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Elbow AlleyCustom HousePearson’s BakeryAtkinson Coal Company
Hale Box FactoryComb-MakersCushing Wharf

Elbow Alley

The gravestone of Peter Romily (1838-1898) and his wife Martha located in the Newburyport Highland Cemetery.

Elbow Alley, also known as Elbow Lane, was a pathway that angled from Water Street up to Liberty Street, an area where many African Americans owned businesses. Peter Romily (1838-1898) arrived in Newburyport on a Barbados, Caribbean vessel owned by Captain Robert Bayley whose family owned a wharf at the foot of Fair Street. Mr. Romily was a cook and worked on fishing boats. He opened a restaurant near the entrance of Elbow Alley in the 1860s, where he remained in business until the 1890s, when he moved to Liberty Street. Mr. Romily and his family lived on Market Street directly behind the St. Paul’s Church in a brick house.

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Custom House

The Custom House was built in 1835. It was designed by Robert Mills (1781-1855), who was the architect for the United States Treasury Building and the Washington Monument in Washington, D. C. The Greek revival structure is built of Rockport, Massachusetts, granite and brick. The purpose of the Custom House was to process the paperwork related to the import and export of goods arriving at and departing Newburyport, registering newly-built vessels, collecting taxes, and regulating commerce.

When America was still under the rule of the British Empire, British custom officials collected the duties of imported goods and sent back all the profits to the British crown. Oftentimes, British officials were more preoccupied with the smuggling of goods by American colonial ports and avoidance of taxes by the colonists, who as time passed ignored the British laws more and more. Evading port tariffs is one possible explanation for the existence of underground tunnels in Newburyport with access to the Merrimack River.

From Market Square, looking towards Custom House on Water Street. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

The Sugar Act or the Revenue Act of 1764 lowered the duties on some products but raised levies on other items that the colonists greatly needed. Angering the colonists even further, the British passed the Stamp Act of 1775, which required stamps to be placed on all "paper products," including tea, resulting in higher levies. The Continental Association passed a law regulating the importation and sale of tea that was frequently violated. In town, chests of tea had been confiscated and placed in the powder house for safety by authorities.

These actions by the British government resulted in a "tea party" in Newburyport, led by shipbuilder Eleazer Johnson who had succeeded his father in building vessels at the foot of Ship Street. According to historian John J. Currier, tradition asserts that Mr. Johnson said to his men: "If any of you are ready to assist in an enterprise that requires courage and discretion, knock your adzes from their handles, shoulder the handles and follow me." Led by Mr. Johnson, the ship carpenters marched to the powder house near the Frog Pond, broke open the door and carried the chests of tea to the vacant area near the meetinghouse, now Market Square. All the tea was destroyed by fire.

Finally in 1776, when the colonies gained independence, the new federal government created a form of taxation similar to the English model. In Newburyport, a Collector of Customs and Deputy was appointed to regulate commerce and collect levies on the variety of imports on ships coming into the port. In 1789, during President George Washington’s visit to Newburyport, he appointed the town’s first Collector of Customs, Stephen Cross, a well-known shipbuilder who had built a fleet of vessels at Lake George, New York, during the French and Indian War of 1756. President Washington also appointed Jonathan Titcomb as Naval Officer and Michael Hodge as the Surveyor of the Port. The location of the first Custom House offices, although unknown, would naturally have been close to the wharfs. The first Custom House and its records were destroyed by the Great Fire of 1811. Over the years local men continued to be appointed to various positions until 1911, when the Custom House closed its doors.

Standing in front of Custom House looking towards Market Square. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

For the next sixty years, the building was used for a variety of businesses - a factory site to manufacture heels for women’s shoes, a storage place for submarine parts, and a junkyard. Then in 1968, the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority acquired the building and surrounding land by eminent domain. The structure was leased to the Historical Commission and then in the early 1970s to the Newburyport Maritime Society that was founded in the late 1960s. In 1975, the building restored, it became home to the Maritime Museum, helping to preserve the rich history of the community’s shipbuilding and maritime trade.

Visit the Custom House Maritime Museum to learn more about Newburyport’s maritime heritage.

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Pearson’s Bakery

Advertisement in the City Directory, 1864-65. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

In 1792, Joseph Pearson Sr. of Newburyport opened Pearson’s Bakery. He invented the hardtack biscuit that was supplied to ships leaving Newburyport to sail all over the world. Pearson's sons Harris, John Jr., and Theodore joined the business. They kept locations on Lime and Center Streets and on Water Street, next to the Titcomb and Lunt mast yard, the area where the Newburyport Art Association is now located. In the early 1800s, John Sr. started bakeries in Portsmouth and Exeter, New Hampshire, while maintaining shops here. He eventually returned to assume management of the popular bakery. John Jr. originated the cream biscuit that also became very popular. In addition to local business and the ship provision business, the bakery sold goods to hotels along the East Coast.

Gravestone of John Pearson Jr. (1788-1878) located in the Newburyport Highland Cemetery.

In 1890, Pearson and Sons merged with another bakery and became known as the New York Biscuit Company. Six years later, the New York Biscuit group joined several dozen others and was renamed the National Biscuit Company. The last location of this successful bakery was Pearson’s Wharf, now the River’s Edge condominium complex along the waterfront of the Clipper City Rail Trail. In the 1950s, another name change took place, one recognizable to most people today. The new name was Nabisco, and its favorite products include Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers, and sadly for New Englanders discontinued an old favorite - Crown Pilot crackers.

John Pearson’s Jr.’s grandson, Edmund L. Pearson (1880-1937), a native of Newburyport, was one of America’s foremost true crime writers. He attended Harvard and went on to New York, choosing a career as a librarian at the New York Public Library. Mr. Pearson wrote over eighty essays, many of them published as books.

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Atkinson Coal Company

Coal Warehouse located on Water Street. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

Just past the Custom House on the waterside stands the Atkinson building, once home to the Atkinson’s Coal and Lumber yard. The structure was built in 1890, one of the few Victorian commercial structures in town with features such as corbelled brick cornices with turned brackets and arched openings on the ground floor. Benjamin F. Atkinson (1822-1897), born in Liberty, Maine, came to Newburyport in 1866. He purchased the Ocean House, an eatery and hotel, and later formed a partnership with John Filmore and constructed over twenty vessels in the 1870s and 1880s, adjacent to Brown’s Wharf on Merrimac Street. Mr. Atkinson was involved in civic affairs as well and was elected mayor in 1875 and 1876. His granddaughter Minnie Atkinson wrote about a variety of topics in Newburyport history.

Looking towards Market Square, a view of the railroad lines that arrived and departed with freight loads of coal and other goods. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

In 1886 Mr. Atkinson purchased his interest in the coal business of Henry M. Cross, an agent for the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, and formed the Atkinson Coal Company, which became the second-largest coal firm in Newburyport. "Coal pockets" for the storage and distribution of coal were erected, and several of them lay along the waterfront areas of old shipyards for wholesale and retail business. Iron ships made frequent trips to Philadelphia and other ports and returned here loaded with coal. The Merrimack River Towing Company owned several tug boats that were used when vessels and barges loaded with coal, lumber, and other merchandise made their way upriver to Haverhill and Lawrence. The railroad line wove its way to the waterfront from the South End, arriving and departing with freight loads of coal and other goods.

Among the workers at Mr. Atkinson's coal company from 1900 to about 1915 was Nelson Ricks, who had been born into slavery. He previously worked at the downtown horse livery stables. Mr. Ricks was a leader in the African American community and frequently gave lectures on a variety of topics.

The Philadelphia and Reading Coal Pocket coal dump and city railroad on Ferry Wharf looking towards the Unitarian Church steeple on Pleasant Street. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.
East of the Custom House and still standing today, the Atkinson family used this building for their coal and lumber business during the late 1800s and 1900s. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center

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Hale Box Factory

Edward A. Hale, who succeeded late owner H. T. Crofoot in the early 1870s, ran a successful box factory on Pike and Water Streets. He employed over twenty workers, mostly women, paying in wages from $400 to $500 per month. Marjorie L. Cary worked at the box shop and wrote a short history of the business.

Mrs. Cary’s grandfather, Louis Atherton Peabody, started working at the factory in 1877, when he was seventeen years old. Mr. Peabody, whose grandfather owned the Peabody Cotton Mills on Water Street, worked at the box factory until 1951, when the factory closed. Mr. Peabody’s sister married an Englishman named Dole, who later established the Dole Plantation and Cannery in Hawaii.

The Hale Box Shop made acid-free boxes for Towle Manufacturing on Water Street, fancy boxes for jewelry and combs, shiny white boxes for Crane’s stationery in Haverhill, Massachusetts, still in existence today, and 40,000 to 50,000 shoe boxes a month. Workers created Christmas cards for Boston's Jordan Marsh department store with envelopes lined with tea paper from China and wedding announcements and specially engraved invitations for local patrons.

Advertisement in the City Directory of 1898-99. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

Workers "cornered boxes on the cornering machine," applied glue, cut out and scored the board to fold, lined boxes with different-colored tea paper, and finally gathered the orders together for their customers. Reminiscing about her grandfather who was in charge of making the glue that she remembered being the color of butterscotch and smelling of dry fish, Mrs. Cary wrote: ". . . under the staircase on the first floor, my grandfather had gerryrigged a clutch system of gears on an old "Easy" washer that allowed it to have two speeds when mixing fish glue. I marvel at this because my grandfather had never mastered the art of driving despite several attempts in my aunt’s old Model A Ford roadster. When the glue hardened, it had to be thinned out with hot water. This was managed with a garden hose run off the hot water tank. He would kick the sides of the washer to loosen the glue, until it thinned out. He probably kicked out all his frustration on this machine."

As a twenty year-old, Mrs. Cary began working at the box shop and learned how to run the cornering machine. At the bequest of her grandfather Peabody, she learned the 'art of carrying twenty-five boxes down the stairs' which was not a simple task. "First folding and cornering, papering sides, then bottoming, matching tops and bottoms of the same size. To carry the boxes, you lined them up five boxes slanted toward the right, then five on top slanted to the left, then five right, five left, and lastly five right. To move them you had to exert equal pressure on each side on the first and fifth box of the first row, and hold your arms out in front away from your body. If the pressure was not equal, the middle would fall out. It took me a long time to go through a day without a "twenty-five pick-up." The first time I made it through the whole day, they all cheered and I took a deserved bow."

The computerized industry, use of plastic, and the decline of the handmade box all contributed to the Hale Box Factory's closing in 1951. Owner Edward A. Hale, gave Mr. Peabody a gold watch for his fifty-seven years of service with his name engraved on it, which passed to his granddaughter, Mrs. Marjorie L. Cary.

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Advertisement in the City Directory of 1877. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

The birthplace of the comb industry in America was at the home of Enoch Noyes in West Newbury. In 1759 Mr. Noyes was manufacturing horn buttons and combs, and by the 1830s there were twenty comb businesses in West Newbury and three shops in Newburyport. Cow horns, tortoise shells, and sometimes antlers were shaped into decorative hair pieces and combs for barbers. In 1832 Enoch Noyes's grandson David arrived in Newburyport, supported by Charles H. Coffin, an ambitious merchant. Mr. Coffin rented several buildings at the foot of Fair Street, in the area of the future shipyards of the Cushing and Bayley families. Here Mr. Noyes fitted up a machine shop, erected a steam engine of about fifteen horsepower, and employed several skilled mechanics and a pattern-maker. In a short time, Mr. Noyes had invented a machine for cutting instead of sawing the teeth of dressing-combs. The device could cut both coarse- and fine-tooth combs. This invention revolutionized the local comb-making industry as this type of comb, the "English dressing-comb," had previously mostly been imported from England. Despite success, fourteen years later Mr. Noyes and his family moved to New Jersey to begin another business.

Comb-Makers Davis F., William, and William H. Noyes. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

In 1871 David’s brother, William Noyes, along with his son William Herbert Noyes, moved the family comb business from State Street to Water Street and leased a shop on Ferry Wharf. Soon after the family moved their comb business to the foot of Pike Street. In 1879 William H. and his brother, Davis F., under the firm name of William H. Noyes & Co., built a large building on Chestnut Street in Joppa, the South End of Newburyport, and continued to produce comb products for many years. According to Bernard W. Doyle, author of Comb-Making in America, the elder William "invented many and mastered the most complicated problems of mechanics. His career and accomplishments in the comb industry have never been equaled by any man since his time."

Tortoise-shell, wood and horn combs. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

Of William H. Noyes, Doyle observed in 1925, "To William H. Noyes, who showed most strongly the genius inherited from his father, belongs the credit for practically all the comb machinery invented in the past fifty years. A man of vision and tenacity of purpose, William H. Noyes was one of those who made the comb industry one of the most important, and compelled manufacturers from all over the country to look to the little town of Newburyport in Massachusetts for the latest developments in comb-making machinery and methods."

Advertisement in the City Directory of 1877. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

The large Noyes comb factory on Chestnut Street employed fifty hands with a weekly payroll of $350. The firm produced 400 dozen combs a day with an annual worth of goods from $50,000 to $60,000. Another comb factory located at the corner of Fair and Water Streets, Carr, Brown, & Co., employed forty-five hands producing up to $50,000 worth of combs annually. The firm worked in the comb industry for more than twenty years. The successful firm of G. W. Richardson produced combs on Dalton Street; the factory was destroyed by fire in 1919.

In Caleb Cushing’s The History and Present State of the Town of Newburyport of 1826, Mr. Cushing reported there were over 125 persons employed in the comb factories. Records showed that 56,000 dozen of various sizes of shell combs were manufactured at a value of $140,000. The factories produced over 40,000 horn combs at a value of $43,000.

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Cushing Wharf

John Newmarch Cushing Jr. standing in doorway of his residence at 98 High Street, now the home of the Cushing Museum. Circa 1902. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Old Newbury.

Captain John Newmarch Cushing (1779-1849), born in Salisbury, purchased one half of the 98 High Street mansion on the corner of Fruit Street in 1808, and the remainder in 1822. Captain Cushing was an active shipmaster until 1815, having made numerous voyages overseas and to the West Indies. For nearly thirty years, he was a successful merchant and principal owner of a large number of vessels employed in trade with Russia, Holland, and other northern European countries. Captain Cushing and sons, John, Jr. and William managed a wharf at the foot of Fair Street, rigging and outfitting ships. He married Lydia Dow, with whom he had three children. Their eldest son, Caleb Cushing, was the first mayor of Newburyport and a notable statesman and advisor to several Presidents. Lydia passed away in 1810, and Captain Cushing married Elizabeth Johnson, with whom he had four children including John Jr. and William.

Portrait of William Cushing. Courtesy of the Newburyport Daily News.

In Cushing and Allied Families, Captain Cushing’s granddaughter Margaret (1855-1955), daughter of John, Jr., reminisced about the days of thriving shipyards in Newburyport: "In my childhood Newburyport was a maritime town. All the most promising young men went to sea or worked in their father’s counting-rooms, from which the ships, on long ocean voyages, were directed.

There were three or four large shipyards in Newburyport where ships were built and from where they were launched. The launching of one of our ships from the yards of John Currier, Jr., was a great event. We were always allowed to stay at home from school on these eventful days. A crowd assembled from all parts of the city, and I well remember the intensity of my feelings when all was ready for the men to cut away the blocks which held the ship on the stocks. Even now I can hear the blows which preceded the first trembling of the great ship before she slipped slowly and majestically into the water. There was generally, after the launching, a simple collation of crackers, cheese, and coffee, in the office of the builder, for those most interested in the ship.

The ship Mary L. Cushing, 1883. Built by John Currier, Jr. and the last ship to be built on the Merrimack River. Wikipedia and Library of Congress image.

Our new ship was then towed down the Merrimack River (a distance of perhaps one mile), to Cushing’s Wharf, where was the counting-room of my father and Uncle William, with the sail loft and all the other necessary buildings. Here the ship was rigged, and, when all was ready, she sailed out over the bar at the mouth of the river, never to return, because after being loaded she drew too much water to recross the bar."

Newburyport closed the record of shipbuilding at John Currier Jr.’s shipyard with the launching in 1883, of the Mary L. Cushing, 1,573 tons, the last vessel of that class built in Massachusetts. Her elaborate cabins were decorated with red plush carpeting and an upright piano. The ship was named after John Newmarch Cushing’s wife.

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