The second-smallest city in Massachusetts, Newburyport still has plenty of historic sites and great natural resources.
It’s always hard to choose the photo for Newburyport’s annual visitor’s guide, says Ann Ormond, president of the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce and Industry, because the city just has so much to offer.
“We have natural resources that people would kill for,” Ormond says, noting that not only does Newburyport feature an attractive, accessible riverfront, but also beaches on Plum Island, a popular rail trail, and a state park filled with hiking trails. Not to mention there’s a walkable downtown, preserved with foresight in the 1970s when other towns were using state and federal redevelopment money to tear everything to the ground. “Literally, the wrecking ball was coming down the street,” Ormond says, pointing out historic pictures of city buildings that were falling apart 40 years ago.
You could never imagine it today, as buildings dating from the 1800s and earlier now house an eclectic array of shops and restaurants, and downtown bustles year-round with shoppers and tourists ambling along State Street snapping photos, leisurely strollers enjoying the waterfront boardwalk, and everything from baby carriages to bikes and rollerblades filling the Clipper City Rail Trail every time the sun peeks out, no matter the season.
The rail trail ends at the riverfront—Newburyport’s primary draw dating back hundreds of years. In fact, the river contributed to the port city’s separation from the town of Newbury in 1764, because the farmers who initially settled there found it difficult to co-exist with the merchants and tradesmen of the “water-side.”
In addition to imports and trade, shipbuilding was one of Newburyport’s most important and profitable businesses, gaining it the nickname “Clipper City.” In fact, the vessel Massachusetts, built in Newburyport in 1791, was the first ship to enter service in what is now the Coast Guard. However, as Mayor Donna Holaday is quick to point out, just being the birthplace of the Coast Guard and having an active station was not enough to get the city recognized as a “Coast Guard City,” a designation bestowed on just 17 cities and one that Newburyport achieved just last year after an extensive application process. “Admiral [Robert] Papp [Commandant of the Coast Guard] said Newburyport set a new standard for a Coast Guard City,” the Mayor says proudly.
The city’s Coast Guard connection and maritime history is on approachable display at the Customs House Maritime Museum. The building, designed by Robert Mills, architect of the Washington Monument, was meant to facilitate trade and tax collection and is now home to a unique mix of maritime art, model ships, and fascinating displays about shipwrecks spanning from historical to modern times.
Visitors and residents who want an even deeper understanding of the city’s long history can find it on the Clipper Heritage Trail. Work started this spring to install granite trail markers that call attention to local points of interest, and a companion website lists 12 downloadable walking tours, with a mobile app coming soon. “It will be our answer to Boston’s Freedom Trail,” Holaday says.
Looking back isn’t Newburyport’s only focus—it has 1.5 million square feet of occupied industrial space, including the Newburyport Clean Tech Center, a business incubator for sustainable technology. A large investment was recently approved to renovate the city’s aging public schools—one that’s helped strengthen an already tight housing market.
Waterfront boardwalk in Newburyport
Newburyport also hosts a surprising array of theatre, dance, music, literature, and visual arts for a city its size. To celebrate this array, a committee is working to get a state-authorized cultural district designation through the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “We have all the assets [necessary] to qualify for the designation, including festivals, art, theatre, music, dance, and the public art on our rail trail,” Mayor Holaday says, adding that the cultural district designation will bring increased visibility to all the city has to offer.
Planning a visit to Newburyport? Make a note to stop in at these must-see spots.
Date of Settlement: 1635. Date of Incorporation: 1764. Area: 8.35 square miles. Population: 17,552. Zip Code: 01950, 01951. Median Household Income: $80,861. Public schools: Newburyport High School, Rupert A. Nock Middle School, Edward G. Molin Upper Elementary School, Bresnahan Elementary School, Brown Elementary School, River Valley Charter School. Private Schools: Immaculate Conception School, Newburyport Montessori School, Inn Street Montessori School, Northern Essex Community College. Notable Residents: Raymond Abbott, author; Andre Dubus III, novelist; William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist; Francis Cabot Lowell, manufacturer; Johnny Messner, actor; Robert S. Mulliken, Nobel Prize winner; Edmund Pearson, true crime writer; Jacob Perkins, inventor of the modern refrigerator; Harriet Prescott Spofford, writer; Matthew Thornton, signer of the Declaration of Independence; Peter Tolan, Emmy-winning screenwriter, director, producer.