Snow blows off the harbor at Newburyport, Massachusetts, carrying whispers of clipper ships. They glide in from the Atlantic, these ghosts from the past, weary from the West Indies, laden with molasses destined to become rum. Soften your eyes, and you can almost see them. From the Gold Coast, from Lisbon, they sail home to this bustling port and shipbuilding hub on the Merrimack River, bellies filled with tea, spices, ivory. The smells and sounds are a giddy collision of harsh and exotic, pungent and sweet. Up and down the wharves, they dock and depart, sails bursting with wind, for St. Petersburg, or Zanzibar, or Bombay.
“After graduating from High School, I began my seafaring life as a boy of sixteen on board the Medora, a ship first built in Newbury,” wrote Captain Moses Mulliken, born in 1816, quoted on a sign at the Custom House Maritime Museum, not far from the waterfront. “[N]early all the crew were from Newburyport. We sailed from Newburyport, bound to Havre, and from there went to Smyrna. I thus visited Asia before I had seen Boston, the capital of my own state.”
Today, standing on the dark, wet boardwalk that curves along the river, it’s no stretch at all to imagine this boy, lean and gangly, watching the familiar harbor recede as the Medora prepares to nose out into the Atlantic, a rough patch of water spiked with shipwrecks. In any case, if the past seems at all distant, a collection of small historical markers along the wooden walkway helps stir the memory pot and remind anyone with an inclination to read …
… Here’s where Somerby’s Landing was laid out in 1752. And over here, Tracy’s Wharf swarmed with privateers during the Revolutionary War, waving letters of marque like pirate flags, with legal permission to attack and loot “enemy” ships.
No, not hard to imagine at all. In fact, from the midst of this growing crowd, on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, the imagined chaos on the waterfront comes even more vividly to life. The air is damp and cold. We’re bundled up like the bales of tea that once bounced onto the waiting wharves. The boardwalk gleams like a ribbon of tar. Everyone expectant, waiting for a boat carrying this day’s precious cargo.
“There he is!”
A shout rises from the crowd. Suddenly the excitement is palpable, as great as that of a ship’s owner watching his vessel dock (perhaps greater). And now we all spot him, yes indeed, off in the distance, riding the waves on a Coast Guard cruiser, a splash of bright red on the horizon. The boat steams closer, his beard is flying in the wind, the missus by his side, and the gust of recognition that whips through the crowd—most of the watchers waist-high or shorter, unless they’re perched on their parents’ shoulders—is so barely contained that, let’s be frank, it’s really not contained at all.
By the time Santa lands, it feels as though all of Newburyport has gathered at the harbor. It’s been a tradition for 25 years, this kickoff to the holiday season—grown children are now bringing their children. The crowd is cheering, waving, pink cheeks flushed from a combination of cold and delight—and that’s just the adults. The children are beside themselves. They’re living in a real-life version of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Newburyport embraces the holidays in a Charles Dickens glow of gaslit streetlamps. Shops stay open late on “Friday Invitation Nights,” plying visitors with refreshments. You can tour 10 historic homes, fully decked, in a much-anticipated yearly event sponsored by the Custom House Maritime Museum (December 14 this year). Naturally there are Christmas concerts and performances. And don’t forget your shopping list. You can score unexpected treasures, such as wooden-ship models at Piel Craftsmen or French-style curios from A Shore Thing.
“People enjoy the joie de vivre that Newburyport exudes at this time of year—they’ll just come and wander around for the day,” says Al Clifford, owner of the Compass Rose Inn, an elegant Federal-style mansion in town. “I reserve rooms a year in advance for Invitation Nights.” Other visitors rest their heads at historic hotels such as the Garrison Inn, named for native son and fervent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. It’s like a stage set for holiday revels, but this is no movie, and the settings and events are real.
Foot meets cobblestone, far-off tang of salt air meets nostrils, and the whip of a late-November wind flips your hair like a sail in this snow globe come to life. Which century are we exploring? There are places in New England where the past overlaps the present like a second skin, and even the hopeless pragmatist feels its pull, like moon tugging on water. So it’s no surprise (except it’s always a surprise) when Newburyport’s past begins seeping into the present, and we get tangled in the web of streets and alleys spreading out from the river. We duck into the Custom House Maritime Museum to get our sea bearings.
“The Merrimack is a violent river,” says Lloyd Sanborn, a fascinating older gent who’s our well-informed guide. “The fifth or sixth hardest river to get out of.” We linger over ships’ logs and sketchbooks of astonishing beauty, intricate models of clipper ships, and, of course, U.S. Coast Guard memorabilia—this is where the gutsy, high-seas organization began. Most haunting of all are the tales of legendary ships and their demise. The Dreadnought, launched in 1853—she could travel from New York to Liverpool in 13½ days; wrecked off the coast of Cape Horn in 1869. The Sovereign of the Seas, an extreme clipper, broke all speed records; ran aground off Malaysia in 1859.
Back out on Water Street, with visions of hard tack dancing in our heads and swags of greenery festooning the brick façades around central Market Square, we decide ’tis the season to stroll. Also, since we’re in that crazy stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we feel like quaffing some old-fashioned cheer. Streets and alleys pinwheel out from the square, like the arms of a starfish, and restaurants teem with activity along State Street. Hard to choose, so at various times during our three-day visit, we’ll warm up at Ceia (meaning “supper” in Portuguese), with coastal European; Agave Mexican Bistro, with spicy sopa de tortilla; and Anchor Stone Deck Pizza, with ooey-gooey pesto pizza.
Later, in search of the ultimate dessert, we stumble on The Tannery, a tangle of restored brick mill buildings along the waterfront. The place is stuffed with tantalizers such as Jabberwocky Bookshop (a city of books, with towering shelves) and Newburyport Olive Oil Company (scent of eau de popcorn and buttered olive oil). But oh, the delights of Chococoa Baking Company—bite-size gourmet whoopie pies, in chocolate ganache, espresso cream, and pumpkin, with organic buttercream fillings. Be grateful that Alan Mons and Julie Ganong turned their backs on the financial world to make whoopies.
To shift gears (and walk off a little ganache), we head up to High Street, where ship captains once were kings. Cheek by jowl, their boxy and beautiful Federal mansions line up like yachts, trumpeting the assets of these early one-percenters: Cushing, Marquand, Bartlet. “The best address was High Street,” Al Clifford says. “You never lived on the water. It was dangerous, dirty, all about business, and not a very clean business.”
Indeed, the fortunes of Newburyport have risen and fallen like a stormy sea, but its talent for renewal is phoenix-like. The last time this beauty rose from the ashes—literally, after a fire destroyed the waterfront in 1811—it rebuilt in the warm, mellow brick that gives the entire triangle radiating out from Market Square a rosy glow. Hard times hit town again in the early 20th century, but in the ’70s, a handful of visionary citizens bucked the urban-renewal trend of tearing down decrepit buildings and fought instead to restore the town’s ruins.
We all reap the benefits today. Newburyport’s past and present, sea and land, are as skillfully entwined as one of those marine-rope bracelets sold in a few of the local stores. On a wintry day, what could be finer than exploring these cobbled streets, ducking into Piel Craftsmen, a tiny storefront that’s been selling handcrafted wooden-ship models for more than 60 years? Or heading down to the waterfront to Oldies, a massive warehouse, to sift through its trove of funky collectibles?
Or coming in from the cold to a steaming bowl of Enzo’s house-made pappardelle pasta, sauced with locally grown mushrooms, a concoction so exquisitely light that it melts in your mouth? When chef/owner Mary Reilly—self-taught—comes to the table, she makes her credo clear: “It’s all about palate and passion.”
But all that comes later in the day. Right now, we’ve got Santa in our sights. He’s drawing us along behind him, like some red-suited Pied Piper. We’ll troop after him, until he climbs into his “sleigh,” a wagon drawn by a team of six hearty Rotarians who pull Mr. and Mrs. Claus in a parade through the downtown. They’ll toss candy canes, sparking mad scrambles, and, finally, as darkness falls, we’ll watch them dance with Frosty and the Gingerbread Man in the center of Market Square. We’ll sing “Deck the Halls” together, as the streetlamps are illuminated and the Christmas-tree lights turn on.
Then, slowly, like tiny boats going out into the night, the crowd will drift away. A hush will descend. And we’ll give thanks for remembering.
Santa arrives in Newburyport this year on December 1. Additional visitor information at: newburyportchamber.org