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History lies behind our street trees



Surprisingly, most of the historic pictures of Newburyport pre-1850; reveal a largely treeless community, with wide muddy lanes and large gardens and open pastures beside and behind the houses.        In early Newburyport, everyone either owned a horse, or a cow or some cattle along with probably chickens and pigs.      The horses need shelter in barns and the cow would need a place to be milked.       All required pasture land.        This was the way most people in the city's early years would have seen the city.     Only up where the mighty merchants had built their mansions on High Street would trees be seen and not usually many.


Most pedestrians had to pick their way on dirt streets covered in manure, raw sewage and when it rained, mud.      The hope of getting to one spot to another without a horse or carriage was treacherous.


That is until John Bromfield passed away and bequethed a large sum for one-half to construct sidewalks and the other half to plant street trees.     He knew that the majority of citizens used walking to get around the community and his goal was to ease that with much needed comfort.


John Bromfield’s Gift to the City

One of Newburyport’s most influential citizens, John Bromfield (1779-1849), ended up becoming the catalyst for transforming how the city’s neighborhoods would look and feel.   At the beginning of the nineteenth century and at the very start of the industrial revolution, he was considered one of fifty most important industrialists in the young United States.    Through frugal living and hard work, he amassed a fortune in international trade and business.      Regardless of where he went in the world -- from China to India to Europe to his towering presence in the City of Boston -- he never forgot Newburyport.    

When Bromfield died in 1849, he bequeathed a large portion of his estate to the Massachusetts General Hospital,  the Boston Athenaeum and to many charitable organizations in the Commonwealth.  Many places in Boston carry the name “Bromfield” in revered memory of him.   But the single most amazing gift was $10,000 that was provided to the City of Newburyport.    He placed that bequest in the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company, one of the first real investment companies in America and he stipulated that the interest generated by the Bromfield Fund for Newburyport should be split in two.   One-half was to be used to plant and tend to the trees that lined the streets of our city, and one-half was to be used to maintain the sidewalks.    The words of his will state,


“I order the sum of ten thousand dollars to be invested, at interest, in the Hospital Life Insurance Company, in the city of Boston, so and in such manner as that the selectmen or other duly authorized agents of the town of Newburyport, for the time being, may annually receive the interest which shall accrue or become payable  for or in respect of said deposit; and I direct, that, by or in behalf of said town, the interest so received shall be annually expended, --one half in keeping the sidewalks in the public streets of said town in good order, and the other half in the planting and preserving trees in said streets, for the embellishing and ornamenting of said streets for the pleasure and comfort of the inhabitants”


He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery on December 8th, 1849.


To understand how phenomenal his gift was, at the time of his death, the yearly budget for the city was $42,000. (Showing that some things never change, citizens at the time felt that was far too great a sum. Cut the fat!)   Today, of course, the annual budget for the City of Newburyport is approximately $54,000,000.  Simply extrapolating the value of that $10,000 would translate in today’s money close to $10,700,000.   Generous indeed.   The Boston Athenaeum was given $25,000, and their Bromfield Fund is now $7,000,000 (2007).    It was common for such charitable funds to be maintained through interest from investments and many of these funds still exist today in the 21st Century, happily churning out income.   In fact, the Newburyport Public Library’s reading room is presently funded by the Todd Fund, established in 1870 by William Todd, another important former Newburyport personage who loved the city even though he resided in Washington, D.C.  

Today, the city’s John Bromfield Trust Fund is handled by Mellon Bank of New York.   Regrettably, the city’s trust fund was terribly neglected during most of the twentieth century. Let’s just say that Newburyport is apparently not sitting     on over $10,000,000.  In 1993, the city made an effort to correct this by combining all the endowments of the city into a single control, which is now monitored by the Trust Commission and the City’s Treasurer.


But let’s look at the bright side. As the city began to embrace the textile industry during the industrial revolution and its clipper ships began to gain prominence around the world, the generous Bromfield gift was put to good work.     From 1850 to 1861, most of the brick sidewalks and the trees to accompany them were laid out throughout the residential neighborhoods.  Due to the regular interest generated by the Fund, Newburyport’s brick sidewalks were in pristine condition as recently as the beginning of the twentieth century and trees appropriate to the sidewalks were carefully and lovely sustained.    The Newburyport Library’s archives house stunning photograph after photograph of flat safe sidewalks and these pictures are not doctored!


The city, in gratitude, changed the name of South Street to Bromfield Street on November 1st, 1852, by vote of the city council.   In 1851, effort was made to line both sides of South Street with magnificent trees and to repair the brick sidewalks.  All this was done to honor “the sagacious merchant and benefactor of the town”. Regrettably, any visitor to Bromfield Street today can see the brick sidewalks are mostly gone and so is the breath-taking line of trees.


The demise of the city’s brick sidewalks paralleled the advent of the automobile.    Many of the city’s sidewalks were initially skim-coated with concrete directly over the bricks.     As concrete and paved highways caught on, many of the brick sidewalks were removed and replaced by more concrete.    Later, in the fifties, inexpensive blacktop became popular and many stretches of Newburyport’s residential neighborhoods were covered with this inexpensive paver.


Brick sidewalks did not become prevalent again until the restoration of the downtown through HUD.  Mayor Byron Matthews, from 1968 to 1978, pushed hard to restore the bricks and hearken back to the City of Yesterday.    It is this restoration era which has guaranteed that parts of Merrimack and Water Street, Market Square, Green, State, and Inn Street have fully restored brick sidewalks.   


Today, there is a renewed desire to bring back these brick sidewalks to the city.     When Mayor Moak was elected, he pledged to work toward fixing the dilapidated condition of the sidewalks. This is a campaign pledge that is not unique to Mr. Moak. Every candidate for the past twenty years has promised the same thing, but inevitably, given the hard financial circumstances that every city in the commonwealth now faces, such promises are hard to keep.

Luckily, many developers and homeowners throughout the city have sensed the city’s rich heritage and have placed brick sidewalks in front of many restorations, renovations and even new construction. The city is often a helpful partner. If homeowners want to brick the sidewalk in front of their house,  DPW

Crews will generally dig up the old material and cart it away, for free. That’s not a bad deal!

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