Fox Creek Canal marker on Argilla RoadLandmarks

The Fox Creek Canal

The Fox Creek Canal is the oldest man-made tidewater canal in the United States, dug in 1820. The following was written by Thomas Franklin Waters:

“As early as 1652 a move was made toward cutting a passage way for boats through the marshes from Ipswich River to the River of Chebacco to avoid the long and sometimes dangerous passage by the mouth of the river. In that year the town granted Thomas Clark and Reginald Foster that “when they shall have cut through a passage from this river into Chebacco river of ten feet wide and soe deepe as a lighter may pass through laden and to make a ford and foot bridge over that then the town have given unto them £10 toward said passage.”

Evidently the canal was not completed as in 1682 it was “granted to any one of the inhabitants to perfect cutting the cut that comes up to Mr Eppes’ bridge if they will submit to the selectmen yearly the setting of the toll for those who pass through and who do not help cut it .”

Fox Creek
Fox Creek photo by David Stone

But still the work was incomplete and in 1694 it was granted that “such persons of Ipswich as will may have liberty to cut the cut through on the hither side of Castle Neck. If any pass through who do not help do it they shall pay for a passage as the selectmen set the price. Whoever will cut the cut through the marsh by Mr Eppes sufficient for boats to pass through laden shall have liberty such as pay. Those who help toward doing it shall pass free. Such as pay nothing shall be charged in money for a cord of wood or load of hay or ton or other loading.”

Despite these liberal terms no one seems to have had enterprise or capital to complete the work and it was not till 1820 that a stock company was formed which dug a navigable canal from Fox Creek to Chebacco or Essex River. $1100 was expended but the tolls on traffic were sufficient to pay nearly six per cent on the investment. Much ship timber was brought down the Merrimack through Parker river and the canal for the Essex ship yards.”

The mouth of Fox Creek
The mouth of Fox Creek, with Treadwell’s Island beyond

History of Ipswich, Essex and Hamilton

by Joseph Felt

1694. “Granted that such persons of Ipswich, as will, may have liberty to cut the cut through on the hither side of Castle Neck ; and if any pass through, who do not help do it, they shall pay for a passage as the selectmen set the price.” “Whoever will cut the cut through the marsh by Mr. Eppes’ sufficient for boats to pass through laden, shall have liberty. Such as pay about 5 shillings towards doing it, shall pass free. Such as pay nothing, shall be charged in money, a cord of wood, or load of hay, or ton of other loading.”

1820. A company became incorporated for having a canal from Ipswich to Essex. It was made navigable early in 1821. Its length is about half a mile. It commences at Fox Creek and runs to Chebacco River. It cost near $1100. This stock is divided into twenty-seven shares of forty dollars each, and pays nearly six per cent, on the original amount. As an inlet to Essex from Merrimack River for ship timber, it has kept this article down lower than it would be, had dependence been placed solely on what the vicinity would supply.

Prices of freight through this canal. — Oak timber seventeen cents, and pine fourteen cents a ton. Oak sawn stuff of an inch thick, forty cents M., and of other thicknesses in proportion. Pine sawn stuff of one inch thick, thirty cents; hard wood thirty cents, and pine twenty cents a cord. Hogshead staves seventy-five cents, and barrel staves forty cents M. Hogshead hoop-poles one dollar, and barrel hoop-poles seventy-five cents M. Clapboards, forty cents, and shingles ten cents M. Each light gondola five cents, and every ton of loading fifteen cents.

Robinson’s Boatyard

Fox creek is tidal and fills in quickly. In 1938 it was dredged again to accommodate ship-building at Robinson’s Boatyard. The boatyard was razed after the war.

William A. Robinson was an engineer from Kenosha, WI who sailed around the world in 1928 at the age of the 25 in a 32-foot Alden ketch named Svaap. He later sailed the ship from New York to the Galapagos Islands. Cornelius Crane, (the son of Richard T. Crane Jr and his wife Florence) met the young man, introduced him to his sister (also named Florence) and they married.

An engineer by training, Robinson started a shipyard on Crane property along Fox Creek to build replica sailing ships. In 1937 he built a topsail schooner for himself, the “Swift of Ipswich”, which is now owned by the Los Angeles Maritime Institute as a training vessel for at-risk youth. The boat was once owned by actor James Cagney and appeared in several movies. Also still sailing is his second ship, the 70-foot brigantine Varua.

Robinson's Boatyard
Building minesweepers at Robinson’s Boatyard

During the Second World War, Robinson landed a contract to produce 100 small minesweepers and other small craft. Over 200 vessels were built here in Ipswich. Since most young men were overseas during the war, many of the workers were older men. The work was outdoors, not in a building, and they didn’t stop for the cold or snow. Read an in-depth story about working at the boatyard.

Robinson's Boatyard
Robinson’s boatyard. The small rise on the right was known as Fox Island, Fewkes Island and Jake Stravens’ Island.

After the war ended, Robinson and Florence Crane divorced. He closed the boatyard and moved to Tahiti. Cornelius Crane is said to have razed the buildings so that they would not be a constant reminder to his sister of her ex-husband. All that remains are a few posts sticking out of the water from the former piers. The channel at Fox Creek has filled back in. Read the full story of Robinson’s Shipyard, written for the Boston Globe in 1992.

Robinson's Boatyard
The remains of Robinson’s Boatyard

Fox Island


Photographs taken before the 20th Century show cottages along Fox Creek below Tilton Hill, named for Abraham Tilton, an early Ipswich settler. The Ipswich River is beyond, with an unpopulated Little Neck in the distance. Beyond the tree in the middle are a few buildings on tiny Fox Island, which abutted Robinson’s Shipyard during WWII. The confluence of Fox Creek/ Ipswich River) is on the right, where you can faintly make out a large ship or two in the channel on the other side of the dunes. Very faint in the distance are two cottages at Ipswich Bluff on Plum Island.This image was digitally produced from a glass plate negative and dates to the earliest era of photography, between 1860 and 1890.

This topo map establishes the site line of the photographer.
Photograph of Fewkes Island by Edward L. Darling, from the collection of William J. Barton
This photograph was taken by Edward L. Darling, and is from the collection of William J. Barton, who wrote: “View taken from Sagamore Hill.The building on the little island beyond Sagamore Hill was the property of the Fewkes family, who lived on Turkey Shore, and some in Newton, Mass. It was called “Fewkes Island,” and before their ownership, it was known as Jake Stratton’s. The island is on the Southern Branch of Fox Creek that becomes a canal and crosses under a bridge on Argilla Rd. The hill at right is Steep Hill, which Mr. Brown sold to Crane Steep Hill. Robinson’s Shipyard was located on the marsh near Fewkes Island during World War II.
Another view of the cottages on the small island.
Photo by Edward L. Darling. William J. Barton wrote, “This island or headland is on the Southern Branch of Fox Creek, and in my boyhood we called it Jake Stratton’s. It was later owned by the Fewkes, when Mr. Edward L. Darling was a boy in 1875. The hill on the left where the cottages are is Sagamore Hill. At the time, the cottages were the property of John B. Caverly, who sold to Richard T. Crane all but the Proctor house, and moved three to Treadwell’s Island and some to Little Neck. During WWII Crane’s son-in-law ran a shipyard there.
Photo of Fox Island by Edward Darling, from the collection of William J. Barton
Photo of Fox Island from the collection of William J. Barton, Edward L. Darling photographer. “Fox Island, also known as Fewkes Island and Jake Stratens. The man in the boat is Eunoch Fewkes, Newton, Mass. On the left of the picture is Graville Point at Little Neck, the first point below the wharf. The picture must have been taken before 1880 from Sagamore Hill.”
Robinson's Boatyard
The same view from Robinson’s Boatyard
Robinson's Shipyard ruins
The remains of Robinson’s Boatyard, with Fewkes Island behind it
Posts in the Fox Creek channel are all that remains of Robinsons Boatyard, which was at the location of Fox Island.
Posts in the Fox Creek channel are all that remains of Robinson’s Boatyard, which was near the location of Fox Island.

Further reading:


“Labor in Vain House,” c.1720 (Labor in Vain-Fox Creek private road) - The house on Fox Creek Rd. known as the Labor in Vain Farm House was built around 1720, but has some late First Period features.
The Fox Creek Canal - The Fox Creek Canal provided the missing link between the forests of New Hampshire and the shipyards of Essex. Lumber boats would sail down the Merrimack to Newburyport, cruise south along the landward-side of Plum Island and reach the Ipswich River without ever having to go on the ocean, then take the canal to the Castle Neck River to Essex Bay.
Fox Creek Canal marker on Argilla Road The Fox Creek Canal - The Fox Creek Canal is the oldest man-made tidewater canal in the United States, dug in 1820. In 1938 it was dredged to accommodate ship-building at Robinson's Boatyard, where small minesweepers were constructed for World War II.

4 replies »

  1. seems like yesterday brings back good memories
    i use to swim of the pilings and fish for smelts in the creek
    great claming at the entrance too
    those were the the days late 40’s early 50’s not many there back then.
    lived on stage hill

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