Newburyport, Massachusetts | It’s a Wonderful Life
Snow blows off the harbor at Newburyport, Massachusetts, carrying whispers of clipper ships. They glide in from the Atlantic, these ghosts from the past, weary from the West Indies, laden with molasses destined to become rum. Soften your eyes, and you can almost see them. From the Gold Coast, from Lisbon, they sail home to this bustling port and shipbuilding hub on the Merrimack River, bellies filled with tea, spices, ivory. The smells and sounds are a giddy collision of harsh and exotic, pungent and sweet. Up and down the wharves, they dock and depart, sails bursting with wind, for St. Petersburg, or Zanzibar, or Bombay.
“After graduating from High School, I began my seafaring life as a boy of sixteen on board the Medora, a ship first built in Newbury,” wrote Captain Moses Mulliken, born in 1816, quoted on a sign at the Custom House Maritime Museum, not far from the waterfront. “[N]early all the crew were from Newburyport. We sailed from Newburyport, bound to Havre, and from there went to Smyrna. I thus visited Asia before I had seen Boston, the capital of my own state.”
Today, standing on the dark, wet boardwalk that curves along the river, it’s no stretch at all to imagine this boy, lean and gangly, watching the familiar harbor recede as the Medora prepares to nose out into the Atlantic, a rough patch of water spiked with shipwrecks. In any case, if the past seems at all distant, a collection of small historical markers along the wooden walkway helps stir the memory pot and remind anyone with an inclination to read …
… Here’s where Somerby’s Landing was laid out in 1752. And over here, Tracy’s Wharf swarmed with privateers during the Revolutionary War, waving letters of marque like pirate flags, with legal permission to attack and loot “enemy” ships.
No, not hard to imagine at all. In fact, from the midst of this growing crowd, on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, the imagined chaos on the waterfront comes even more vividly to life. The air is damp and cold. We’re bundled up like the bales of tea that once bounced onto the waiting wharves. The boardwalk gleams like a ribbon of tar. Everyone expectant, waiting for a boat carrying this day’s precious cargo.
“There he is!”
A shout rises from the crowd. Suddenly the excitement is palpable, as great as that of a ship’s owner watching his vessel dock (perhaps greater). And now we all spot him, yes indeed, off in the distance, riding the waves on a Coast Guard cruiser, a splash of bright red on the horizon. The boat steams closer, his beard is flying in the wind, the missus by his side, and the gust of recognition that whips through the crowd—most of the watchers waist-high or shorter, unless they’re perched on their parents’ shoulders—is so barely contained that, let’s be frank, it’s really not contained at all.
By the time Santa lands, it feels as though all of Newburyport has gathered at the harbor. It’s been a tradition for 25 years, this kickoff to the holiday season—grown children are now bringing their children. The crowd is cheering, waving, pink cheeks flushed from a combination of cold and delight—and that’s just the adults. The children are beside themselves. They’re living in a real-life version of It’s a Wonderful Life.