet escapees brought from Ipswich by the bridge over the Parker River. Fugitives were hidden among the grain and driven though the town to Mr. Jackman’s house near the Chain Bridge, and Jackman took them to Amesbury or as far as Lee, New Hampshire. Sometimes, Mr. Plumer would cross the Merrimack and take the fugitives directly to Amesbury, delivering them to John Greenleaf Whittier or his agent.

Coffin HouseMr. Plumer also owned the Coffin House just over the border in Newbury.    Sometimes if he felt the house was being watched, he would drop off his ‘cargo’ at the Coffin House until he felt it was safe enough to hand them off to Mr. Jackman.    Since using regular paths was a sure way to be caught, often the passengers after being loaded at the Parker Bridge would be transported to the Turkey Hill Farm homestead overlooking the Artichoke.     At one junction, he had a carriage full of runaways while traveling to the farm.      Bounty hunters were bearing down on the carriage and he instructed all the passengers to flea into a corn field and then to make their way to Turkey Hill.      Fortunately, not one was captured and all made it to the farm safely.Turkey Hill Farm - Underground Railroad Station

Capt. Alexander Graves was a mariner and commanded during his career, ships “Castilian”, “Kenmore”, and “Tennyson”. He was admitted to the Marine Society of Newburyport 25 Nov. 1847.     Tracy’s and Bartlett’s Wharves were often the disembarking point for slaves.      A few runs would be made to remote Prince Edward Island but there was not an elaborate support network like the inland route.     More often, Captain Graves would smuggle slaves in on his north-bound journeys from southern ports.

Rumors were made that Newburyport’s smuggler tunnels were used in the Underground Railroad but there is no anecdotal history that supports this statement.  There are three main tunnels that we know of today: one under Market Street, One near State Street and one on Federal Street.

Sea Captains and merchants, angered by high taxes, often smuggled goods through these secret tunnels. The exact origin is unknown but their expansion hastened after the Embargo Act of 1807 when trade with England was banned and during the War of 1812 when most of Newburyport’s merchants were against the War effort.   The tunnels would run up to businesses that were often unsympathetic to the abolitionist movement and so their usage for slave fugitives was discouraged.

The Underground Railroad was actually quite a complex human undertaking; it’s need and it’s developing infrastructure is quite a fascinating subject in itself.      The homegrown cottage industry of bounty hunters, seeking runaway slaves across the Northern States is, in itself, a strange but horrible reality before the Civil War and alien to our understanding.       Listed below, with more local references; are some excellent books to consult on the entire story of the Underground Railroad.     It is well-worth the read.

-P. Preservationist


The Underground Railroad in Massachusetts, By Wilbur Henry Siebert, American Antiquarian Society, 1936, The Davis Press, Inc. Worcester, MA (Available via Googlebooks)

The Newburyport Black Heritage Trail, Rosemarie Greene & Jane M. Uscilka, 2002. Only available through the Newburyport Public Library Archive Room.

Abolitionists and the Underground Railroad in Essex County (Poets, Shoemakers, and Freedom Seekers),

Newburyport and the Civil War, William Hallet, The History Press, Newburyport, MA   2012

A Reference Guide: The Underground Railroad, by Kerry Walters, ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2012 (Available as an ebook)

The Underground Railroad: A record of facts, authentic narratives, letters, and correspondence, narrating the hardships, hair-breath escapes and death struggles of the slaves in their efforts for freedom as related by themselves and others, or witnessed by the author.   By William Still, The Library of Alexandria, reprint 2013. (Available through Google Books)

Separate references to slavery itself:

Slavery in us, a descendant of Early Settlers and the connection with Newburyport, by Susan M. Harvey, June 2011.

The Economics of Slavery, by Dyke Hendrickson, The Newburyport 250th Anniversary Book, Page 5.

Slavery.   It’s Origins, Influence & Destiny, by Theophilus Parsons, Boston, 1863.

Slaves and their Slave Owners in Newburyport, Newburyport Public Library Archive Room.


Posted in Education, Heritage Tourism, History | 4 Comments

The 800 Pound Gorilla is back!

Gorilla disturbed

“Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names”

-John F. Kennedy

Obviously, after looking at the political line-up for the upcoming city council races; a group of candidates think the Central Waterfront is going to be the deciding issue.

I am here to tell you that they are dead wrong.

Believe it or not, COW will cease to exist someday.        What?    Did you think they would stand around on one foot, being a nuisance after they achieved their goals? (Like the NRA)   Soon, they will have achieved their objective of an open waterfront.      What else is there to do?    Stand around reminiscing?

The fact is that Newburyport’s success and affluence and prosperity have nothing to do with a Central Waterfront that hardly gets used nine months of the year.      Our historic downtown and its infrastructure, and the accompanying historic neighborhoods and infrastructure; is key to our economy.

Many who are members of the COW group vigorously stand up and applaud every time a house-flipper guts our historic houses.      Every time a developer or a business tramples down our history; they rejoice.

The fact is that the local historic district issue is very much alive.     The Corner Office wants to will it away but its coming back and it will get stronger – especially as plans to destroy our heritage tourism begin to come out into the open and gather steam.

People invested blood, sweat and tears into taking worn-out historic properties and causing our city to shine.       Their equity is tied up into their properties and secured by the settings of historic neighborhoods and yet, it would be, as it is in other historic ports; secured with a local historic district; but the same participants who are part of COW made sure it died.

We now have a Mayor who feels it’s her license to snuff out our historic architecture; we have a building inspector and his successor who wants every architectural element yanked out and trampled on the ground; and we have an emboldened dark sider element eagerly helping to tear our historic neighborhoods asunder.

The Local Historic District ordinance would have secured our property rights, our property values and our intense real estate desirability in perpetuity.

But we have wicked people who used distortions, intimidation, lies and sloganeering to make sure our Newburyport star begins to descend, just as it reaches its zenith.

And they think we won’t forget!

800_pound_gorilla at the Boards and Commissions

800 Pound Gorilla at City Hall, at our Planning Office and present at our volunteer Boards and Committees.

There is anger, fear and frustration in our neighborhoods.      Those who not normally would be involved in politics are getting involved.        Lawsuits and legal pursuits are being readied.        Of course, the Daily News, will be caught totally off guard and unprepared.      So be it.       Today’s social media is already busy and on its way.

The 800 pound gorilla is here.

-P. Preservationist


Posted in Architecture, Art & Culture, Developers, Economics, Education, Heritage Tourism, History, Infrastructure, Local Historic Districts (LHD), News and politics, Open Space | 1 Comment

History Repeats Itself

Hideous Sullivan BuildingI have brought many a visitor to Newburyport to the top of the Old South Steeple and it does not fail that after seeing the sweeping view of our historic city (the Old South Steeple is the best view in town), for them to recoil in horror when spying the Sullivan Building.      Their instinctive reaction is to recoil in horror that someone could allow this hideous 65 foot edifice to be allowed in our downtown.

Newburyport.     So beautiful and so historic that many of our new arrivals in town can’t even imagine it in any other form.      But the Sullivan Building was built in the same time span when twenty of our historic buildings were busily being demolished and the boardwalk was just beginning to be built. (the waterfront was a dangerous place of weeds and construction debris peppered with the homeless and the drunk!)

But the seed and inspiration for this monstrosity was Mayor Byron Matthews. (1967-1977)    He had the same mentality (and political power) that Mayor Donna “Bulldozer” Holaday has today.      He was no historic preservationist.      This man wanted “to do something, anything” to help Newburyport and was just full of ideas.     He wanted to pour blacktop all over the downtown and waterfront and put up a Zaire’s Department store.    He wanted to put an oil refinery in the Common Pasture.     And after he oversaw all the demolitions (interesting how history repeats itself), he cleverly jumped on the historic preservation bandwagon when the town rose up in outrage but still he stubbornly stuck to his ‘contemporary’ building on Lot 8. (Merrimack Landing)

Interesting that during Mayor “bulldozer” Holaday’s tenure, a big deal was made at how ‘wonderful’ Mayor Matthews was to preserve the town complete with a memorial on Inn Street.

But this is the man who gave us this monstrosity on Charter Street without regard to all the historic buildings lost.

I’m beginning to wonder, is our present mayor trying to outdo Byron!?!

He only demolished a city block, the waterfront buildings, and erected this 100 unit rental facility that totally clashes with appropriateness, height and zoning*.       Now she wants to outdo him with 80 units of rental housing with a plan to add 540 units more.        Byron pushed for downtown destruction.    Our Mayor today won’t reign in the Building Inspector, or the ZBA or the developers – it’s build, build, build something and now demoitions are occuring all across the Newburyport Historic District particularly the South End.

What we need now is the outrage that put Byron in check.       We desperately need it now for this present Mayor.

If we don’t; her drive to outdo the “Man” could sink us – we need to convert the Mayor into an historic preservationist!!!!      Hey, Byron was extremely clever and transformed himself to the point, he gets accolades  now. (forget all that destruction, of course.)     Mayor Holaday has already showed this cunning by abandoning the construction of buildings on the Central Waterfront.

Maybe if the majority of us stand up and say, “Enough”; History may be kind and label her a “saviour” of the city!!!!

But if we don’t, it will be back for the next two years out doing the “Man”

-P. Preservationist

* Instead of this Stalinist building, couldn’t they have at least modeled it after our 19th century mills?

Note: Just a quick comment on the ‘building’ at 25 Temple Street.    The Sullivan family is not to blame for this nasty structure.     It was named in honor of James E. Sullivan who was Marshall in the 40’s and 50’s and was well respected in the community.    He had died June 2nd, 1969 and at a special meeting in May, of 1972; they decided to assign his name to the structure.      At the time, the dark siders in town were quite proud of their architectural achievement and granted the name as an honor.

Posted in Affordable Housing, Architecture, Demolitions, Developers, Downtown, Historic Demolitions, History, News and politics, Planning, Preservation, Preservation History, Quality of Life, Restoration, Zoning | Leave a comment

Clipper Ships – Why the mysterious omission?

There is an odd mystery about the Custom House Maritime Museum, and I see it present in the Cushing House Museum also.        There was a brief, but glorious period called the Era of the Clipper Ship.       It’s start was born of magnificent entrepreneurial spirit and it ended rather abruptly, though thankfully a few stragglers remain that remind us of this incredible but short period of history.

Newburyport is inextricably linked to this historic epic, which is why we are called Clipper City.

Yet, there is barely a mention in the grand old dame of a museum on High Street.    Likewise, the Custom House has skirted about the subject begrudgingly acknowledging the deeds of the Dreadnaught, but little else is mentioned.           Even their ship models proudly displayed in the galleries have no extensive explanation – they are just ‘there’.

It may be a rather offensive analogy but I think the problem is similar to a bunch of piglets sucking on a big sow.       They all consult the same old history books, institutes and resources that all the other ‘historians’ have relied on, and when it comes to this unique period of history, their conclusions are all over the place.

Listen, historians make mistakes all the time.      A lot of their own prejudices are often infused into their works, even as they loudly claim it is not true, a three-year old  can see it clearly.      Speaking of an innocent, I, in my humble research about Newburyport have found no less than three major errors in J.J. Currier’s great two-volume History of Newburyport.      And it wasn’t hard.

Well, we’ve got writers with no background in ship construction claiming things, we’ve got model ship builders authoritatively making statements and we’ve got major histories claiming conclusions based on third-party (and sometimes just confused statements).

It’s hard to get a tack on what is actually the truth!

Best to just leave it alone.      Well, that’s my theory as to why no one wants to tackle the glorious subject of our clipper ships.      And yes, there were over twelve (or more) built here, over and above the very first.

I invite you to click the link to the Clipper Ship Museum on my main website.

I’m still waiting for our local museums to step up to the plate.

I’m eagerly awaiting that great day!

-P. Preservationist

PS. Ghlee Woodworth has done a magnificent job on the Clipper Heritage Trail on covering the Clipper Ship Era.       I invite you to check it out also.


Posted in Archeology, Heritage Tourism, History, News and politics, Organizations, Science, Tours, Waterfront | Leave a comment