A Brief History of Essex, MA
The coastal New England village of Essex, Massachusetts has a rich history of shipbuilding, clamming, agriculture and ancillary businesses. 2019 marked our Bicentennial Year and much of the town‘s character and landscape has been preserved. Today, you can still experience vestiges of our historic past:
(1907) Burnham’s Corner
The Early History of Essex, Massachusetts
Farmed and fished for centuries by native people known as Agawams, then settled by the English starting in 1634 and purchased by them in 1638, Essex was known as Chebacco Parish of Ipswich until it separated to form the Town of Essex in 1819. Like most early American towns and villages the people lived on what they sowed. Extensive travel was very limited so townsfolk supported themselves and their neighbors with farming, fishing, clamming, lumbering and most importantly shipbuilding. In 1668 land was set aside for shipbuilding on the acre adjacent to the A.D. Story Shipyard (now the Essex Shipbuilding Museum.) Here, the shipbuilding industry began with the building of Chebacco boats used on the Essex River for fishing. By the late 1700‘s, there were hundreds of Chebacco style boats in Essex and nearby seafaring towns.
Essex, Massachusetts borders the Great Marsh, a salt marsh born from sweeping geological changes brought on by the Laurentide Glacier that receded from this area more than 10,000 years ago. It is a rich habitat and breeding grounds for fish, shellfish and birds.
Over 350 Years of Wooden Shipbuilding in Essex, Massachusetts
(1918) Twenty men in the A.D. Story gang – part of the 35 men he employed in May. Vessels in progress are (left to right): the steam trawler, Roseway, and the three-masted schooners, Aviator and Lincoln.
The Schooner Ardelle prepares for launch at the Harold A. Burnham shipyard.
Watch the traditional Essex side launch of the Schooner Ardelle at high tide on July 9, 2011. Ship launches attract townspeople and visitors to watch and wait in anticipation as the vessel leans and slides down greased rails into the Essex River >
As time passed, boats grew in size and number. Luther Burnham reported in his journal (1846-1851) that ”the shipbuilding industry so dominated Essex that it touched the lives of every one of its citizens and transformed the town into one large ‘shipbuilding factory’.” In 1851, as many as 60 vessels launched from 15 shipyards and one out of every 28 ships sailing under an American flag was built in Essex.
The shipbuilding industry continued well into the 20th century and boat building continues today. Harold A. Burnham, the 28th Burnham since 1819 to operate a shipyard in Essex, began building sawn frame vessels in the historic Essex shipbuilding tradition in 1996. Now a master shipwright, Harold built and launched the Schooner Thomas E. Lannon, Chebacco Boat Lewis H. Story, Schooner Fame, Schooner Isabella, and Schooner Ardelle in the Essex River from his historic shipyard, across the creek from the Essex Shipbuilding Museum.
Ice Harvesting, Recreation and Growth Emerge From the Industrial Revolution
The Second Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century brought unbridled growth to the area. Street cars ran along Route 22 from neighboring Hamilton, down Main Street and on to Gloucester. In the early 1870’s, trains on the Essex Branch of the Eastern Railroad chugged along from Boston to Chebacco Lake to transport ice cut from Chebacco Lake and to a station behind Essex Town Hall bringing timber for shipbuilding. The trains also shipped shoes from the Fuller Shoe Factory in Essex. Later, in the 1930’s, the trains carried as many as 42 cars full of Boston picnickers to Centennial Grove, a popular lakeside destination.
(circa 1900) Ice harvesting on Chebacco Lake at Driver‘s Union Houses. When the ice was 10 inches thick, harvesting could begin. Men use long poles to move cut ice blocks that float in the channel toward the ice house.
(1941) Morning train from Essex, Massachusetts.
In 1893 philanthropist and former Essex resident, Thomas Oliver Hazard Perry Burnham, donated funds to build our magnificent Essex Town Hall and T.O.H.P. Burnham Public Library that goes by his name. It is the only known Victorian Shingle Style municipal building in America. Business was booming and America was in high gear with Essex, in its own fashion, exemplifying that spirit of growth.
(circa 1915) Essex Town Hall and T.O.H.P. Burnham Public Library. In 1893, townspeople were invited to donate fieldstones to the ground floor. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007 and a historic renovation was completed in 2017.
The Advent of the Automobile Revives Essex Restaurants and Recreation
The 20th century introduced the automobile which allowed Americans to move around more freely than ever before. But it also brought the war, the Great Depression and the slow demise of the wooden shipbuilding industry. By 1940 most of the shipyards were gone but that persistent automobile, now sleeker and more prevalent than ever, brought life back to Essex and it became a popular destination for seafood and recreation.
Chubby Woodman invented the fried clam in Essex in 1916 and fried seafood really caught on. Family restaurants and gas stations lined Main Street. America was on the move and Essex was part of it.
Woodman’s restaurant - a family tradition for over 100 years.
Two landmark Essex restaurants, Woodman’s and the Village have served generations of customers. Traditional family recipes and new cuisine share the menu at many of Essex‘s renowned eateries.
Mechanics and a tow truck operator from Gaybrook Garage take time out to pose for a picture. Gaybrook Garage opened in 1929, bordered by the old trolley tracks, and an actual bubbling “gay” brook.
(1956) The Village restaurant opened its doors.
Antique Shops and Museums Preserve and Celebrate Essex History
The first documented antique shops came to Essex, Massachusetts in the 1930’s, dotting the landscape with over thirty buildings dedicated to that trade. Touted as “America’s Antiques Capital”, Essex transformed to serve folks with time for shopping, dining and recreation. These were the modern days. Routes 128 and 133 delivered travelers to our door to view the natural beauty of the Essex River and Great Marsh. The quirky collection of local seafood restaurants and antiques made Essex a new destination all its own. Today, an average of 16,000 vehicles drive down Main Street every day, stopping to visit Essex or traveling to Gloucester, Ipswich or other nearby towns.
Recreational boating took the place of the working boats on the meandering Essex River that provides a gateway to Essex Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
In the 1990‘s, two museums opened to preserve and celebrate parts of Essex history. Each has an extraordinary story to tell! The Essex Historical Society and Shipbuilding Museum offers guided and self-guided tours that present our legacy of building nearly 4,000 wooden vessels over 350 years - launching more two-masted wooden fishing schooners than any other place in the world. Further down the Essex River, Historic New England‘s Cogswell’s Grant folk art museum houses a renowned collection of American folk art assembled by Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little in what was their colonial-era farmhouse. Rooms overflow with folk art portraits, painted furniture, redware, hooked rugs, weathervanes and decoys. It is one of the only places where you can visit such a collection in the home for which it was assembled.
Essex River Cultural District is Designated
Artists‘ studios, fine art galleries, antiques and specialty shops, two history museums, scenic conservation properties and arts and cultural events are here to explore throughout the Essex River Cultural District.
In 2012, Massachusetts Cultural Council designated the Essex River Cultural District – a compact, walkable area with a concentration of cultural facilities, activities, and assets along Main Street from Spring Street to the old First Methodist Episcopal Church, now Perim Lang Antiques and additional assets of the district are located throughout the Town of Essex, MA.
”The district presents a dynamic and active relationship between history and the river, not one that is frozen in the past: residents are encouraged to get out onto the river to experience it first-hand; the shipbuilding tradition is still alive and well and the town celebrates each new launch; and early antiques share shelf-space with more recent memorabilia and present day crafts.”
– Mass Cultural Council
Explore more about Essex, Massachusetts history on the self-guided Historic Essex Walking Tour. Sixteen interpretive signs along a one mile stretch connect past and present day Essex.
Discover Vestiges of the Past & Boundless Natural Beauty
Today Essex retains vestiges of its past within a landscape of boundless natural beauty and thriving commerce enjoyed by visitors from near and far, as well as residents of Cape Ann. Essex, Massachusetts is a New England seaside village that has only inched its way into the 21st century. Come visit the past, the present and the future all folded into one neat, little package we call Essex.
“The river calls you ~
Photo: Alan Roopenian