Newburyport’s Historic Wharves:
Archaeology Offers Clues to Newburyport’s Past

An archaeological discovery

In the midst of work in early 2011 to upgrade the city’s wastewater treatment plant on Water Street, excavators uncovered evidence of Newburyport’s historic Coombs and Bartlet wharves. Guided by UMass archaeologist Tim Barker, workers exposed four 12-foot timbers thought to be the bulkhead of a structure from the late 18th century, Lower Bartlet Wharf.

According to NPT member Bill Harris, a member of the city’s Chapter 91 Committee, the finding is important because the city has no detailed maps that show wharf details before 1830.

At the time, during the cold weather, the timbers were placed next to granite blocks excavated from the nearby Coombs Wharf. (William Bartlet and William Coombs are also notable because they financed early naval vessels in the Revolutionary era.) In late February 2011, however, one of the timbers was transported to the Maryland Archaeological and Conservation Laboratory in for proper stabilization and conservation. In late 2012 the pier was returned to Newburyport, where it is presently on display at the Custom House Maritime Museum. The 45-inch section of pitch pine is the only remaining 18th-century evidence of the network of wharves that once lined Newburyport's waterfront.

Historical background

William Coombs (1736-1814) headed the Newburyport Committee on Public Safety and Correspondence before and during the Revolutionary War. In that capacity, he championed merchant investment in privateers, a quasi-navy for the Revolutionary forces. A daring trip to French Guadaloupe under his command in 1775 allowed Captain Coombs to return with provisions for not only his privateers but for those of other privateer owners --- with Newburyport an early advocate for a privateer fleet. He operated from the Coombs Wharf near Lime Street and Water Street. 

After founding of the Republic in 1789, with French violations of international law and seizure of many U.S. merchant vessels, and no protective naval force on the high seas, President John Adams urged the Congress to establish a navy, which the Congress did on April 30, 1798. On May 23, 1798, Captain William Coombs, and the owner of the nearby Lower Bartlett Wharf, William Bartlet (1748-1841), were two of eight initial Newburyport subscribers to finance the first "subscription" vessel of the US Navy, the sloop Merrimack. This ship displaced 355 tons, and carried a crew of 105 men and a contingent of 20 marines. It was captained by Moses Brown of Newburyport. 

On June 1, 1798, these eight Newburyport merchants (all members of the Newburyport Marine Society, where William Coombs served as treasurer), wrote their representative in Congress, Bailey Bartlett (sic), to offer the President a subscriber-funded warship of 355 tons and at least 20 cannon. The U.S. government would pay only the six percent interest costs of the construction price, and at its convenience would later reimburse purchase costs, when the U.S. Treasury had a larger capital account. The U.S. Congress later enacted legislation approving a subscription-navy with six percent interest allowed --- emulating the offer first provided by merchant-patriots of Newburyport.

President John Adams approved the investment, and thanked the merchants of Newburyport. The ship-financing was administered through the new Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, who accepted this generous offer. 

The Merrimack was built in Newburyport in just 74 working days. No other U.S. seaport, from Charleston, South Carolina, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, could match the speed of construction of Newburyport ship-builders. The Merrimack went to sea on December 9, 1798. It was the first of 10 subscription warships that patrolled the Caribbean and escorted U.S. merchant ships in the quasi-war with France. This Newburyport-built ship was the only subscription-navy vessel placed in service in 1798. 

Action by these Newburyport merchants made the small town of Newburyport the first in the nation to offer, fund, and build a subscription-ship for the newly-established U.S. Navy. (Some ships built directly by the federal government before it had a Navy Department were constructed and at sea earlier.) 

The Coombs and Bartlet wharves, through their maritime commerce, supported this generous investment in the first of the nation's subscription naval vessels.

Later, in the 1840s, with the introduction of steam-planing through use of circular saws, what had been lower Bartlet Wharf became known as Kimball's Planing Mill Wharf. Here, ships brought in large trees for milling and planing into structural timbers. 

After a fire in 1870, the Kimball Planing Mill was rebuilt, with at least one of the buildings built in brick. Kimball took over Coombs Wharf, and later the Perkins Lumber Company took over from Kimball.

Future interpretation

This site contains pre-Revolutionary maritime infrastructure and 19th century infrastructure of the age of steam. It is of both local and national significance, because the merchants operating here used their wealth to advance the build-out of a subscription-navy for the United States. Granite-topped wharves, placed at Coombs Wharf before the Revolutionary War, were not common either in Newburyport or in Massachusetts. This is the only presently-known granite-topped wharf found in Newburyport. 

Newburyport hopes to preserve and interpret these locally- and nationally-significant elements of our nation's past. The immediate adjacency of the Newburyport Rail Trail provides interpretative opportunities at the 115 Water Street site, and potentially at other waterfront sites in Newburyport.

Video: Excavations at Coombs Wharf

Excavations at Coombs Wharf, Newburyport (2010, 29 min.). This video provides an overview of the 2010 excavations, and features NPT member Bill Harris, UMass archaeologist Tim Barker, historic masonry consultants Mary & Jane Gage, and Newburyport Historical Commission and NPT member Tom Kolterjahn. (Filmed by Jerry A. Mullins, Port Media volunteer.)

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