Newburyport to the average visitor seems to just be soaked in history – unfortunately, most of this history is just not visible – the closest you will be is to roam about the Cushing House and the Custom House. The rest of the time is like a stranger at night looking in a window of a cozy historical home. It seems from the light beaming outside that it’s warm and inviting inside but the best an outsider can do is ‘imagine’ what’s in there.
There are rare opportunities here and there when the secret curtain is pulled back. One such time is the Custom House Maritime Society’s House Tour coming up on the 10th where some of the homes are opened up for viewing. Another opportunity is the Historical Society’s Garden Tour in the spring. Another great time is the annual meeting of the Newburyport Preservation Trust or when they do Preservation Week – they always seem to reveal some hidden jewels.
Well, I thought I would give you a tour of the Old South Steeple. Now, just about every Sunday after services or by appointment; a tour is conducted of the church which includes the burying place of the Rev. George Whitfield. It is sad that the only true international draw in Newburyport is this church and yet most people in town haven’t a clue of his important significance but that’s for another post. But if you take this tour it won’t include the Steeple.
This structure has special significance in that it is the most clearly seen of the other steeples out at sea. When ships would enter into our harbor, it was the Old South’s lights that would guide them into the port. At one time, it had a peak to it but structural re-work has redone it in the fashion it is found today. When entering the church from the street, the only indication of what lies above is a rope dangling down at the right part of the vestibule.
To enter, the stairs are on the left of the vestibule.(facing the pulpit) As you climb the narrow stairs, you look all around and notice the massive, virgin-forest beams that hold up the building. Such wood is hard to replace in today’s market of fast-growing trees. Many that are weakened have been replaced by laminating many boards together.
When kept at a relatively constant temperature and out of damp condition; the ancient lumber is extremely hard and almost takes on a semi-fossilized state. Much of the trussing is exposed to our view as we climb.
Going to the next flight of stairs, you approach the mechanism for the great clock. I know I was expecting some large gears but this little machine from the 19th century is what keeps the clock on time and is still working away faithfully today.
Then climbing up a final narrow stair which is only large enough for one person to climb at a time, you finally come out into the open air. The view is truly grand and even our eyes can’t take in all the landscapes at once.
We have to be careful because the handrails are a little short and so the little group I was with kept nervously close to the center.
And there, big as life was the Paul Revere & Son’s bell. Up close and personal, it is rare to have something of such historical significance so open and available and yes, even I reached out and touched this working artifact. (Wasn’t supposed to.) Unlike the two other Paul Revere Bells in town (Episcopal, Religious Society); this one is completely exposed to the elements – but definitely holding up! Not hung like a traditional bell from a beam, it sits on a pivot point next to a great wheel that rocks it back and forth.
Pastor Rob John is in the center to the right of the bell.
I then started to look out at the panorama before me – the first thing you notice is the trees! It is hard to believe that during Newburyport’s heyday, most of the city was treeless – land for the use of cattle and horses was of much greater necessity back then. It took a successful merchant, John Bromfield, who bequeathed to the City in 1851 a large sum of money to line each city street with sidewalks and trees. (Back then, the roads were just composed of dirt and often of mud making even walking difficult.) Today, Newburyport is not Newburyport without the presence of trees.
The view out to the harbor was breathtaking as one can imagine watching great sailing vessels coming into the mouth of the Merrimack.
But it really makes you appreciate the architectural beauty of Newburyport’s historical homes. Taken singly, they are grand but put them in row after row, street after street and stick it next to the ocean and river; and you’ve got a spectacular combination.
So next time you drive on Federal Street in the fading light and the church steeple is all lit up; remember back to all those ship captains who longingly looked for this steeple. An important beacon ushering them back home.