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Online tool attracts modern audience to Newburyport history

Newburyport history buff Ghlee Woodworth demonstrates the mobile version of her Clipper Heritage Trail website.

Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

Newburyport history buff Ghlee Woodworth demonstrated the mobile version of her Clipper Heritage Trail website.

NEWBURYPORT — Newburyport native and local history maven Ghlee Woodworth says she was at the Historical Society of Old Newbury here in 2010 when the curator showed her a recent find promoting something called the Clipper Trail. “And I said, ‘I think I remember this sign.’”

Eventually, Woodworth said, she learned that a Chamber of Commerce group had created 20 or more signs and a brochure around 1969 to help residents and tourists learn about the historic points of interest in Newburyport. But after a few years, the “trail” faded away and the signs disappeared.

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Woodworth decided it was time to reblaze that trail, but bigger and better — and on the Internet.

Nearly three years later, with a lot of help from the community, the Clipper Heritage Trail is up and running, with a website at www.clipperheritagetrail.com that outlines 13 tours of Newburyport and provides information on roughly 125 historical points of interest in the town.

There’s a mobile version for smartphone users that includes downloadable maps and brochures. And out on the streets of Newburyport — actually, the sidewalks — there are 23 granite pavers marking some of those historical spots to help navigate.

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“There are whole groups of people who will come to Newburyport because of this tool who might not necessarily have come to Newburyport,” said W. Michael Mroz, executive director of the Custom House Maritime Museum. “It puts us on a new track that Newburyport hasn’t had to roll on before.

“It is absolutely going to appeal to whole groups of people that have likely been missed before,” he said. “This is a wonderful tool to grab people from a wide spectrum of interests, but specifically in the medium of the new digital age.”

It’s the “Clipper” Heritage Trail because Newburyport was nicknamed the Clipper City for the fast ships built in the busy shipyards along the Merrimack River in the 19th century.

The tours vary in length: Some are compact walks of a few blocks, while others cover miles and may call for a vehicle or bike. They stop at sites such as City Hall, the Chain Bridge, and historic High Street mansions, as well as the locations of long-gone shipyards, factories, and unusual places like the old Hale Flake Yards, a fish-drying venue on Water Street that is now Hale Memorial Park.

Tours include “Along the Water’s Edge,” which runs from the Chain Bridge to downtown along the bank of the Merrimack River, and “Footsteps of Heroes: Newburyport in the Civil War.” Three different tours cover Green Street, State Street, and Pleasant Street in the central downtown.

It’s not all familiar, even to longtime residents. Ask Woodworth for an unusual stop and she says, “I talk about Elbow Alley, next to where Soufflés [a Market Square kitchen shop] is now. It was where blacks had their own businesses in the late 1800s and just after 1900. . . . There was a restaurant, a coffee shop, barbershops, and a shoe shine that were run by African-Americans.”

Mark Wilson/globe staff/ file 2003

The rededication of the Chain Bridge in 2003 was a community event, with actors dressed as historic figures.

The granite pavers bear a simple outline of a clipper ship and have their own history. It’s the same design that was on the 1969 Clipper trail signs. A friend of Woodworth’s connected her to the family of the late Edward K. Piel, a local businessman who was a Chamber of Commerce official in the late 1960s and a driver behind the original Clipper Trail project. With their go-ahead, she took a photocopy of the sign to Peter Consigli at Newburyport Memorial Art Co., who reproduced it on the pavers.

The project is supported by city and chamber leaders, but funded by grants from local banks and other organizations. The website even includes puzzles for kids, with answers drawn from the history detailed elsewhere on the site.

Woodworth is not a historian in the academic sense. She is best known for carrying on the work of her late father, Todd C. Woodworth, in conducting tours of Oak Hill Cemetery (she wrote a book about it, called “Tiptoe Through the Tombstones”) and other local historic topics. She is on the cemetery board and works there on gravestone restoration and other projects. And with the new website, she’s once again trying to do right by her hometown.

“The key is, a website instead of a book,” Woodworth said, “because of the convenience and the accessibility and the broad audience. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, it’s available to people. And if they don’t want to go out and walk, they can sit in a comfortable chair at home. Even for those who can’t get out, they can see all of this history and all of these images at home.”

New audiences for local history are the key to Mroz, whose museum has one of those pavers out front.

“From my own perspective here at the museum, I think our attitude is that a rising tide lifts all boats,” he said. “We’re part of the storytelling process of Newburyport’s history, and the more people who are exposed to this . . . is bringing more water into the harbor.”

Joel Brown, who wrote the Essex Coastal Byway Guide, can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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