In November of 1734 Newburyport, Massachusetts resident Ralph Cross sold valuable waterfront property to one of his neighbors, Philip Coombs. The price was a decidedly steep 198 pounds according to records still available for view at city hall but Coombs had grand ideas that were certain to make him back that cost and then some. Over the course of the next twenty years Coombs, with surprising foresight, built a wharf big enough for the loading and unloading of fishing, merchant and privateering vessels. By 1756 the town was, just as Coombs had anticipated, a bustling port and Philip was collecting fees from ship owners hand over fist.
Philip Coombs served Britain during the French and Indian war. He left his family to fight in 1756 and was taken prisoner and killed that same year. Given this tragedy another family may have let the wharf go to seed but not the Coombs. Young William inherited his father’s property and, evidently, his genius for seafaring business. When the Revolution broke out, Coombs wharf became a key landing and departure point for Continental privateers bringing with them the benefits of trade goods like copper, iron, sugar, indigo and yardage which led to a boom in Newburyport’s economy.
William Coombs himself organized some of the privateers into a small flotilla that sailed to the Caribbean and pillaged British stores of gunpowder and shot. Local historians believe this to be the first case of a Continental raid for gunpowder, with many more to come. Coombs became one of his town’s selectmen and eventually represented his area in the state legislature. He died in 1814 when his wharf was again bristling with privateers due to the War of 1812.
His wharf continued in use until the early 20th century, with significant refit including granite slabs undertaken around the time of the Civil War. By World War II, however, the area was filled in for first housing and then businesses and the wharf was largely forgotten by those who strolled, worked and lived just above it.
Last June, digging for a new waste-water operations plant revealed those granite slabs and capping stones from the 1860s refit and further digging took archeologists, who came on scene almost immediately after the first discovery, down to the original wooden structure that was Coombs’ wharf.
Unfortunately, as this article from The Boston Globe reveals, the entire area was contaminated by oil tanks which rested above the wharf and leaked during the 1950s. This makes what has been and what is being found inelligible for protection under the National Register of Historic Places and too dangerous to move. All the archeologists and local historians can do is document and catalogue without moving most of the actual artifacts they are finding.
The crews on site on doing their best to collect as much data as possible and, as Newburyport Historical Commission member Tom Kolterjahn says in the article, “…trying to preserve what they can and leave as much of it intact as they can.” Perhaps some day soon there will be a way to clean up the area and make it accessible again. Until then, it’s nice to know that a significant piece of American history is being looked after and remembered.
Header: Newburyport Waterfront from a local realtor’s brochure