House Stories – John H Couch House – 2 Court Street

There has been a continuing assumption in Newburyport that the historical survey conducted to establish the Newburyport Historic District (National Register of Historic Places) is the be-all of the history of the city’s architecture and of the famous persons who lived here.        I have already demonstrated from earlier house stories (see the folder at the bottom of this website) that the study does not even scratch the surface.       Homes listed in the Smithsonian overlooked (That’s coming soon), famous people’s birthplaces and residences forgotten and worst of all, not even noted in heritage tourism brochures or highlighted in our two major museums.         This is true in the interesting case of Captain John Heard Couch (pronounced Kooch)(1811-1870).        On the wall of the Newburyport Custom House, a story is outlined about his founding of Portland, Oregon and his prominence in the establishing of the State of Oregon. (He was the treasurer for the territory.)     But where was he born?     And where did he end up living when he resided in Newburyport however brief?


When you look at his face, you can see the care of an entire city and state born on his back.     Though it is not certain, he was probably born at the William Couch House at 54-56 Federal Street.     William Couch, a successful shipwright was John’s uncle but it was reported that William ended up inheriting the home from John’s father.    Later, he tried his hand at trading by joining the brig, Mars that travelled to the East Indies. (Indonesia, Malaysia and other south pacific ports.)     His contribution to the success of that journey brought him to the attention of Caleb Cushing. (Cushing’s house is of course the site of the Historical Society of Old Newbury)     Cushing was so confident in this young man’s ability he granted him a ship on a bold adventure.      The United States was embroiled in a war of words with Great Britain on the Oregon Territory.    Cries of “Fifty-four Forty or Fight” were everywhere.      The U.S. was seeking to draw the line at the 54.40th parallel and tensions were high.      John Couch was to take a ship, navigate in sand-bar treacherous waters on the Columbia River, load up with Salmon – go to the Hawaiian Islands and purchase a ship full of whale oil and bring the boat back to Newburyport.      Unfortunately England’s Hudson Bay Company had other ideas and confronted Captain Couch at the mouth of the Columbia River.     He was forced to go to Hawaii, sell the empty ship and take passage back to Newburyport.


Caleb Cushing not only welcomed the captain back but gave him another ship which John named himself, the Chenamus after an Indian chief he befriended at the Columbia River.   He had previously fallen in love with Caroline Flanders, daughter of a successful ship captain and married her in December of 1832.    He traveled back again and with his cunning was able to establish a general store which became very prosperous.     He took out a deed for “Couch’s Addition” (Portland, Oregon of today) of 640 acres in 1842.     The number of  640 acres was given as a tribute to the City of Newburyport which sued to be a separate town from Newbury and was the size of 640 acres.        He became very prosperous filling his pockets and Caleb Cushing’s but after five years, he returned to Newburyport in 1847 travelling as a passenger on the ship China.  Why?     He came back to see his wife and to report his efforts to Caleb Cushing.     He lived with her but one year and then he sailed back to Oregon with her father.    Finally, he did so well that he asked his wife and three daughters to move to Portland in 1852 where they had a fourth daughter born.    Today, he is considered an extremely venerated founder with statues and memorials. (The other two founders were not so well-received, one of them finally leaving town and getting himself hung in Texas!)


2-4 Court Street is a Federal-style building that was deliberately constructed as two separate homes in 1812.     It is not known if the home was owned by the Cushings but it may have been one of their holdings.   


The story of 2 Court Street doesn’t stop there!      Both sides ended up being owned by John H. Balch and John E. Piper (They were partners) in 1871.     Balch and Piper were members of the E.P. Dodge Company making shoes at the big Dodge building at 21-23 Pleasant Street. (Szechuan Taste is on the street level)    This building is designated on the National Register of Historic Places.      They ran a store at 8 State Street called John E. Piper and Company that sold hats, caps and furs.     But the biggest fame lies with Mr. Balch, who ended up being a major incorporator of the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank in 1854.


So the next time, you rush up Titcomb Street and take that little zigzag up Court Street to High; linger long enough to look at this rather simple home and realize that not even the present homeowner, Alfred Laroche, may know that the famous founder of Portland once lived there.


-P. Preservationist


About P. Preservationist

Dedicated to the Enrichment & Preservation of Newburyport
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