Plum Island Salt Company factory plan. Note that the map is oriented toward the south, with the Ipswich bar at the top.
Early salt works on Cape Cod
From the 1918 Publications of the Ipswich Historical Society:
In the 1820’s a Frenchman, Gilshenan by name made examination of many localities along the American coast to erect a salt works. Coming at last to the Ipswich Bar at the end of Plum Island, he exclaimed, “This is the best place I have seen for making salt from sea water.”
Gilshenan succeeded in organizing a company with the backing of Francis J. Oliver and George W. Heard of Ipswich. The deeds were passed in April, 1829 and work was begun at once, giving employment to a considerable force of laborers. The Frenchman appointed Daniel Boynton as captain of the laboring squad and it fell to him to martial his little company in military fashion for the march to and from the Salt Works to the houses where they were quartered.
Solar salt workers
Twenty eight vats were dug into the peaty sod adjoining a canal eight feet wide and ten feet deep. Sea water was pumped up by six old-fashioned windmills to a height of twenty or thirty feet and then was allowed to fall upon a heap of brush through which it trickled to the vats securing thus a large evaporating surface. Being exposed to the heat of the mid-summer sun, the water gradually dried away and crystals of salt appeared in the shallow vats.
The windmills were supplemented by a great overshot wheel fifteen feet in diameter and six feet wide, suspended in an upright position from a heavy wooden frame. It was made to revolve in a very original way: A large bull was confined within the wheel like a hamster in his revolving cage and his walking turned the wheel. Shallow buckets on the outer rim lifted the water from the canal. (note: I was unable to find any illustration or other example of this bizarre contraption).
Speedy misfortune overtook the ambitious venture. Heavy rains diluted the water in the open vats. Salt in paying quantities was not produced.
In an 1830 article in the Newburyport Herald the correspondent wrote that a loss of thirty or forty thousand dollars had been involved, concluded his article with the remark, “The French gentleman with superintendence of the work is a very intelligent man and bears the misfortune with all that buoyancy of spirit so peculiar to his countrymen.” The whole property was advertised for sale in 1832 by George W. Heard including six windmills, a dam and assorted apparatus. No trace remains today.
Loading a schooner with sand
The next grand scheme was shipping sand for construction. In the late 1800’s fifty tons of sand were being removed from the island each day and loaded in sand schooners. The Ada K. Damon, loaded with sand, famously wrecked on Crane Beach on its first delivery.
The Bluffs Hotel
Well into the 1900’s Plum Island served as a tourist destination with the Plum Island Hotel at the north end and the Ipswich Bluffs Hotel at the southern end. Hunters flocked to the island, annually killing thousands of migrating waterfowl, which in turn provoked a public campaign to protect the island and the birds.
In 1942 most of Plum Island became part of the Parker River Wildlife Refuge, one of America’s first national seashores. The southern tip of Plum Island where the old Salt Factory and the Ipswich Bluffs Hotel once stood is now Sandy Point State Reservation.
Plum Island the Way it Was - Published in 1993, this 100-page book is copied with permission from the estate of the late Nancy Weare. Read by scrolling this page, or click on any image to read as a slideshow. Plum Island - The General Court on October 17, 1649 divided Plum Island among three towns, granted to Ipswich 2/5, Newbury 2/5, and Rowley 1/5. The salt marsh hay, sand, and wildlife were valuable assets to the towns. History of Plum Island - The General Court took action on October 17th 1649: "Upon the petition of Newbury, this Court thinketh meete to give & grant Plum Island to Ipswich two parts, Newbury two parts & Rowley to have one fifth part." The Northern End of Plum Island - Nancy Virginia Weare spent 33 years at her family’s summer camp at Plum Island. After the Parker River Wildlife Refuge was established, she moved to a home on Great Neck in Ipswich overlooking the island. In 1993, after Nancy retired, she wrote “Plum Island: The Way It Was.” The Early History of Plum Island - Nancy Virginia Weare spent 33 years at her family's summer camp at Plum Island. In 1993 she wrote "Plum Island: The Way It Was," which is reprinted on this site with permission.
Ipswich Bluffs - The hotel at Ipswich Bluff on the southern tip of Plum Island was a favorite destination of locals in the late 19th Century, who took the steamer Carlotta from the Ipswich wharf with Capt. Nat Burnham. The Knobbs - The Knobbs is a small beach in a stretch of salt marsh on the west side of the Ipswich section of Plum Island. On the Atlantic side was the Kbobbs Beach Life-Saving Station, replaced in 1947 by a camp for children who had been victims of polio. Snowy Owl - CBS "Sunday Morning" takes us to Plum Island in Massachusetts, a winter home for owls. Jack Helfant, the hermit of Sandy Point, 1962-67 - In 1962, Jack Helfant’s houseboat wrecked on Sandy Point. He created a shack using driftwood, canvas and parts of his houseboat. Jack and his dog Prince were permanent fixtures on the island until the State burned down his shack in 1967. Nuclear Ipswich, 1967-1970 - In 1967, Ipswich was proposed as a site for an anti-ballistic missile base, and in 1970 opponents prevented construction of a nuclear power plant on Town Farm Road that eventually was built in Seabrook. The edge of a warming world - William Sargent embarked on a series of rambles from New Hampshire to Gloucester, and discovered a troubling new environmental catastrophe from the buildup of chemicals that have been steadily accumulating in the lungs of the planet--our oceans. The Plum Island Salt Company - In the 1820's a Frenchman named Gilshenan organized an unsuccessful salt harvesting company on Plum Island with a 10' deep canal and a bull turning an overshot wheel like a hamster. A large sundial survived for a few decades, but no trace remains today. Gathering Salt Marsh Hay - Salt marsh hay is still gathered on the North Shore today. The grass that grows between the upland and the marsh is cut. Traditionally the hay was stacked on staddles to raise it above the high tides. The Commons - When the Town of Ipswich was established, ownership of a house and land within the town bounds carried with it the right of pasturage beyond the Common Fence. In 1788, the commoners resigned all their land interests to pay the heavy town debt incurred during the Revolution. 300 years on Grape Island - Grape Island was once a small but thriving community, and briefly a popular summer resort. In 1941, 3000 acres of Plum Island including Grape Island were purchased by the U.S. government to establish the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. The Cape Ann Sea Serpent - The earliest recorded sighting of a Sea Serpent in North American waters was at Cape Ann in 1639. In 1817, reports spread throughout New England of a sea serpent sighted in Gloucester Harbor. The ghost of Harry Maine - Harry Maine — you have heard the tale; He lived there in Ipswich Town; He blasphemed God, so they put him down with an iron shovel, at Ipswich Bar; They chained him there for a thousand years, As the sea rolls up to shovel it back; So when the sea cries, the goodwives say "Harry Maine growls at his work today." Adrift on a Haystack, December 1786 - In a northeasterly storm in December, 1786 Samuel Pulsifer and Samuel Elwell of Rowley were digging clams, got caught in the storm, and took refuge in a stack of salt hay for the night. In the morning they found they had been set afloat! Nancy Weare - Nancy Virginia Weare spent 33 years at her family's summer camp at Plum Island. In 1993, after Nancy retired, she wrote "Plum Island: The Way It Was." The shipwrecks at Ipswich Bar - 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. The hull of the Ada K. Damon sits on Steep Hill Beach. The last cottage on Plum Island - (This article was written by Beverly Perna before the cottage was torn down, and has been updated.) An iconic Ipswich landmark, the last privately owned cottage on the Ipswich end of Plum Island, was turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service and was taken down in 2016. Boaters and […] The steamship “Carlotta” - The excursion boat Carlotta was built in 1878 at Rogers Point boat yard, and sailed from Town Wharf to the Neck and Plum Island for 35 years. The small hotels at Little Neck, Ipswich Bluff and Grape Island were favorite destinations for tourists and locals. Clam Battle! (Life Magazine, July 16, 1945) - The government had taken over the lands for a Wildlife Refuge. The clam battle was on. Arguments were almost as thick as Ipswich clams. Ipswich hunters were afraid of losing their private hunting reserves. Ipswich farmers were afraid of losing their land. Wrecks of the schooners - These are photos of two and three-masted schooners, several of which wrecked at Steep Hill Beach, Crane Beach and Plum Island.