We’ve had great recountings of events since the days of the Waterside Community in the 17th century. Unfortunately, when it comes to understanding historic Newburyport in simple terms, we have no "label" We are "Clipper City" but that would beg us to have clipper ships moored to our docks, hardly a financially feasible thing.
Which brings me to historians of Newburyport, past and present. They have been more a curse than a blessing as far as I think. Historians don’t stand around making commentary or considering the long-lasting impacts of events. They will talk in great detail about George Washington’s visit, where he stayed, what he said, what home did he sleep in, which home did he party in, etc. Unfortunately, they won’t dwell on why he was here. What was his purpose coming all the way to our city?
No, the problem with historians are they will devote half a paragraph to something that has impacted the city for over two hundred years but will carry on for a dozen pages on Levitical-style geneologies and marriages. They will not only note that Cushing sneezed on Titcomb Street but will produce charts on other locations where he sneezed! They may even regail on what doctors he may have visited for his perpetual sneezing, etc.
That is why professional historians are terrible storytellers. Things that would grab the interest of the listener such as Smuggler Tunnels, Underground Railroads, Privateers, Sailing exploitations with accompanying adventures as well as exploits of abolitionists and great sailing ships and shipwrecks, are coolly mixed in with the mundane like a baby’s concoction of mash potatoes and peas!
The best way to label Newburyport in KISS fashion (keep it simple stupid!) is to break our history down to three era’s.
The Romantic Era of 1764 to 1864, the Industrial Era of 1865 to 1965 and the Promotional Era that starts in 1966 and mostly hasn’t happened yet. But the first two eras are really the crux behind the city.
The Romantic Era included the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War and in between these significant events came abolitionists, adventurers, boat builders, captains, merchants, privateers, sailers; clipper ships and packet ships; Jefferson’s Embargo and the Great Fire of 1811. It was this time that gave us Federal homes that make the heart skip in wonder and the quiet majesty of the Greek Revival structure. Fortunes were won and lost and the odd and the wonderful were at every block.
The Industrial Era herald in the paycheck, the work week, the regular paces of life and the assembly line. It ws the time of small fortunes, small places and small town mentality. The Romanticism was largely gone and in its place came order and utility and squat ugly buildings. Many of the Dark Side came from this era. Is it not surprising their attitudes toward the city reflect this past history? Newburyport was not the city we know today. It was more like the Lawrence, Lynn and Haverhill of today; composed of coal storage, belching black smoke of railroads, the steady hum of shoe factories, smoke-stacks, munition plants, smelting facilities and tanneries. The city largely turned its back on the sea and focused on getting to work on time surrounded by railroads and automobiles. It was the time of Bossie Gillis and Mayor Graf.
But we lie in the Promotional Era! Everything we do is to promote Newburyport. We make our industrial park alluring to draw in businesses, we beautify our downtown to draw in tourists, we work diliigently to improve and restore our historic homes to draw in out-of-town buyers. Our policies and efforts are to make our city more alluring for a growing sphere of notoriety. Our very economic health is based on promoting.
Therefore, our community efforts should avoid those things that detract from the allure of Newburyport and concentrate on those things that make us a regional and national signpost, "Come to Newburyport" The people of the sixties and early seventies decided the Romantic Era would be our ticket to success….and they were right!