May 5, 2003


Rebuilding the story; Custom House Museum's new exhibit on course to better define Newburyport's maritime past


Staff Writer

Newburyport's Custom House Maritime Museum is embarking on a new voyage this spring as it seeks to better tell the tale of the scene that once existed outside its doorstep.

The project sets sail with "Ships, Trips, and Half Hulls," a new exhibit highlighting the captains, shipyards and vessels that earned Newburyport its "Clipper City" designation.

The Newburyport Maritime Society's staff and volunteers combed the attic of the Custom House and went through its collection to pull together artifacts that offer a more comprehensive picture of 19th century maritime life here.

The group intends the exhibit, which has taken over the upstairs Moseley Gallery at the Water Street museum, to be a permanent one at its core, yet fluid enough to evolve and expand with additional pieces.

"We want to showcase Newburyport as a ship-building hub," said Cari Conway, executive director of the maritime society, which operates the museum on the city's waterfront.

"Eventually, we want to talk about what happened outside the windows here and tie the Custom House into its connection with the Merrimack River."

To paint the picture of the city's shipping past, curator Caroleann Martin McPherson said the society has assembled a mix of a dozen half-hull designs of Newburyport ships, a few ship models, portraits of noted captains and their vessels, and their tools of the sea.

Everything on display has some tie to Newburyport, with considerable attention paid to the former John Currier Jr. Shipyard off Merrimac Court and Savory Street. The shipyard was probably the most active of those in Newburyport in the mid-1800s, responsible for producing the larger vessels that sailed out of the Merrimack.

"This hopefully will show why shipping was important in this area and why it's still romantic to us today," said McPherson. "It's so much a part of why Newburyport is Newburyport."

Visitors to the new exhibit will first be introduced to Newburyport Capt. Lawrence Brown and his family, who provide the prelude to the featured exhibit.

Brown, the captain of the Sonora, was noted for bringing his family to sea with him. One of his daughters, Alice, often accompanied him, starting from the time she was just 8 years old.

Patricia Brown Valiasek, the granddaughter of Alice Brown, has recently donated several of the heirlooms her grandmother acquired on her voyages to the maritime museum.

Among the pieces are a quilt handmade by Alice Brown, which she adorned with oil paintings of places she sailed with her father as well as local places of interest such as Deer Island. There is a kimono she sewed from material she picked up overseas, a shawl, as well as family portraits and other artifacts.

The idea, said McPherson, is to humanize the captains and their lives.

"We tried to create an ambiance that brings people back in time," she said, "and gives them a feel for this era."

The Brown family display segues into the main exhibit hall, which seeks to spotlight the mid-1800s, which was the most active shipping period for not only Newburyport, but for the world, said William Partridge, owner of Piel Craftsmen in Newburyport, a model ship-building and restoration shop.

A master model ship craftsman and restorer, Partridge volunteered his services to the new exhibit, refurbishing half hulls that had been stored in the attic for years, cleaning up models, and helping to research the stories they represent.

Partridge said he is pleased to see the society showcasing its collection of half hulls, the three-dimensional carved wooden plans crafted by shipbuilders when designing a vessel.

Assembled in layers, the half hulls would convey the size and shape of the ship to be built. Often, they were presented to the owner as a memento after the ship was completed.

"Many think they're just wall display items," said Partridge, "but they were functional, working tools used in shipyard to create the ships."

When possible, the society has paired the half hulls with models and paintings of the ships they inspired.

For example, the Castillian -- a three-masted brig built in 1850 at Currier Shipyard and captained across the ocean by the wife of Capt. Alexander Graves after he became incapacitated -- is depicted in a painting and half hull. There is a model and painting of the Currier-built John N. Cushing donated by the Goodhue family of Maine, who also contributed a model of the Elizabeth Cushing ship.

Centerpieces of the exhibit include a dramatic oil painting of the collision of the Gladiator, a three-masted square rig out of Gloucester shown after it was struck in dense fog by a trans-Atlantic steam sailing ship. The Gladiator was said to be captained by a Newburyport man in the 1800s.

The diorama of Currier Shipyard showing a vessel in the process of being framed, and the figurehead Justice by a Newburyport ship carver were relocated from elsewhere in the museum to accent the new exhibit.

The display also begins to pay tribute to Donald McKay, who is considered the most famous shipbuilder from Newburyport. McKay began his career as an apprentice with Currier before demand for his talents took him to East Boston and Boston.

The maritime society eventually hopes to do an entire display on McKay, who is buried in Newburyport. For now, it is spotlighting a model of one of his famous clipper ships, The Sovereign of the Seas, which was built while he was in East Boston.

The piece, which depicts the ship set in water under full and complete sail, was just donated to the museum by Bernard Coffee and his family. Coffee contacted Partridge seeking a proper home for the model, and the craftsman directed him to the maritime museum.

One wall focuses on the experiences of two 19th century Newburyport ship captains -- George Thatcher Avery and Charles Watts -- featuring their portraits, paintings of the ships they sailed, and some of their personal effects.

Partridge hopes the society's current emphasis on its collection encourages others who may have historical artifacts reflecting Newburyport's shipping past to loan or donate them to the museum so it may begin to fill in the gaps.

He would love to see a book published some day detailing the Newburyport Maritime Society's collection. Until then, he will focus his attention on helping to promote Newburyport's place in maritime history within the walls of the museum.

"My vision is to make this room the hall of ships," he said.


The collection of the Custom House Maritime Museum, including the new exhibit "Ships, Trips and Half Hulls," is open for viewing Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. The museum is located at 25 Water St. in downtown Newburyport. For information, call the Newburyport Maritime Society at 978-462-8681.

(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)
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