Before European settlers arrived in 1634, the area, which was one of the earliest settlements in Massachusetts, was inhabited by Native Americans of the Agawam Tribe but soon became known as Chebacco Parish, Ipswich's eighth parish, until 1819 when it was incorporated as the Town of Essex.
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 ship building.

In 1668 land was set aside for shipbuilding on the acre adjacent to the present A.D. Story Shipyard. Here, the industry began with the smaller, Chebacco boats used on the Essex River for fishing. By the late 1700's "there were more than 2000 Chebaccos in Essex and nearby seafaring towns".

As time passed the 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'. It is truly amazing that a town so small could have had such a huge impact." In 1852 there were 15 shipyards along the River and one out of every 28 ships sailing under an American flag was built in Essex. The shipyards of Essex probably launched more two masted schooners than any other town in the world.

Shipbuilding continued well into the 20th century and made Essex the town that it is today. Harold Burnham, one of a long line of wooden boat builders, carries on the tradition today in one of the last two working yards in Essex...the A. D. Story Shipyard established in 1813 and his own established in the 1990's.


The industrial revolution of the mid to late 19th century brought unbridled growth to the area. Street cars ran along Rte. 22 from Hamilton, down Main Street and off to Gloucester. B&M Railroad trains chugged along tracks from Boston to Chebacco Lake for ice harvesting and recreation at Centennial Grove and on to the South Essex Station on Southern Avenue.

In 1893 philanthropist and former Essex resident, T.O.H.P. Burnham, donated funds to build our magnificent, Victorian, shingle style town hall and library that goes by his name and is possibly the only municipal building of the shingle style in America. Business was booming. America was in high geer with Essex, in its own fashion, exemplifying that spirit of growth.

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 yards were gone but that persistent automobile, now sleaker and more prevalent than ever, brought life back to Essex.

Chubby Woodman invented the fried clam in 1916 but it, and other fried seafoods, really caught on now. Family restaurants and gas stations lined Main Street. America was on the move and Essex was part of it.

These were the modern days. Essex was being transformed to serve folks with time for recreation. Routes 128 and 133 delivered them to our door to view the natural beauty of the Essex River and the Great Marsh. The quirky collection of local seafood restaurants provided a new destination all of its own.

Recreational boating took the place of the working boats as the meandering Essex River provided a gateway to Essex Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Then the antique shops came, dotting the landscape with over thirty buildings dedicated to that trade. Essex is recognized and touted as "America's Antique Capital".

Later, the Essex Shipbuilding Museum and Cogswell’s Grant (interior shown at left) opened to preserve and celebrate the Town's history. Each day, nearly 16,000 vehicles drive down Main Street stopping to visit in Essex or traveling to Gloucester, Ipswich or other nearby towns.

Today Essex retains all of the vestiges of its past and blends them with boundless natural beauty and a thriving commerce enjoyed by visitors from near and far, as well
as, the local citizens of the town and all of Cape Ann. Essex is an old 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...An American Village.