There is so much of Newburyport that is out of reach of the average visitor. Behind the walls of so many of our historic homes, there are rooms that to see them would result in a gasp of amazement. Behind these homes, there are gardens in which to marvel that so much effort could be expended only for the eyes of the property owner.
That is why such rare glimpses cause many to stampede to our house and garden tours. The Preservation Trust’s annual meetings are an adventure in themselves as they have visited such exotic sites as the American Yacht Club, the Carriage House on Dexter Lane, the Clark Currier Inn, the Dalton Club and the Old Gaol (Old Essex County Jail). These are places that the rest of us simply don’t have an opportunity to see.
Well, I finally made it to two rare locations: The copper roof of the Custom House with its waving flag pole and the third floor of the Museum. Though the views from the Old South Church Steeple are far grander when it comes to the panorama of the area; the rooftop of the museum takes in the heart of Newburyport: Market Square, the Waterfront and the Port itself. I have often gazed up the narrow stairs to that loft and wished I could gaze upon the artifacts stored there. But I have always been taken aback by the stern warning on the rope strung across the lower step.
But last night, the Curator invited me to see this rare sight and I gladly climbed those forbidden steps only to see the opening of the hatch above. The roof and railings have just recently been replaced and the copper floor still had that reddish hue of fresh metal. I went up and was amazed at the views that a building so close to the water could provide.
The railings are now solid and the flag waved proudly above us – but it was the rather amazing sight that we were perfectly in line with the Lighthouse Restaurant. (Actually a range light which when lined up with its smaller sister (presently in the Coast Guard Station yard) would guide you safely into the harbor.)
But I stood there amazed at what was visible.
Though such views are grand, the thing that I most lusted for was to view the storage rooms. Let’s just say, I saw a great number of exotic artifacts that have not yet been put on display at the museum and even more – racks of un-researched material that just wait for a dedicated intern or volunteer to discover.
You see, the Marine Society of Newburyport was a forerunner of the New York Explorers Club. I think that Adolphus Greeley, co-founder of this great institution, may very well have modeled New York’s after Newburyport’s. Our society was created to explore the world, to make sea charts. (most ship wrecks costing millions were due to running aground or being dashed upon a hidden reef or sandbar.) and to assist those who were the descendants of unfortunate captains who did not come back. As they accumulated artifacts, they assembled a great body of specimens from around the world, and most of it, still not catalogued. When the Society disbanded at the beginning of the twentieth century; some was auctioned off but most of it ended up in the hands of the Historical Society of Old Newbury. When the Custom House was created in the seventies, marine-related material was handed over to start their collection.
I will share two special sights. The first is a diorama that was created to demonstrate to the members of the newly-created Maritime Society; what was possible on the custom house property. The founders had more in mind such places as Pioneer Village in Salem and Strawberry Banke and Sturbridge. They did hit on one important idea: displaying a restored Revenue Cutter Massachusetts. The rest were mostly idle dreams that never came to fruition. So I eagerly took a picture of this rare ‘dream’.
The other odd thing was, well, just odd. A casket lay across the room. The curator explained that this was a special airtight container which would be filled with ice. It was designed for a crew member or the captain that died overseas and yet, had left instructions to be buried in Newburyport. The deceased would be placed in this case until safely arriving back at port sometimes as much as 6 to 10 months later. This really hit home to me as I have visited the Old Hill Burying Grounds and the Oak Hill Cemetery and read of the deceased whose bodies had been returned for internment there. And now I can see first hand how it was done.
It is very comforting to know that the artifacts and historical records at the Custom House are secure and simply await the patient hand of either Cynthia Muir (in charge of collections) or some future intern breathlessly awaiting a new discovery.