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The History behind Newburyport's brick sidewalks



When visitors come to Newburyport, they often walk around our streets staring upward.  It’s so contagious that pretty soon city residents are tempted to start looking up too. For a local, this is disconcerting – what on earth are they gawking at? Though the natives may have taken the surroundings for granted, visitors know exactly what they are looking at: our uniform rows of elegant brick buildings, framed with brick sidewalks and granite curbs.    

The majority of the buildings now standing in the Market Square area were built in a 21-year period following the great fire of 1811, which basically leveled Newburyport’s business district. 250 buildings were destroyed. At this time, Newburyport was considered the fifth most important city in the fledgling United States. Imagine a city as important as Philadelphia today being leveled by fire.     In response, one of the earliest city planning efforts was formulated in the General Court of the Commonwealth on June 14th, 1811 (Acts & Resolves, 1812, Chapter IX), first to ban wooden buildings and then later, on June 18th, 1812, to mandate that brick and stone alone be used as building materials between Market Street and Federal Street, and from High to the Merrimack River. It was forbidden, for example, to build any wooden building over ten feet high within that district (presumably outhouses, sheds, and lean-tos were deemed ok for wood). The act also suggested that brick and stone be the recommended mode of construction throughout the city where feasible.

Brick Sidewalks

This Brick Act was established barely two weeks after the fiery disaster, but its impact is still to be seen today in our downtown, with its consistency of technique and similarity of material on all the new construction.     The resulting buildings provided the Market Square district with an architectural coherence unique among New England seaport cities, and much of their interior design was also “state of the art.” The brick firewalls that serve as a safety barrier between each structure were the first to be built anywhere in the United States

Later, due to the continuing financial straights of the city and the generally high cost of brick, the city requested the Commonwealth to repeal the act through a petition on the 29th of December of 1828. This was approved four years later in 1832, but by then the visual character of Newburyport had been established. Though the city would struggle through hard times, especially after World War II, the bricked downtown always stood apart, no matter how shabby and in disrepair the various buildings might have become. The tremendous revitalization of Market Square, for which every citizen of Newburyport should be proud (and thankful!) had a vast bedrock of quality to begin with.

                                              It is interesting to note that when Governor Deval Patrick visited our city, the first thing he noticed were the splendid brick sidewalks.   For decades, whenever the city was mentioned in tourist literature or cited for its historical treasures, it’s been the mixture of brick and stone that has been highlighted.    These are the fundamental bones that has natives and visitors saying, “This is one beautiful city.”

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!

The Biography of John Bromfield

When prominent Newburyport’s historic figures are recounted, however, somehow Mr. Bromfield is rarely mentioned.    And yet, it is his contribution that has made Newburyport the way it looks today.    Much of Newburyport when he was alive consisted of treeless blocks and open areas peppered with grazing cattle.  The stylish sidewalks and wonderful, tree-lined avenues, were all his idea, a tradition we, the current inhabitants of this great city, would do well to emulate.

John Bromfield, the merchant, was a thoughtful and generous man.    He belonged to a class of merchants that would be alien today.   Born in Newburyport, in 1779, he was brought up by parents who practiced the old-fashioned system of making him hardy and self-reliant. His mother bored holes in her son’s shoes in order to accustom him to wet feet, so that he might be made less liable to catch cold!   When his feet were wet, she refused to allow him to take his shoes off, regarding it as an effeminate practice. The Puritan ethic, alive and well in Newburyport!

On approaching the time of entering college his father met with financial misfortune and could not bear the expense. Two aunts of his, somewhat better off, promised to pay his educational expenses, but he firmly declined their offer. The foundation of his character and career was a love of independence. Instead, he asked to be apprenticed to a mercantile house, and remained in it as long as it held together. After its failure he tried for months to obtain a clerkship, but, not succeeding, he arranged with a carpenter to learn his trade. Just before putting on the carpenter's apron, however, an opening occurred in a local counting house, and he became a merchant.

He apparently never looked back after that.

About the year 1801 he went out to China and continued to visit that part of the world for many years, occasionally making small ventures of his own, and slowly accumulating a little capital. On one occasion, he had a ship full of valuable goods, and the market to which he was carrying them was eager to buy, but within twenty-four hours after arriving he was arrested and detained ten weeks a prisoner because of the War of 1812.

When peace was finally restored in 1815, with freedom of the seas again assured, merchants resumed their business dealings without fear of their ships being taken by English or French cruisers. From that time on Bromfield had better luck, and gradually made his fortune. He never kept a store, nor had any sort of warehouse, but made his considerable profits by sending or taking merchandise from a port which had too much of it to one that was in want of it.   He traveled as far west as the wilderness of Missouri.   He would ride miles and miles without seeing a house.

He traveled extensively throughout Europe, and on one of his winter passages he found the sailors suffering extremely from handling frozen ropes, as they were not provided with mittens. Being a Yankee, and having been brought up to do things as well as read about them, he took one of his thick overcoats and made with his own hands a pair of mittens for every sailor.

On another occasion in 1809, on the ship Atahualpa bound to China, the vessel was attacked off Macao by pirates, in twenty-two junks, some of them being twice the tonnage of his own boat. Captain Sturgis, who commanded the vessel, defended her with signal ability and courage, and kept the pirates off for forty minutes, until the Atahualpa gained the protection of a coastal fort. John Bromfield, a passenger on board, handled one of the guns himself, and assisted the efforts of the captain with such coolness and promptitude as to contribute greatly toward the protection of the ship.

In retirement he lived a quiet life in Boston, unmarried, fond of books, and practicing unusual frugality for a person who was wealthy. He had a singular abhorrence of luxury, waste, and ostentation. He often said that the cause of more than half the business bankruptcies that he saw was reckless spending. Does that sound familiar in 2009?

 Nothing could induce him to accept personal service. He was one of those men who wait upon themselves, reduce their wants to the necessaries of civilized life, and all with a view to a more perfect independence. He would take trouble to oblige others, but could not bear to trouble anyone else.     He was incredibly independent and would discourage even his relations and friends to aide him in any way.

He was a man of sayings, and one of them was:

"The good must merit God's peculiar care,
and none but God can tell us who they are."

Another of his favorite poem’s was Pope's:

"Reason's whole pleasure, all the joys of sense,
Lie in three words: health, peace, and competence."

He used to quote Burns' stanza about the desirableness of wealth:

"Not to hide it in a hedge,
Nor for a train attendant;
But for the glorious privilege
Of being independent."

He was utterly opposed to businesses undertaking risky ventures upon borrowed capital. Excessive credit given out was one of the subjects he would often rail against.

This native of Newburyport, after an interesting and productive life, died in 1849, aged seventy, and left considerable sums to benevolent societies. His estate proved to be of about two hundred thousand dollars (in today’s money, over a quarter of a billion dollars!), and he bestowed more than half that sum on institutions for mitigating human woe.

The greatest monument to this man that we see in Newburyport is the waving and rustling of leaves over our city (from the trees he endowed) and the beautiful brick sidewalks that still survive (or are being restored) … again, that he financed.    On hot days, these monuments to his forethought give shade to those who walk our streets.    Each bird that sings from the tree branches pays tribute to his handiwork.   

We owe so much to this humble man who helped to establish our city as one of the most beautiful in our country.

Brick Sidewalks

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