There were three historic cities that were in the ‘toilet’ back in the 60’s & 70’s: Charleston, Newburyport & Portsmouth. Thanks to the pioneering effort of using historic preservation as a tool, Newburyport was restored and this started a movement that permitted Charleston, Portsmouth and many other communities to be re-invigorated. Of the three mentioned, Charleston and Portsmouth are now internationally well-known and prospering well. Newburyport though is still not known on the larger scene. No tourists of any large number plan extensive visits to our area and we are only recently known by a growing number of New Englanders.
This is due to “The Curse”.
At one time, Newburyport was the fifth most important city in America. President Washington didn’t pass through Newburyport. He specifically came to Newburyport. The powerful merchants were instrumental in funding the Revolutionary War and he wanted to report to the “Stockholders”. Newburyport’s shipbuilding prowess, its international trade connections made it a powerful revenue source for the fledgling Republic. Privateering made us feared by the British and the French alike and also brought great revenue for America. Our clipper ships were celebrated around the world and some of the most famous events and characters have passed through our City. Yet, just around 1840-61, we basically fell off the map, a lost city who has failed to gain national attention over the years. Even our historic restoration has fallen short because NOBODY KNOWS WE EXIST. Go to sleepy Rockport and you’ll find three nice restaurants and 51 hotels. There is practically nothing to do in Rockport and they are packed. (Rockport is internationally known.)
As for Newburyport, there are no travel advertisements even tiny ones in magazines and tourist rag sheets from Budget Travel to Travel & Leisure that mentions us. Locals crave the few morsels of sentences that even mention us in passing. Films are made here and they rename the City because NOBODY KNOWS WE EXIST.
New England Development is here precisely because NOBODY KNOWS WE EXIST. Where else can a famous celebrity tie his or her yacht to our docks and walk in our City without being mobbed? Couple the fact that ‘Porters have a custom of ignoring famous people here and leaving them in peace and you have a perfect place for anonymity.
So why is this? Well, I found out as I was researching the Underground Railroad in Newburyport. The curse was leveled by none other than the poet, John Greenleaf Whittier! Name sound familiar? You should, he’s buried over in Amesbury and celebrated in both Amesbury and Haverhill. He was the ‘Poet Laureate’ of the Abolitionist movement.
As much as William Lloyd Garrison in his weekly Newburyport paper, Free Press, gave space for his first efforts in poetry and in which Mr. Garrison shepherded him, he cursed our city. This he did to the City that gave him his start to become a great champion for the Abolitionist movement.
Here is the criminal who has doomed Newburyport!
You see, all the great things that made Newburyport great became a curse to the Abolitionists. Newburyport participated in the Triangle Trade. Rum was sent out on ships to be sold to slavers in Africa who in turn would provide slaves raided from other tribes and the slaves would be brought to the South, then after selling them, the ships loaded with molasses and cotton and tobacco would be bound for the Northern states and great profit was made. The molasses would be converted to rum and the whole process would begin again. The mighty mansions on High Street were often built on the economy of slavery. Thus, the majority of Newburyporters profited from the trade and disliked anyone from offending the Southerners. Yes, it was the stuff of money but this city has always been a place of merchants and of business. William Lloyd Garrison so celebrated now was jailed and had to flee the city. John Greenleaf Whittier tried to hold meetings in Newburyport and was pushed out into the street and in our typical New England weather. Newburyport was considered along with Boston as one of the most dangerous links in the Underground Railroad with Slave bounty hunters constantly watching. One ship captain was caught hiding slaves in his ship, imprisoned for a very long time, heavily fined and then branded on his hands with “S.S.” (Slave Stealer). Mr. Plumer from Federal Street and his associates were constantly in danger.
On top of all this, the Temperance Movement was gathering steam at this time and the many rum producers in Newburyport were not happy in becoming a symbol of intemperance.
“As for Newburyport, we shall remember it. We shall place it, as the Sandwich Islanders* say, under Taboo. Nature has placed a bar in its harbor; let its complacent aristocracy see to it that they do not place a more effectual one against the approach of their country friends upon land.”
History has proven Mr. Whittier’s curse to be very strong indeed. The Triangle Trade is long gone, the Rum no longer flows in our city and William Lloyd Garrison stands triumphant in Brown Square. The sand bar has moved over to torment Plum Island. The only thing that has not changed is our fear of ‘outsiders’ which seems to keep the world at length. The key to lifting this curse is fostering a welcome sign in Newburyport, embracing some of the good things that other cities have done and promoting us to the outside world.
Councilor Herzog’s pioneering effort to attract Google Fiber to our city is exactly the right attitude toward the outside. We have all the treasures imaginable to offer the world. America and the World was our ‘oyster’ once and we can bravely and boldly welcome them both back to Newburyport.
If we can do these things, we may yet break “The Curse”.
Convict Number One!
* Hawaiian Islands