The shipwrecks at Ipswich Bar

Featured image: Map from Plum Island: The Way It Was by Nancy V. Weare

The Ipswich Bar has a long history of tragic shipwrecks. Its swift currents and shallow waters are especially dangerous during storms, and many ships have gone aground. In 1802 and again in 1852 the Merrimack Humane Society of Newburyport constructed shelters at Sandy Point for shipwreck victims, and massive timbers can still be seen protruding from its dunes. Several ships that made safe passage between Sandy Point and Crane Beach went ashore at Steep Hill Beach, where the remains of two schooners can still be observed.


Records of the loss of small boats began in the 18th century. They went aground on the beach or bar in winter. The boat’s complement attempting to reach shore died in the surf or on the beach. As those buried in the sand did not stay buried a cemetery was established for them on Bar Island.


The Plum Island Life Saving Station was constructed in 1890. Photo by George Dexter

Among the disasters of greater magnitude is the wreck of the Falconer, a 360-ton brig from Belfast captained by Joseph Rolerson, of the same city. She was transporting 350 tons of coal from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to Boston when she encountered the northeaster of December 15, 1847. The ship carried 53 passengers and crew, and the wreck resulted in 17 deaths. After a funeral procession winding through town they were buried in Ipswich, except for the captain and his family, who were shipped back to Belfast.


On December 3, 1849, the Nancy with a cargo of bricks went aground on Plum Island. The crew of five were lost.

On December 24, 1850, the Argus with a cargo of worked stone foundered on Emerson Rocks. The captain and some of the crew were lost. Two were trailed through the snow to a thicket, where they were found dead.

The list continues:

  • The Ornament, the Teazer, the Votary
  • 1778. Six Salem men drowned by a wreck on Ipswich beach.
  • 1784. Eight men drowned October 1, in Ipswich bay.
  • 1785.Four men were drowned in Plum Island river.
  • 1795. Four men perished in Chebacco river during a snow storm.
  • 1872. Schooner “J. R. Lawrence” went ashore on Plum Island.
  • 1875. The brig “Ida C.” went ashore on the beach February 20. Schooner “James Freeman” sunk in Ipswich bay.
  • 1878. A sand schooner was destroyed on Ipswich bar in a storm April 23.
  • 1879. Schooner “G. F. Higgins”‘ was driven ashore on the point, August 20.
  • 1881. Schooner “Alice Oakes” was wrecked on Ipswich bar, June 10. Schooner “Lucy K. Cogswell” sunk by collision with Stmr. Wm. Crane.
  • 1882. Steamship “City Point”‘ wrecked on Plum Island and is a total loss.
  • 1884. Schooners “Alfaretta,” and “Ella M. Johnson,” wrecked on Plum Island.
  • 1885.  Schooner “Isabella Thompson” wrecked on Castle Neck Dec. 1. Schooner “Beta” wrecked on Plum Island, April 7, and three drowned. Schooner “Lizzie” of Machias, Me., wrecked on Ipswich bar. Schooner “Mark Gray” seriously damaged by collision. Schooner “Franklin” wrecked on Plum Island, Nov. 13.
  • 1887. Schooner “E. M. Branscome” wrecked in Ipswich Bay.
  • 1889 A schooner loaded with sand for Boston sank in Ipswich river.

Image from Sand Dunes and Salt Marsh by Charles Wendell Townsend, 1913


Remains of the Ada K. Damon at Steep Hill Beach. Photo courtesy of John McGrath

In 1802 and in 1852 the Merrimack Humane Society of Newburyport constructed shelters for cast-away mariners at Sandy Point. Only scattered stones remain. The dunes at the south end of Plum Island are strewn with massive ship timbers, some protruding from the sand at odd angles, causing visitors to speculate concerning their origin.


View from Castle Hill of the Ipswich River entering Plum Island Sound. Photo by John McGrath via Facebook.


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