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Newburyport celebrates 250 years, will unveil official flag

A view of  vintage residences lining High Street in Newburyport, which is celebrating the 250th anniversary of its incorporation, reflects the city’s efforts to preserve its history.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/File 2011

A view of vintage residences lining High Street in Newburyport, which is celebrating the 250th anniversary of its incorporation, reflects the city’s efforts to preserve its history.

The historic shipbuilding city of Newburyport will throw a community clambake Sunday on Plum Island to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and also will mark the occasion by unveiling its first official flag.

“It is a great opportunity for the community to come together and share in a traditional clambake and enjoy a day at the beach,” said Mayor Donna D. Holaday.

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Organizers anticipate accommodating up to 750 people at the clambake, which will take place from noon to 5 p.m. Tickets are available in advance at City Hall, the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce, and the Starboard Galley restaurant for $15, or $35 per family up to five. Heading into a meeting Tuesday to choose the winning flag design, Holaday said a limited number of tickets would be available Sunday, but the prices will double.

Images featured on candidates for the official city flag, submitted by seven longtime residents, include Newburyport’s skyline, the city’s seal, the Merrimack River, and the recently built wind turbine.

The winning design will be flown during the clambake, and will be displayed at all city functions, said Alex Bradley, coordinator for the Newburyport 250th Anniversary Clambake. It also will join other municipal flags hanging in the State House.

Until now, Newburyport has only had provisional flags, such as the militia flag used in the late 1700s, and another that was created to mark the city’s 200th anniversary, according to Ghlee Woodworth, a 12th-generation resident and local historian.

Today, Newburyport — a city of nearly 18,000 residents 35 miles northeast of Boston — attracts thousands of visitors and tourists to its eclectic downtown shops and restaurants as well as its museums and historic buildings. It continues to be a hub for recreational boats, offering mooring and maintenance facilities.

‘People rose up and said, “We don’t want to lose our city!” That was an important contribution that . . . set the standard that you could restore.’

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It was established on Feb. 4, 1764, when the port section of Newbury split away from the town, according to Woodworth. At the time, the population of Newbury Port — as it was then known — was only 2,800. Residents of the busy shipbuilding community had built their own meeting house in 1725, and didn’t want to continue paying taxes to Newbury, she said.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Newburyport competed with Salem and Boston for the number of vessels built, and traded with more than 70 countries.

“The shipbuilders of Newburyport were very well respected. Many ships were purchased from out of state or overseas,” Woodworth said.

Newburyport also was indirectly involved in the slave trade, because local ships would bring molasses from the Caribbean, where the cane was harvested by slaves.

In 1851, the town became a city. The first mayor, Caleb Cushing, became the first American envoy to China, and is credited with opening the country for trade with the Western world. His home, at 98 High St., is now a museum.

Newburyport is also the birthplace of the US Coast Guard. It was created by the first Congress in 1790 as the Revenue Cutter Service to protect the coast from smugglers, and to ensure the collection of tariffs. The Custom House, built in 1835 as a center of tax collection on imported goods, is now a maritime museum.

The city also was once famous for decorative combs — made from turtle shell and cattle horn — that 19th-century ladies wore in their hair. The Noyes family of Newburyport were the most famous comb-makers in the country, according to Woodworth, and also invented the machinery to create barber combs.

But what really makes Newburyport distinctive today is that unlike many neighboring communities, the city managed to preserve its historic downtown.

This summer, Skip Motes is curating an art exhibition entitled “Newburyport Then and Now” at the Firehouse Center for the Arts on Market Square. The display features 19th-century photographs next to current images of the same scenes, and showcases the city’s effort to promote restoration rather than demolition.

Paul McGinley, as executive director of the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority in the late 1960s, led the preservation effort.

“The idea . . . was that all this could be demolished and essentially parking lots and strip malls would have been put in,” Motes said. “Demolition started at the waterfront and that’s when people rose up and said, ‘We don’t want to lose our city!’ That was an important contribution that Newburyport made, it sort of set the standard that you could restore.”

One black and white image in the show features clam shacks on the beach. There were once more than a dozen lining the waterfront, with shells piled high nearby. Only one shack remains, and it’s someone’s home, Motes said.

But on Sunday, Newburyporters will remember their clamming tradition. The clambake, which will take place on Plum Island near the lighthouse, will have bands, boat rides, and children’s activities to go with a variety of seafood.

“It should be a day completely filled with fun,” Bradley said.

For more information about Sunday’s festivities, e-mail newburyport250committee@ gmail.com.
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