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Map of Museum Grounds
19th-Century Maritime Communities
The early colonial outposts planted in North America soon turned from defensive installations to small versions of the seaports in the mother countries across the Atlantic. Wharves reached out, warehouses sprang up, and merchants, craftsmen, and the full range of urban occupations settled in. Though originally seen as colonial suppliers of commodities to their mother country Great Britain, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Portsmouth, and Newport reached out to the world through sea trade to become cultural centers and the first American cities. By the time the colonies rebelled in the American Revolution, the seaport of Philadelphia was second only to London in its size and sophistication in the British Empire.
The seaports of the new United States remained the most vibrant centers of commerce and culture through the 1800s as the nation continued to export raw materials and import manufactured goods from around the world. The wharves and waterfront streets bustled with the flow of goods and people. From the 1820s to the 1920s, waves of immigrants flowed through American seaports, more than 35 million of them in search of opportunity, making those threshold cities even more diverse. Anything seemed possible in a seaport.
With territorial expansion, other ports grew into prominence: the Mississippi-Ohio River ports of New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and other ports on the great river system of the heartland; the Great Lakes ports of Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago; and the gold-rush port of San Francisco, and others on the West Coast. With its large harbor, expansive spirit, and commercial ties inland (especially via the Hudson River and Erie Canal), alongside, and offshore, New York remained America's leading city and port into the mid-1900s. With more limited means, other seaports specialized. Salem, Massachusetts, had its greatest success in trade in Asia. Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Biloxi, Mississippi, specialized in fishing. Nantucket and New Bedford, Massachusetts, and New London, Connecticut, were the principal ports of the whaling industry. Others, like Mystic, Connecticut, specialized in shipbuilding.
As the threshold between land and sea, the seaport has been the most vibrant of American communities. Until the mid-1900s the sea was the only practical way to travel and exchange goods across the oceans. But shipping and seaports have changed dramatically in the past 50 years. The revolutionary shift to containerized shipping moved maritime commerce away from traditional waterfronts.
For 300 years American seaports were great cities. The modern port is now the maritime equivalent of a parking lot, and traditional waterfronts are a place of contemplation, not commerce. We now travel by air, exchange information electronically and think of the sea mostly in terms of recreation or defense. Yet, more than 75 percent of what we use each day still reaches us by sea, and - no matter how quiet their waterfronts -- American seaports are still among our most important urban areas.