Impulsive Traveler: In Newburyport, Mass., a treasure hunt through history

By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2010; 11:45 AM

Poor John P. Marquand. Gone from famous 20th-century writer to near-obscurity in a mere 50 years.

Sic transit, I think mournfully, gazing at the little black Royal portable and the typewritten manuscript in the worn manila folder beside it. He actually typed those pages himself, I think. But who cares anymore, in this Internet age?

I'm in the John P. Marquand Library in the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport, Mass., a room devoted to the patrician author who apparently hailed from this coastal town (and wrote about it in some of his books and kept a home here). I never knew that, even though I grew up just a few burgs over and read "The Late George Apley," Marquand's Pulitzer-winning novel about the decline of the Protestant elite, in high school. To think that he was practically my townsman.

It gives me a little thrill, but apparently not so much anybody else. At least not today. I've been in the room for a good 15 minutes, ogling the furniture and possessions that Marquand bequeathed to the Newburyport Marine Society upon his death in 1960. There are plenty of other visitors in the building, but not one soul has wandered in to join me. They're all sticking to the nautical stuff.

In the hallway, my well-read sister stops at the door and scans the plaque above it. "Who's John P. Marquand?" she asks. Poor J.P.

Okay, it's true. He's a little out of place in a museum with "maritime" in its name. I know Newburyport's a seafaring town, not a literary one. But that's why I'm so tickled to discover his connection to it. Such a tantalizing hidden detail. And apparently only one of many that I've been totally oblivious to all these years.

The things I've always been aware of about this pretty, church-spired little city of 17,000 on Massachusetts's North Shore: the Grog, a friendly pub that's our favorite lunchtime watering hole; the many fabulous little shops along State Street and Market Square (not a chain name among them!); Fowle's, with its old-fashioned soda fountain, where we go for newspapers and nostalgia; Oldie's Marketplace, the flea market in a lumber barn where my sister and I have scavenged some choice finds over the years. To name just a few.

Oh, and of course the waterfront. Settled in 1635 as part of the larger town of Newbury (it broke off as an independent town in 1764), Newburyport sits right at the mouth of the Merrimack River, where the swift-flowing current meets the Atlantic Ocean. This means, of course, that it's a boater's heaven. On beautiful sunny days, we'll boat down the river from my sister's home in Newton, N.H., about eight miles away, and we'll have to weave our way among scores of sailboats and motor craft pockmarking the harbor to dock at the pier.

It also means that the town's identity long centered around fishing, shipping and shipbuilding. And you see the fruits of those industries everywhere.

Lots of the big houses on fashionable High Street - such as the 21-room Caleb Cushing House, home of the man who signed the first U.S. trade treaty with China in 1844 and now a museum - were owned by shipbuilders or ships' captains. In the old days, we'd drive home from nearby Salisbury Beach through town, lusting after these grand colonials with their fanlight doorways and widow's walks, where I pictured sorrowful black-clad women gazing out to sea, pining for husbands who would never come home. Newburyport did always seem more romantic than scruffy Haverhill, my home town.

This trip, though, I'm out to find a different Newburyport, one I'm not so familiar with. And quickly, new info is cascading at me: At the Custom House, we learn that the town is considered the birthplace of the Coast Guard, because the first revenue cutter, the Massachusetts, was built and launched here in 1791. There's still a Coast Guard station in town, but it no longer uses the whimsical-looking Rear Range Light, tucked cheek-by-jowl beside a building on Water Street. The 53-foot lighthouse is privately owned, and you can have dinner there if you're willing to shell out $350 as a preservation donation. We passed this time, but next summer. . . .

The Custom House itself, a beautiful Classical Revival stone building, was designed by Robert Mills of Washington Monument fame. In Market Square downtown, a marker commemorates the Newburyport Tea Party of 1773. They burned the stuff; so much more dramatic than Boston's dumping three days later, don't you think?

We take a self-guided walking tour that's like a historical treasure hunt. Because everybody who was anybody in colonial days, it seems, was in Newburyport at one time or another. See the part of the public library that looks like an old house? It's the former Tracy Mansion, Nathaniel Tracy being another shipping merchant; he entertained George Washington, John Quincy Adams (he clerked in law here) and Benedict Arnold (before his turncoat days) in his home.

Across downtown, in Brown Square by city hall, look - a statue of William Lloyd Garrison. Who knew that the firebrand abolitionist was born here, and gave the anti-slavery movement some of his early rabid shoutouts from this square? (Well, my sister did, so she gets a pass on Marquand.)

We're locked out of the Old South Presbyterian Church, so we can't see where the rock-star 18th-century evangelist George Whitefield is buried in a crypt beneath the pulpit. And we search high and low for the Old Jail, cornerstone laid by Lafayette, before we determine that it must be that private building just up the driveway with the "No Trespassing" sign on it. Oh, well.

We've been pulled away from the river by now, up the hill into the higher heart of town, a part I don't know so well. But it's beautiful. Especially the Old Burying Ground and the Bartlet Mall. That's "mal" as in "pal." I know, it sounds weird, but that's how they say it in London, and this vast greenspace centered on a sunken pond in a glacier-cut "kettle hole" features a tree-lined promenade modeled after the English capital's Pall Mall. It was the place, no doubt, for ladies and gents of the Victorian era to take the air of a Sunday afternoon. They probably wouldn't have been caught dead down by the water with all the rabble.

These days, though, it's just the opposite. On this blazing hot afternoon, the mall is silent and deserted but for two unkempt-looking fellows on a bench under a tree. All the action's down in Waterfront Park, where people stroll along the boardwalk and mill about on the grass. On one end of the dock, five young guys sing an a capella doo-wop version of "Crazy Love"; at the other, an older guy with a guitar delivers Dylan and Denver.

Boats start up their engines and lanyards clink against tall masts in the breeze. A harbor boat tour passes by. Folks stream toward Oldie's, and I'll want to do the same soon, for more hidden treasures. But first I must give my husband lunch at the Grog, and of course I can't leave without hitting my favorite shops. Like the bookstore, where I'm thinking that maybe I'll pick up some John P. Marquand.

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