38R Merrimac Street, Newburyport, MA  01950  |  978.462.6680  |

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Historic Newburyport


Newburyport is a city with a long and rich history. A city where historic preservation has been the key to economic revitalization. A city whose foundation is based on maritime trade. A city who values its historic sites.


Newburyport has a long and rich history. Located on the south bank of the Merrimack River before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean, the area was originally inhabited by the Pawtucket Indians. It was settled in the 1630’s by European immigrants who founded the city of Newbury. The small port of Newbury was quickly settled and became a fishing and trading center with the rest of Newbury turning to agricultural pursuits.


Newburyport breaks from Newbury

By 1764, the port was so prosperous and densely settled that it broke off from Newbury to become Newburyport. Maritime trade fueled the city’s economy, sparking extraordinary building activity in the decades following.


Hard Times

In 1811, a catastrophic fire leveled the downtown. That event, coupled with restrictive federal trading policies and embargoes implemented in response to the War of 1812 and the national financial panic of 1816, resulted in the city’s economic downfall. Ironically the 1811 fire led to stringent fire safety building codes, which helped in the preservation of the handsome brick downtown facades.


Newburyport Becomes a City

In 1851, the city annexed portions of Newbury and incorporated into a city. At the same time, technological innovations led to steam powered mills and provided a financial boost to the city. Many of the large red brick mill buildings scattered throughout the city were built in this time period. By the early twentieth century, Newburyport had gone into another decline and many remember the slumbering town of the 1950’s. In the 1970’s the city launched an extraordinary urban renewal project that transformed Newburyport’s decaying downtown and waterfront buildings into a picturesque brick and cobblestone retail center with an attractive waterfront park and boardwalk.


Past & Present

Many traces of Newburyport's past can still be found. Churches and cemeteries evoke remembrances of local personalities. The Tannery district, close to downtown is an extension of old steam mills and tanneries of the past. There were ropewalks, clammers’ shacks and shipyards. Victorian houses, federal mansions and colonial houses are cherished by today’s homeowners. Newburyport draws visitors from around the world to this seaport rich in history and beauty.

Maritime History

The Mighty Merrimack River

Captain Paul White built the first wharf on the river in 1655. The 177-mile long Merrimack River has been used in many ways over the years - as a conduit for food and transportation for Native Americans, a commercial port in the colonial town, a protected harbor during the Revolutionary War, and a center for privateers and shipbuilders during the War of 1812. It was the source of water that powered the Industrial Revolution, and a place to launch ships for 100 years.


Newburyport Privateers

Although each of its services to the town was successful, the Merrimack gained special importance as the base of operations for Newburyport Privateers, privately owned vessels licensed to attack enemy shipping. Newburyport privateers captured hundreds of British vessels during the Revolution and the War of 1812, but suffered heavy losses themselves.


Trading in Newburyport

Vessels from all over the world registered their cargoes with the port surveyor at the Custom House. They brought cloth goods and hardware from Liverpool, wine from Madeira, gunpowder from St Petersburg, and molasses and sugar from the West Indies. Ships built in Newburyport brought wealth and prestige to their owners.



In the shipbuilding district in Newburyport, ships were built well into the late 1800's. The Currier yard built 97 ships as well as barques and schooners. High Street mansions recall the names of those who made and lost fortunes in the maritime trade; Cushing, Bartlet, Greenleaf, Marquand, Prince, Tracy and others. In 1844 Donald McKay introduced clipper ships, and the last square-rigged ship built in Massachusetts was launched in Newburyport.


The Coast Guard - Born in Newburyport and a Official Coast Guard City

Newburyport became an official Coast Guard City in August 2012. For over 100 years the Coast Guard has plied the waters of the Merrimack River, beginning as revenue cutters that enforced navigation laws. Today they rescue and supervise boats and yachts that have difficulty navigating the “most dangerous river mouth on the east coast.” Increasingly, the Coast Guard functions as an important national security force. You can spot three lighthouses erected by the Coast Guard on Water Street and Plum Island. The Lighthouse Preservation Society is restoring the Range Lights. Call 1-800-727-BEAM to make reservations for dinner for two at the top of the Water Street lighthouse.

Historic Sites


The Museum of Old Newbury

98 High Street, Newburyport



This 21-room brick Federal home houses the Historical Society of Old Newbury. Visitors are treated to the treasures of the area’s rich historic past, encompassing every aspect of life from the countryside to the city and its merchants. There are guided tours, exhibits, special events, and lectures. Open June - October, Wednesday - Friday, 10am - 4pm, Saturday - Sunday 12pm - 4pm. Last tour begins one hour before closing. Admission Charged.


Custom House Maritime Museum

25 Water Street, Newburyport



Built in 1835, the Newburyport Custom House was designed by Robert Mills, architect of the Washington Monument and the U.S. Treasury Building. The Museum features ship models and maritime art as well as exhibits on ship building, the Coast Guard, and author John Marquand. Open from May 15 - December 21 Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 4pm; Sunday & holiday Mondays 12pm - 4pm. Admission charged.


Lowell’s Boat Shop

459 Main Street, Amesbury



Established in 1793, Lowell’s Boat Shop is the oldest continually operating boat shop in the United States. Located on the banks of the Merrimack River, this non-profit working museum and National Landmark is dedicated to preserving and perpetuating the art and craft of wooden boat building. Educational programs, exhibits, and events are offered to the public throughout the year, and rowing is available to members.  Admission: $8 per person, $4 for seniors. Free admission for active-duty military, veterans, and children under 12.  Summer Hours: Tuesday – Friday, 10 am – 3 pm.  Weekends Open Saturday, July 27and Saturday, August 10and by appointment.  Closed Mondays.


Old South Church

29 Federal Street, Newburyport


Old South Church was built in 1756 and is one of the oldest wood frame churches in continuing use in New England. Its bell was made by Paul Revere, and its steeple guided ships to safe harbor in Newburyport. Built for the Rev. George Whitefield, a prime mover behind "The Great Awakening," and who is buried beneath the church's pulpit.


Newburyport Harbor Light, Plum Island

Plum Island Point, Newburyport


Newburyport was an important port in the late 1700s, but the entrance to Newburyport’s harbor was dangerous due to the shifting currents at the mouth of the Merrimack River. To aid ships entering the river, two wooden lighthouses (one of which is now known as Newburyport Harbor Light) were erected in 1788.

The original two towers were built on movable foundations so their positions could be changed easily as the sandbars around Plum Island shifted. The two towers served as range lights; mariners knew if they lined up the lights that they were following the best channel into the harbor.

The Newburyport Harbor Light was designated as a historical light in 1981. Today,it is a single, green, fully automated, 4000 candle power Fourth Order Fresnel light. It is visible for twelve miles and is a familiar beacon to mariners along our coast. The lighthouse is maintained and operated by the Friends of Plum Island Light. Educational tours are open to the public from May through October and can be scheduled by calling ahead.


Old Hill Burying Ground

Located adjacent to the Bartlet Mall is a cemetery where many prominent and colorful citizens including Lord Timothy Dexter, Nathaniel Tracey, as well as sea captains and revolutionary war veterans are buried.

Oak Hill Cemetery

Brown Street - off State Street

Walk through the Oak Hill Cemetery and you'll find the gravesites of clipper shipbuilder Donald McKay; authors; past mayors; and other prominent citizens. Consecrated in 1842, OakHillCemetery is one of the first rural garden cemeteries in the United States.  Still an active burial ground, Oak Hill is a place for reflection and quiet walks through beautiful landscape, to enjoy bird watching and photography, and to reminisce about the rich history of Newburyport.  Oak Hill is listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Historic Cemetery Tours

"Tiptoe Through the Tombstones" - Stories, secrets and legends as well as local history are features of leisurely walks through Oak Hill Cemetery, Old Hill Burying Ground and Highland Cemetery. To schedule a tour, email:


William Lloyd Garrison Statue

Brown Square, Newburyport


William Lloyd Garrison remains one of the most famous American voices from the city of Newburyport. One of the most outspoken abolitionists of his time, Garrison began his career as an apprentice at the "Newburyport Herald," which catalyzed his career as a publisher and avid activist. Sculpted by D.C. French.


The Powder House

Powder House Park and Learning Center, Newburyport


The c.1822 Powder House, located a safe distance from the homes of the era at Goff's Hill off Low Street, stored gunpowder, flints, musket balls, and camp kettles used by the local militia to defend the community. The Powder House was built in the turbulent aftermath of the War of 1812, which saw Washington's public buildings burned to the ground by the British. Every able-bodied male was required to join a militia. Newburyport's Powder House was well used during the Civil War.

In 2003, a group of citizens formed a restoration committee to preserve this important part of Newburyport's history and open it to the public as a park and learning center. After years of researching original maps, historical documents, new articles, and images of other existing local powder houses, the committee began restoration work in 2009.

Statue of George Washington

Bartlet Mall, corner of High & Pond Streets, Newburyport


Washington said of one of his visits to Newburyport: "In visiting the town of Newburyport, I have obeyed a favorite inclination, and I am much gratified by the indulgence. In expressing a sincere wish for it's prosperity, and the happiness of its inhabitants, I do justice to my own sentiments and their merit." Sculpted in 1879 by J.Q.A. Ward.


Coffin House

14 High Road, Newbury



Built c.1678, this house chronicles the evolution of domestic life in rural New England. Located just over the city line, it is open seasonally and operated by Historic New England.


Dole-Little House

289 High Road, Newbury



The Dole-Little house was built around 1715 with materials salvaged from an earlier structure. Its first owner was Richard Dole, a cattleman, who built a two-room, central-chimney house with a small kitchen shed at the rear. This shed has since been replaced with a larger lean-to. Decorative carpentry and finishes include chamfered edges, molded sheathing (especially in the hall and parlor), and possibly original stair balusters.

Whittier Home

86 Friend Street, Amesbury



The John Greenleaf Whittier Museum Home, located at the home where John Greenleaf Whittier lived  from 1836 until his death in 1892. As a committed abolitionist, faithful Quaker, creative thinker, environmentalist and freedom lover, he published poetry most of his life and is famed for his poem "Snowbound" and especially his anti-slavery activism.


Rocky Hill Meeting House

4 Portsmouth Road, Amesbury



The Rocky Hill Meeting House is one of the best preserved examples of an original eighteenth-century meeting house interior. It was built in 1785, replacing a c. 1715 meeting house for the West Parish of Salisbury. The Rocky Hill Meeting House was strategically placed along the only road that crossed the swift Powow River (via ferry) and led travelers to the Salisbury Point area, and then onward toward Portsmouth. In fact, George Washington paused here to greet the townspeople on his northward journey in 1789.


Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm

5 Little’s Lane, Newbury



This 230-acre farm exemplifies the area’s rich farming heritage and features a unique c.1690 stone and brick manor house. Open seasonally and operated by Historic New England.


Swett-Ilsley House

4 High Road, Newbury



The Swett-Ilsley House is an important early structure. Its original portion was built in 1670 by Stephen Swett, one of the first settlers.  It was one room deep, and later additions during the 18th and 19th centuries more than doubled the size of the house. Over the centuries, the building served as a tavern, chocolate shop, chandlery, and press room, in part due to its location on Newbury's most traveled road.


For more information on these and other historic sites in the area,
please visit Historic New England.