Chasm at the Old North Burying Ground

The Chasm

Into the 19th Century, Town Hill was used for grazing and was almost bare of trees. Springs flowed out of the hillside and were tapped to provide water for the houses below them on High Street. In 1873 the town voted to begin construction of reservoirs to fight fires, and in 1878 a reservoir for fire purposes was “rebuilt” at the corner of Mineral and High streets. The term “reservoir” probably refers to the underground cisterns that were constructed throughout the downtown area for the hand-pumped fire engines. The 1880 Town Report includes payments for construction of wells on High Street and at the head of Mineral Street. It is believed that a large cistern still exists underground at the top of mineral street and High Street underground. Old underground cisterns in front of the Ipswich Public Library and beside the Ipswich Inn were demolished a few years ago during construction.

The 1893 Birdseye map shows a serious washout just to the east of the Old North Burying Ground, forming a deep gully. Whether this was erosion created over time or caused by a storm is not recorded. It could have been a stream that became a waterfall during storms, such as the one Arthur Wesley Dow photographed in Ipswich. The Great September Gale of 1815 was the the first hurricane to strike New England since the Great Colonial Hurricane 180 years earlier, but was followed by the Norfolk and Long Island hurricane in 1821. This was the beginning of a series of tropical storms and hurricanes that affected New England for next 100 years.

A short road now being used by the Cemetery Department apparently was built over part of the gulley. During heavy rains, water would have rushed down the hillside and crossed High Street onto Dirty Lane which now bears the name Mineral Street, emptying into muddy Farley BrookCentral Street was once a wetland and did not exist until the mid-19th Century.

The chasm beside the Old North Burying Ground
View of the chasm from the edge.
This photo is from a cyanotype taken by Arthur Wesley Dow around 1890. In the distance are the steeples of the Congregational and Methodist Churches. Thanks to Randy Maggalet for sharing this photo.

A late 19th Century photo taken by Arthur Wesley Dow shows a barn and sheds that once stood at 53-55 High Street at the foot of the gully. The structures are in the approximate location of a lane that runs up the hill beside the cemetery. In this photo, the barn is resting on an elevated rubble foundation, which would have diverted the flow of water. The barns and sheds are long gone, but the roof of the Lummus house at 45 High Street is shown with staging around the chimney.

Gravestone of Susanna Homans
The same view from the Burying Ground today. The large stone on the left is at location E-167, the grave of Susanna Homan, in front of gravestones for the Goodhue and Kimball families.

Susanna Homan

The large stone on the left marks the grave of Susanna Homan. In 1725, Increase How purchased “a good mansion house” at the corner of County Street and Poplar Street from John Whipple, and kept an inn in the house. After he died in 1754 at the age of 74 his daughter Susanna (who had married Captain Richard Homan) ran the inn. In 1756 she received and took in three Catholic families from French-speaking Nova Scotia whose arrival had been anticipated and debated by the Ipswich people for several months.

In the fall of 1789, just four months after he took the oath of office, President George Washington visited Ipswich and dined at Susanna Homan’s Inn. Crowds awaited him at the South Green where he was welcomed by the Selectmen and a regiment of the militia. At the Inn he partook of a meal and proceeded on to Newburyport. Susanna Homan, whose tombstone describes her as “fair and good” died three years later at age 66. A Federal-era hip roof was replaced by a Mansard roof in the late 1800s to give the inn a third floor. The building is now known as Swasey’s Tavern, after the town moderator General Swasey who famously fell dead at Town Meeting in 1816.

3 thoughts on “The Chasm”

  1. The Fire Dept. would need a collection of water. FIRE CISTERNS are reliable year round dedicated water sources for fire fighting, often required when there is no central piped water supply in the area.. I would wonder if this chasm was built for this.

  2. I wonder could the Chasm have been a road to the reservoir. It points directly to the site and would have given easy access to work on the reservoir, or transport water to the town below. It appears that the top of the “road”, where the Chasm ends, has been backfilled for more graveyard acreage. Could the grade have continued to the water?

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