- Historic Sites
Reinventing A River
Its waters drove our first Industrial Revolution—and were poisoned by it. Thoreau believed the Merrimack might not run pure again for thousands of years, but today it is a welcoming pathway through a hundred-mile-long red-brick museum of America’s rise to power.
April/May 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 2
But like all the towns we visited, Newburyport never lost its spirit. In the early 1960s, when it had reached its nadir of dilapidation, with much of the downtown boarded up, the town officials took action. They got a plan approved by the federal government: Level 20 acres of downtown, including Market Square, the site of a rebellious tea party in 1773 that may have given Boston the idea, and replace it all with a big shopping center. It was urban renewal, and one stretch of Federal-era buildings gave way to a parking lot.
Then a band of saviors from the morning time of the preservation movement stepped in. They formed a committee and in 1963 invited Mayor Albert Zabriskie to come have dessert with them. “That was a legendary moment for the town,” said Mark Sammons, the executive director of the Newburyport Maritime Society. In fact, the committee more or less had the poor mayor for dinner. “We told him we were not happy with what was going on,” recalls Ruth Burke, a Newburyport native who hosted the gathering. Then they presented an alternative. Instead of demolishing downtown, why not redeem it? The mayor was won over by a slide show that hinted at just how beautiful Newburyport was beneath the grime, and the feds came on board as well, allowing the town to use the money granted for demolition for preservation instead.
That was only the beginning of what has become a more than four-decade-long labor of love. The results are spectacular. The Custom House Museum, from 1835, offers a sense of the renaissance. At one level it is underwhelming, with not particularly great paintings and artifacts like the jawbone of a whale. But the building itself, designed by Robert Mills, the architect of the Treasury Building in Washington, is a marvel.
The best way to appreciate the place is by walking around it. Newburyport is, quite simply, one of the loveliest towns in New England. What National Geographic noted in 1951 still exists—”perhaps the largest and most notable collection of square, well-proportioned, three-story, 19th-century houses to be found anywhere in the country.” Street after street is lined with these meticulously restored treasures. The waterfront bustles with boats, and its harbor seals have returned. If Newburyport has any flaw, it’s that it might be too perfect. Full of Ye Olde This and Thatte Shoppes, it is the kind of place where a birdbath is easier to find than a hammer. Still, a surfeit of preciousness is a small price to pay for this miracle of preservation. Newburyport by itself could have saved the buildings that are its heart, but the simultaneous restoration of the Merrimack was what gave it back its soul. “The river is the jewel of this city,” Welch concluded. “It defines the whole waterfront, which is the grand jewel.”
The great challenge ahead for the Merrimack region is to preserve its recent gains. The pressures of success are beginning to build. Now that the river no longer reeks, development on and near its banks is disrupting bird migration routes, and less dramatic sources of pollution, such as runoff of household waste, are growing in relative importance and proving far more difficult to control. The Merrimack has finally been restored to something like economic and environmental health. It would be a shame if its future were to be marked with the same shortsightedness that served it so poorly in the past.