Nicknamed “Carriagetown,” the small river city of Amesbury was once on its way to becoming the hub of auto body manufacturing that would instead soon take root in Detroit. “The one great fear of the town is that the automobile business will go west,” wrote one industry observer back in 1910, when this mill town could claim dozens of auto body and parts makers.
The town was also a leading producer of hats; today, the working museum at Lowell’s Boat Shop, founded in 1793, bills itself as the oldest continuously operating boat shop in the country.
Once dominated by farming on the outskirts and industry in the town center along the Powwow and Merrimack rivers, Amesbury, about 40 miles north of Boston and 20 miles south of Portsmouth, N.H., today is primarily residential, with ongoing efforts to revitalize the old mill buildings downtown. Having changed its status from town to city in 1996, Amesbury draws newcomers for its prime location: waterfront, semirural, and centrally located to various New England destinations.
The year the town was incorporated. It was first settled in 1642.
Population, 2012 estimate. After a boom in the 1880s, when the population nearly tripled to about 10,000 as local industry grew, the town has experienced incremental growth in the decades since.
Median sales price of single-family properties as of January 2014. That figure was up 21 percent from the same time last year, but it still well under the state median of $368,000
Years the poet John Greenleaf Whittier occupied his home in Amesbury, where he wrote his classic “Snow Bound.” The house is now a nonprofit museum and a National Historic Landmark.
The city was built along the winding Merrimack River, and its mills were fed by the falls of the Powwow. Wedged at the intersection of routes 95 and 495, Amesbury is roughly 20 miles from Portsmouth, 40 miles from Boston, and 60 miles from Portland, Maine. Rolling hills and woodlands and two small lakes inspire outdoor activities; the multiuse Amesbury Sports Park, built on the site of a former bunny slope for skiers, attracts thrill-seekers with its snow tubing and obstacle races.
Perennially trying to break out from under the shadow of Newburyport, with its picturesque, eminently strollable downtown, Amesbury has had a hard time attracting foot traffic and keeping small shops in business. One of the exceptions: Ovedia Artisan Chocolates, a top-notch confectioner that has thrived in part because its business model features plenty of mail order.
Despite a few unsettled properties, locals have been loyal to the Ale House, with its impressive beer list; Phat Cats, a cozy foodie destination; and the Cheers-like pub and grub called the Barking Dog. Amesbury’s restaurant renaissance began in 1998 with the opening of the original Flatbread, the organic pizza joint now familiar around New England.
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.