If you have ever been to a real estate closing at Liberty Law, you may have noticed a huge wooden wheel on the 3rd floor (hand-notched with evenly-spaced square holes – each carefully chiseled along the entire outside circumference of the wheel itself). You may have also noticed the large ship-mast-like wooden spindle that spans enormous roof timbers all square-carved & fitted into the center hub of that wheel. If so, then you may have asked yourself (or one of us), “What’s up with that wheel?”
The answer is interesting, though not unique in and around the old buildings of 19th Century Newburyport. The history of this wheel – and surviving building elements like it around our City – is tethered back over nearly 200 years to Newburyport’s rich clipper ship & maritime heyday. This wheel was called simply, a hoist-wheel and in the mid to late 1800(s), during the height of Newburyport’s global sailing trade, our 3 story building was used as a retail provisions shop. Offered for sale inside were goods and wares ranging from the ordinary to the rarified – all arriving along our waterfront aboard locally built Clipper ships (things which today can be delivered by a drone right to your doorstep by 11AM tomorrow ….. but ONLY if you’re a Prime Member).
If you could travel back in time and see this hoist wheel in say 1830 or so, you would have noticed that each of those notched holes supported a single wishbone shaped iron fork. These iron forks keep a 2 story knotted rope-loop (a rope chain of sorts) threaded on the wheel itself. Down below, you would have seen an operator pulling one end of that rope loop hand-over-hand on, which in turn would have spun booth the wheel and wooden spindle above. Of course, as the spindle turned, it would have pulled another rope to create a manual elevator – lifting heavy goods and cargo to the upper floors. Even today nearly 250 years later, that wheel still seems to spin with ease.
It was widely rumored during this era that some of this cargo, having survived a voyage from the Far East, West Indies or Europe all the way to our waterfront docks, somehow “got lost” along the final 100 feet of its journey to the Newburyport Customs House. By whatever unrecorded means these goods finally made their way into the city’s commercial interior, we must count ourselves truly lucky today to be among the current stewards of these architectural treasures of our Clipper City’s maritime past. These very ordinary yet amazing relics of our maritime past remind us of just how incredible it is to have the privilege to live and work under this rare canopy of such “living history.”
The next time you’re on Liberty Street whether for a real estate closing or “just because,” I invite you to come visit us here at Liberty Law – and check out this hoist wheel for yourself (with its 250 year old hand cut iron nails and notched holes). By celebrating even the “ordinary” of our past, we help these wonderful treasures stay relevant in our present…and hopefully preserved and protected for our collective future.
Rob Ciampitti is a local history buff and the Co-Founder of Liberty Law located at 11A Liberty Street. Rob is also the Chairman of the Newburyport Zoning Board of Appeals, having proudly served on the Newburyport ZBA for nearly 20 years.