1903 Boston Globe Picture Hiram P Macintosh and Arthur P Huse
NEWBURYPORT’S CUSTOM HOUSE WHERE IT COST $5700 TO COLLECT $505 IN 5 YEARS Massachusetts has a port of entry at Newburyport, dignified with a custom house and collecting force, which in more than a score of years cost the federal government about $5700 to collect $505 in duties on imports.
Setting well down on the lowest bank of the Merrimack River and almost cut off from the business activity of the city of Newburyport, stands an old "stone fort,’* the custom house of the Ipswich district, which for years has remained as a monument to the city’s bygone prosperity, and is now a veritable millstone around the financial throat of Uncle Sam's internal revenue department. Grim, unwashed and almost forbidding In appearance on the outside, the federal building's purpose has become a memory of the past In the opinion
of Newburyporters, yet such is the system of Uncle Sam’s financial forces that the building must exist as an institution, so a collector and deputy remain in office to safeguard the coast against foreign goods being imported without official sanction.
So iron-bound and severe are the regulations of the Treasury Department that the life of the custom house must exist even if but a box of Newfoundland herring find entry on the book accounts in the course of a year. The utter uselessness of the custom house at this point on the Massachusetts famine, and the astounding arrival of 800 chests of tea from an English port, which were placed in bond, and so materially added to the revenue. Such a volume of business at the Newburyport custom house had not been known for a generation, and in consequence the Treasury Department fell but a few hundred dollars behind running expenses for that year.
From the time that the port of entry was established as a customs district in 1789, with Stephen Cross as collector, this official has been entitled to fees only, but his deputy has always received monthly warrants amounting to $600 a year. This is the actual expense charged against the duties collected at the port, still there has not been one year in 23 when the government realized a profit at the close of the fiscal year. In 23 years past the total collections at the port have been less than $3509, and during that period the expense for a deputy collector alone has been $13,800, which gives the cost of collecting each dollar at about $4. Another branch of the Treasury Department has been under a continual drain during that time, as the custodian of public buildings has paid out to Patrick J. Doyle his regular $540 a year salary as janitor of the granite relic of New bury port's past greatness. It appears almost farcical to continue the administration of such a treasury depleting institution of the government. It is one which lias amply proven that its usefulness has been outlived and buried with the disappearance of the good old oaken American “merchant marine” that flew the flag of the Union over waters of every sea and ocean in days of clipper ships and barks.
During the past six months, however coast is shown by the fact that during two schooners from the provinces loaded the years of 1819, 1900 and 1901 absolutely nothing dutiable came into the district. The year of 1902 was marked as a latter day epoch in the. history of the decayed port, as during this twelve months slightly more than $500 was collected in customs from four vessels laden with Nova Scotia coal, imported to relieve the coal Asthma One of the hardest tasks in life is to combine sentiment with business. river and contributed nearly to the collection credit of the custom house at the mouth of the Merrimack. If this astonishing volume of business continues at the same average for the next six months Uncle Sam’s treasury guardians at Washington may find an almost clear 1904 slate to he credited to the vigilance of Collector Macintosh and his deputy. Inside the stone fut the quietness of a. sepulcher reigns, except when an occasional visitor calls upon the venerable guardian of Uncle Sam’s structure. Scrupulous neatness prevails in the corridors, and unlike the tomb, a comfortable degree of heat pervades the building, all of which testifies to the certainty janitor at least finding the necessity of earning his $340 a year.
Samuel Phillips was the collector in 1835, and formally opened the granite building In 1830. It marked a new era for Newburyport. The imports coming to the mouth of the river were characteristic of every clime, and to hold the collector’s berth at that time was considered not only a position of sinecure, but also a post of the highest honor in the estimation of Newburyport best citizens. (see A Customhouse for Newburyport: (1834-1835) : Architect, Robert Mills, (1781-1855)
Customs duties In those days rarely fell below $75,000 rarely, and often exceeded the $100,000 mark, bringing $3000 yearly in fees to the collector, a limit which was established by law and still exists. Those were the days of plethoric poeketbooks among the descendants of Newburyport’s founders, and the very life forces of the community existence coursed through the collector’s offices and corridor of the old custom house. During the 15 years of activity between 1835 and 1889 Newburyport’s Federal building was the head and centre of all the town's industry. Through here passed the sugar, molasses, salt, foreign fish and alcohols that came in great bulk from the Canadian shores, Spain, tho West and East Indies, while Manila and the Philippines sent not a little hemp for local rope walks. Then the Ipswich district was rated second only to Boston among the New England custom houses and scores upon scores of vessels entered at the collector’s office weekly, creating an Interest among the townspeople that was only rivaled by their own endeavors toward success. The history of the past generation has broken away from the traditions of old Ipswich district, and woefully fallen are the duties of the present day collector. Day after day with the most perfect regularity the aged but active guardian of the district port opens up his office for business, ever hoping for hut seldom realizing the arrival of a dutiable cargo. In his antique furnished private office at Collector McIntosh passes his hours between 9 and 4 o’clock reading the current news and occasionally delving into the musty records of past and more creditable days at the custom house. In another room across the corridor the veteran Janitor Doyle spends a few hours each day after perfunctorily cleaning the two habitable offices and corridor, and with the exception of daily visits of a fern* hours made by the deputy collector, the great stone pile maintains the unearthly silence and solemnity of an abandoned ship cast up on a reef to remain until her structure falls apart of age. Severe and strict simplicity marks the disposal of all the rooms in the 'building, each one square, and just four of them, dividing the basement, first and second floors, while a generous slice is taken out of the left side of the building to provide for a stairway, which in itself is the most interesting and unique architectural feature of the interior. As shown in the accompanying cut, the turn of the block stone stairway to the second floor hall has the appearance of needing but a light blow to cause a collapse.
Each of these upper steps, 14 inches broad, lap but a bare half inch over the lower one, and are apparently held together with but a half inch thickness of cement. From Collector Macintosh's curious point of view, he cherishes this stairway as one of greatest show points of the noted building, but has found a man who explained to him the builders secret of twisted strain, which has so firmly joined these blocks of stone together as to preclude any possibility of their falling in the lapse of time already past. This much is certain, the handrail and newel posts can play no part in the support of the blocks, and as but four or five inches of the inner ends enter tho wall, unless some great strength is obtained from the outer ends the leverage of weight would serve to topple the steps to the floor below. It is the secret of twisted strain on the lapping edges that has worked this marvel. In one of the basement rooms shown in the picture are piled against the wall solid brass yards that served various methods of determining weights in the early days when Newburyport was noted as a most thriving community. The 20- pound counter balance weights seen on the floor, but now greatly depreciated by rust, were the silent telltales that brought floods of collections to the coffers of the collectors of former days. (below 15 Water Street taken from Historic Commission Newburyport 1999)
Undisturbed they have rested against the walls for more than a quarter of a century mute witnesses of bygone importations in days when the noted firm of John Wood & Son and their successors, Messrs. Sumner, Swasey & Currier, and afterwards Sumner, Swasey & Shaw, were the foremost importers of West Indian sugars, which were discharged and weighed at Commercial wharf. Measured buckets, used for inspection and levying of duties on salt, which for more than half a century, with sugar, formed the bulk of imports at the old town, are to be seen in the cut, and in unloading the vessels these authorized measures had to be used by the men discharging cargoes. The fiscal year, which ended in July, 1902. showed the receipt of $5 import duties, which cost the internal revenue department $600 to collect, and the custodians' department $549 to prepare a clean floor, heat and well dusted desk for the delivery and recording of the same. It is Just barely possible now that the financial receipts in the old building may become rehabilitated through the growing importance of the boxboard Haverhill, 12 miles up the river, to which point there are sure to be shipped other cargoes of wood pulp front the provinces during the coming spring and summer. Meanwhile Collector Macintosh will follow his Invariable rule of opening early, in order to be on hand and ready to certify to any unexpected cargo that strays into port. Since Mr. Macintosh assumed office in 1893 his fees have rarely exceeded $250 annually. Still he is the responsible head of a great district teeming with population, yet rut off seemingly forever from the rest of the world as a port of entry for foreign goods. Outside on Water street traffic is dead at all times of the day, although a busy square is but a quarter of a mile away from the custom house. Yet. so far as the “fort” is enlivened through this fact, it might be at the other end of the globe. Between the years 1850 and 1880 , when the greatest volume of business passed through the offices of the old building, salaries amounting to nearly $10,000 were paid to residents of the then town. Today less than $1200 is received for the upkeep of the dignity and cleanliness of tho custom house.
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Photos not taken from Globe Article are from Cape Ann Images