Monday, March 17, 2014

Infant boat industry grew along the Merrimack

Melissa D Berry from Newburyport News


There is no doubt that the watercrafts forged along the magical waters of the Merrimack and Parker rivers could not be matched. In colonial New England, shipbuilding was an “ancient and useful art — one of the first practiced in the New World, where water carriage, for a long period, preceded land carriage” (Sketches of Shipbuilding Currier). Local legends of the shipbuilding trade include Currier, Hardy, Clark, Morrill, Lowell, Webster and more.

The Mass Bay Colony government offered incentives like land grants to build infrastructure, designed to attract the wealthiest, most desirable fellows around. Amesbury, once known as “Jamioca” for the large quantities of rum brought in from the West Indies, was given grant rights along the water covering “1000 acres, 90 feet above the sea” because it had “a constant and extensive water power” source.

William Osgood was granted the “liberty to make use of all the pine timber on condition of his building a saw mill.” It was at this mill that the first planks were flitched for shipbuilding. Robert Quimby received two land grants, but his marriage to Osgood’s daughter sent him floating on a sea of golden opportunity. Walter Taylor (1659) was awarded the right to cut timber on the Common for building vessels. Nathan Gould’s 1658 court deposition confirms that “heaps of boards” were abundant and mentions a vessel built by Mr. Greaves.

George Carr was given the “greatest Hand in ye river Merrimack,” known as Carr’s Island. Carr was a ship builder, and he ran a ferry across the Merrimack. S. L. Redford’s History of Amesbury asserts that historians rightfully credit Carr “as the one who fathered this infant boat industry,” not only in this area, “but along the entire New England coast.”

By 1749, shipbuilding and farming were “the principle branches of businesses and main stay of the people.” At that time, over 600 vessels had been built, many contracted for and sold to English merchants and foreign parties. The Alliance, a continental frigate, was built at Daniel Webster’s yard in Amesbury by William Hackett, “one of the most enterprising and scientific shipwrights; his services were required in many places on account of his superior knowledge in the art.”

Newbury’s early shipbuilding occurred along the Parker River. As town grants were issued, several “ship yards were scattered along the river bank from Pierce’s farm to Moggaridge’s point.” The ship Salamnder was built by Woodman (1675) at the foot of Woodman’s lane. The Johnson family (1695) had a shipyard at the bottom of Chandler’s Lane operated by three generations, and another shipwright was noted at Thorlas’s Bridge in 1723. Stephen Cross, along “with seventeen associate ship-builders from Newbury, went to Fort Oswego, on Lake Ontario, under contract to build vessels there for the government” (Journal 1750).


The largest vessel constructed on land was “The County’s Wonder,” built on Rowley Common under the direction of Capt. Nathaniel Perley. This massive vessel weighed over 90 tons, and 100 yoked oxen were used to draw her down to the river.

In spite of these early achievements, it was not all smooth sailing in the nautical world. The Records and Files of the Quarterly Court reveals nefarious activity ranging from disorderly conduct to debt collection. For example, Walter Taylor was fined for “using cursing speeches” (EC 3:148) on his apprentices Hoyt and Johnson. Samuel Fowler was convicted for “breech of the Sabbath by travel” (EC 6:23). The Osgood, Ring, Hardy and Carr lines were infamously notable in local witchery cases as well.

Ben Franklin (1650-1727) great uncle to Ben Franklin, hired Benjamin Cocker and John Rolfe to repair his sloop, the Benjamin and Katherine. Initially, the sloop’s leaks could not be mended, creating one hull of a problem! Despite this lack of buoyancy, Ben shacked up on board for 14 days as pressure from the pier to pay up made waves, causing a heated dispute over payment. In an attempt at an amicable resolution, Stephen Greenleaf and Nathaniel Clark acted as mediators for both parties at the home of John Hale, but the “gentlemen’s agreement” forged that day would not last. Although the sloop was restored, an attachment was ordered on her for payment past due.

The matter eventually ended up in court, and local folks came forward to testify, including John March, who never received payment for “seven weeks diet and use of his home” (EC 9:93). Leaving a trail of debenture, Franklin sailed out of the Merrimack before his next court date, but his debtees were no dinghies — they capsized Franklin in Boston Harbor. The matter finally settled, Franklin made good in copper and coin (EC 9:249). Records shown below

Last but not least, the biggest catch in local maritime tales is certainly Amesbury’s “Granny Hoyt,” who met her maker when she tried to fire up the hearth by blowing gunpowder from her husband’s ship horn, causing a great explosion and coining the expression, “Quick as Granny Hoyt’s powder-horn.”

Benjamin Franklin case: September 1683 and In November the case was found in favor for plaintiff.





 December 1683



June 1684



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