The quiet seaside community of Newburyport in northeastern Massachusetts is best known today for its recreational sailing, seafood, and plethora of tourist activities. But two centuries ago, the wharves were a hive of backbreaking work, as the bustling seaport exported American goods to faraway Atlantic markets.
One extant reminder of this shipping legacy is the historic custom house, now converted into a maritime museum. Newburyport was a significant port of entry from the early years of the independent United States of America. President George Washington appointed several of the trade officers stationed at the custom house, and the historic structure was designed by the architect Robert Mills who would later go on to design the Washington Monument, Treasury Department, Patent Office, and other notable federal buildings.
Construction of the custom house was completed in 1834, and Newburyport’s industry thrived for decades thereafter. Beginning in the 1870s, however, the advent of the railroad (and Newburyport’s distance from a rail hub) precipitated a long term decline in the local shipping business. By the first decade of the 20th century the staffing expenses at the custom house exceeded its tax revenue, and by 1910 the trading post was shuttered and sold.
Over the subsequent decades, the building was used as a storage barn for hay, a factory for heels for women’s shoes, a junk shop, and storage of submarine parts. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and was acquired by a group interested in restoring the building in the early 1970s.
Today, the Custom House and Maritime Museum displays exhibits on the history of the port, privateering, shipbuilding, and defending Newburyport’s somewhat controversial claim as the birthplace of the United States Coast Guard. The first Coast Guard cutter was constructed in Newburyport, and a presidential proclamation by Lyndon Johnson in 1965 declared Newburyport as the birthplace. The Coast Guard itself, on the other hand, is neutral and undecided on the matter.