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Market SquareBuilding the Ship - The First Step: TimberThe Plank Gang
Joiners and CaulkersSail MakersPump and Block MakersFlags
Other TradesThe Rigger’s Wharves


Minnie Atkinson (1868-1958), a local author, wrote about the days of the old shipyards.

"From time to time, as I have thought of the past of Newburyport, I seem to see a brisk but sorely puzzled little old lady whose wraith-like figure flits about the old shipyards and hurries through the narrow old streets as if lost. She seems to look here and there for the sail lofts, the mast yards, the rope walks, and the places of all the other craftsmen and merchants that once fitted her vessels for voyages to all the seas there are. Avoiding what was harsh to the ears and laborious to the workers, she lifts her aristocratic nose for the odors that used to linger about the wharves and the lower part of the city and which the east wind would send through every street. They were the odors of tea and molasses, of spice and rum, of oakum and new lumber, of bales of Indian cotton and French silks, of brandy and wine, of tar and brown sugar, of coffee and salt, - the blended odors of merchandise from all the world."

Market Square

Market Square looking west towards the Firehouse. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

Beginning around 1700 for over one hundred and seventy years, the Merrimack River was one of the most active ports in America, and Newburyport’s commerce activity rivaled that of Salem and Boston. During the height of the shipping era, wharves along the river were producing more ship tonnage than any other seaport community on the east coast. Shipyards constructed high-quality vessels equal to those built at the larger seaports of New York and Baltimore. Groups of expert ship carpenters moved from one yard to the next, and imported goods from overseas passed through the watchful eyes of the Custom House. Vessels built in Newburyport were known for their expert workmanship around the world, and foreign investors eagerly bought interests in Newburyport vessels.

Market Square looking towards State Street. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Old Newbury.

Market Square was home to the ship chandlery businesses, a location to the wharves, large warehouses, and any vessel leaving or entering the harbor. These retail and wholesale dealers carried merchandise for individual seamen, sailing ships, and smaller vessels: resin, turpentine and tar; varnish, cordage and hemp; various types of specialized tools; lanterns and navigational instruments; galley supplies and food provisions.

Over thirty trades were connected to the shipping industry, from carpentry to sail-making, iron forging to coopering, ship carving to joinery, painting to furniture-making, mast-making to block-making, rope-making and rigging, and figurehead carving. All of the men employed in these trades were highly accomplished, and oftentimes two or three generations of family members followed the same trade, passing on valuable skills. As the number of shipyards grew, “gangs” of men in a particular trade were hired from one yard to the next, each expertly focused on one aspect of creating a sailing vessel from a pile of felled timber. The vessels built ranged in size from several hundred tons to a thousand tons.

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Building the Ship - The First Step: Timber

The requirements of a shipyard were simple but essential: an area near deep water preferably with a natural slope to the water, a large space for the construction of the vessel, buildings for a workshop, and a nearby blacksmith forge. The first task was acquiring the timber for a vessel. Carpenters carried custom patterns into the woods to match felled timber to the anticipated needs for different parts of the vessel: ribs, bow, stern, keel, and other sections. Once the trees in the forestlands were felled and roughly shaped according to the patterns, the timber was either floated downriver or hauled by horse or oxen teams to the nearest logging road and loaded onto a vessel or railway to their final destination: the shipyard. A cradle of hardwood provided the base for vessels, and the framers began their work. Framers created a skeleton of ribs from stern to bow, and next the bolters fastened this mass of timber with iron and copper.

Adze tools for shaping wood. Early American Tools. Courtesy of Cecile Pimental.
Axes were used for straightening timbers. Axe heads are designed flat on one side and angled on the other side. Early American Tools. Courtesy of Cecile Pimental.
A draw knife is used to shave wood with fine control adjusting angle of blade depending upon how much wood needs to be removed. Early American Tools. Courtesy of Cecile Pimental.

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The Plank Gang

Timbers were shaped by a steam process to fit the general curve of the vessel, from top to bottom and from bow to stern. The planking gang laid the pliable timber on the inside and outside of the framing.

Constructed for a New York mercantile firm, the Edith H. Symington built in 1900 by William S. Currier. Courtesy of Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

In Robert Cheney’s book Maritime History of the Merrimac, Edward McConnell, an old-timer from the late 1800s, talked about the workmen of shipbuilder John Currier Jr., who constructed one hundred vessels: “John Currier’s Jr.’s planking gang was led by Deacon S. C. Currier, who, as the name implies, was a deacon in the Belleville church. Once a plank was in place the gang would head for the back room of Moses Fowler’s store where a barrel of rum was always horsed up, with a large dipper which when full cost three cents. The deacon would deplore this action in no uncertain terms, but the gang was soon back ready for the next plank when it was steamed. Deacon Currier was still a “boss planker” in 1882, and planked the 1,857 ton ship John Currier, the largest sailing ship built in Newburyport. Deacon Currier never realized the important part Caldwell rum played in shipbuilding.” The Caldwell Rum distillery was established in the late eighteenth century and was known for its unique New England flavor; it was located on Merrimac Street and is now home to Leary’s Fine Wines.

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Joiners and Caulkers

Advertisement in the City Directory of 1873. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

Once the planking was completed, the joiners used adzes, axes, and scrapers to smooth the hull. Fine judgment, physical strength, and a light touch of hand were needed to smooth all the hollows and bumps as the hull curved toward the bow, stern and bottom. Asa Jackman, a member of the Jackman family that built ships for over fifty years, was considered one of the best joiners in the area. Author Cheney watched Mr. Jackman, then over eighty years old, smooth a seventy-five foot vessel hull over a period of weeks. "She was the smoothest hull" that Mr. Cheney had ever seen, he wrote.

Every seam and joint on a wooden vessel has to be caulked with oakum, a blend of cotton and old rope. Maritime History of the Merrimac, Robert Cheney.

Caulkers soon followed the joiners filling in between the planks with a blend of fibers coated with tar called oakum. One oakum strand was as thick as a man’s thumb. Every seam and joint was filled with oakum by a long mallet or beetle, from the decks to the keel. The seams then were covered with paint. Once the caulking was completed, salt was poured down the spaces between the ribs to the water line. Then the celebration began. A barrel of rum “would be horsed up,” plenty of cheese crackers and other food would be provided, and one of the local fire companies would arrive with its hand engine. After a round of preliminary celebration, the hand tub was manned and water pumped into the salted spaces until they were full. This brine would preserve the wood and prevent rot.

Enoch Flanders, a skilled ship caulker, after health issues, became Newburyport’s Town Crier. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

One highly-skilled caulker, Enoch Flanders, suffered a stroke in the prime of his life, leaving one side of his body partially paralyzed. Unable to continue his trade and “instead of going on the town,” as welfare assistance was then called, and not wanting to depend on his family, Mr. Flanders purchased a large bell. For a fee, the new “Town Crier” or Squarry as Enoch Flanders was called would walk around town standing on street corners and in Market Square ringing his large bell to attract a crowd. Then in a loud bellowing voice Squarry would advertise the merchant’s wares, the latest news or song, and upcoming city events. Mr. Flanders’s tenacity and spirit were admired by all, and he continued working into the twentieth century.

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Sail Makers

Advertisement in the City Directory of 1859. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

Sail makers needed an entire floor for the laying out and cutting of the canvas for a vessel. Most shops were located in the center of town where they occupied a loft or top floor of a warehouse. Newburyport sail makers were in demand in other shipbuilding communities as well. In 1883, sail maker Eben P. Goodwin, who worked at Commercial Wharf and was in business for almost forty years, reported that he had made sails for two hundred-fifty square rigger vessels; many of the ships had been constructed outside of Newburyport. Awnings, also in demand, helped shield sailors at sea from the hot sun and were purchased by local shops for their shop fronts. At the foot of Fish Street, now State Street, Ambrose Davis carried on a sail making business in a brick building on Ferry Wharf. The building was partially destroyed by the Great Fire of 1811, which leveled sixteen acres and over two hundred buildings. It was repaired, and the Davis family continued making sails for Newburyport vessels for over 100 years. By 1883, with the end of construction of large vessels, the few sail makers who remained in business, including the Davis family, made sails for the yachting trade, which was on the increase. Other sail makers included George W. Hale at City Wharf; Charles Currier at Cushing’s Wharf; and Clanning & Goodwin at Coomb’s Wharf, the foot Lime Street.

Benjamin Davis at work in his sail loft on Ferry Wharf near the Custom House. Maritime History of the Merrimac, Robert Cheney.

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Pump and Block Makers

Block makers shaped chunks of wood that allowed two, three, or four lines to attach to the masts, spars, and sails. The blocks provided leverage, guidance, and smooth passage for the lines that controlled the sails. One block maker, Caleb Stickney, advertised in the Newburyport Herald of 1869: "Blocks made by steam power. All kinds of ship blocks constantly on hand or made to order on short notice. Orders from abroad promptly attended to."

Advertisement in the City Directory of 1873. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

Vessels often met enormous forces of wind, rain, and heavy seas that inevitably caused leaks in the massive hulls. Pumps, constructed of numerous pieces of wood, assisted the sailors. Many of the pump makers turned to making water pumps for the town when the shipping industry declined. By 1900, most of the pump makers had closed their businesses. Ship pumps were now being made of iron, and most of the handmade wooden pumps were replaced by machine-made pumps. For many years, brothers Moses and Henry Stockman & Son conducted business behind the Market House on Brown’s Wharf.

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The launching of the Edith H. Symington, at the old Currier and Townsend yard at the foot of Ashland Street. Builder William S. Currier, 1900. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

J. J. Knapp, a merchant and importer who occupied a building on Ferry Wharf, supplied the necessary flags for vessels. Flags have always been an important part in navigation. Different types of flags speak an international language and serve as a means of communication between ships and vessels to the coastline. Every ship’s identifying number corresponds to a different group of flags hoisted together. Many a vessel has sailed near our coastal waters or near the mouth of the river with a square yellow flag that tells a story of serious illness, plague, or death. In the 1760s, on-board illness was so prevalent that a hospital or pest house was located near the northern tip of Plum Island. Ships arriving from foreign ports with seamen who had been exposed to smallpox or yellow fever delivered their sailors to the hospital. The ship was required to be washed down with vinegar and clothes buried in the sands for nine days.

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Other Trades

Advertisement in the City Directory of 1873. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

For the first seventy or so years of shipbuilding in New England, there was little interest in any kind of ornamentation on a ship. One of the first requests was made by Gideon Woodwell, of the well-known family in the South End on Water Street. For nearly a century the Woodwell family built one hundred-and-sixty small vessels in the neighborhood of Joppa. In 1765, Mr. Woodwell hired John Britt to make a “figer head to the ship 'Romeoh.' As more money was invested in ship design, decoration became common for cabins and deck areas. Figureheads for the bows and billet heads and trail boards for the stern often depicted life-sized figures of men and women representing owners, investors, or prominent citizens. The shipbuilders William Currier and James L. Townsend decorated their beautiful Dreadnought with a carved dragon covered with twenty-five dollars worth of gilded gold leaf. One of the highly sought-after ship carvers was Joseph Wilson (1779-1857), whose shop was at 8 Strong Street. As the ship industry waned, ship carvers turned to other types of work – banisters for staircases, ornamentation for door and window heads that still decorate Newburyport homes, comb cases, and match boxes.

The art of a ship carver: scroll and wreath compliments a carving of the vessel’s namesake, Thomas Dana built by John Currier, Jr. in 1873. Maritime History of the Merrimac, Robert K. Cheney.

Ropewalk workers spun cotton or hemp into lines, towing hawsers, anchor cables, and fishing line. Rope was a necessity in shipping, and several ropewalks were established early in Newburyport’s history. In 1748 John Crocker set up a ropewalk, probably the first in town, on Bartlett Mall where the courthouse is located. John Tracy soon after established a rope walk near the Quaker Burying Ground on Washington Street. By the early 1800s, ropewalk businesses were located in the South End on Bromfield, Marlboro, and Chestnut Streets. Ropewalks generally employed twenty-five to forty men and produced upwards of $100,000 annually.

A bill-head for John Tracy’s rope yard. History of Newburyport, John J. Currier.

The blacksmith forged anchors, chains, and other related equipment for the vessels. Some of the larger shipyards employed their own blacksmiths, while other smith shops did work for more than one builder. Near Market Square, independent blacksmiths operated their businesses: H. T. Moody operated his smith shop at 40 Water Street and Eben Jewett on Liberty Street.

A blacksmith shop, Newburyport. Photograph by Otis P. Gould. Courtesy of Ghlee E. Woodworth.

The cooper, who made barrels and casks, practiced another trade necessary to ready a ship for voyage. Different types of barrels were taken on board a vessel: “scuttle butts or casks for water, harness casks to keep the salt beef or salt horse,” and square tanks that held water for the passengers. Smaller boats kept on board for emergency launchings carried draw buckets and water kegs. Cooper William S. Coffin had a business on Johnson Wharf at the foot of Ship Street, and T. C. Goodwin worked making barrels at Stanwood’s Wharf near Cushing’s Wharf on Water Street.

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The Rigger’s Wharves

The Edith H. Symington after rigging of masts, sails, lines and cordage. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

Once the hull was completed at the builder’s shipyard, it was launched into the river and floated to the rigger’s wharves on Water Street. The ship carvers, mast builders, pump and block makers, cordwainers, sail makers, blacksmiths and other tradesmen outfitted the ship. The riggers assembled the masts, sails, lines and cordage, and readied the vessel for sailing. The cut and sewn sails were arranged according to the type of sailing vessel: square rigged, schooner, or brigantine.

Tallock Brombeck, a Scandinavian based at Ferry Wharf and Brown Wharf, rigged vessels large and small for over forty years in the mid-1800s. For over one hundred years, three generations of the Pritchard family rigged hundreds of vessels. The rigging work done by William, Charles, and other family members was known throughout the world and vessels rigged by the Pritchard gangs were never reported in trouble with slack or broken lines. Their shops were located over time at three different wharves: Brown, Bayley, and Cushing.

The schooner Edith H. Symington anchored in the Merrimack River ready for a tug to tow her over the sandbar. Courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center.

After launching and made ready for sea, the ships were towed from the pier through the mouth of the Merrimack River. The captain and his seamen would set sail for distant lands or for other ports to pick up cargo. Many of the ships were never seen again in Newburyport harbor, as they were too heavy due to the weight of the cargo to cross over the sandbar at the mouth of the river.

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