A chimney protruding from the large dune on Wigwam Hill on Castle Neck is all that is visible of an undocumented house that was swallowed by the sand many years ago. Much of the 1200 acres of dunes at Castle Neck behind Crane Beach were forested with pitch pine in 1634 when European settlers arrived. The people of Ipswich realized that it was a special place, and the selectmen decreed that “The Neck of Land whereupon the great Hill standeth which is known by the name of the Castle Hill shall remain unto the common use of the Towne forever.”
The selectmen changed their minds and attempted to entice John Winthrop Jr. to stay in Ipswich by granting him title to Castle Neck. Winthrop nevertheless removed to Connecticut in 1639, and sold Argilla Farm, Castle Hill and Castle Neck to Deputy Governor Samuel Symonds in 1644 and 1645. Symonds sold the 300 acres to his son-in-law Captain Daniel Epes in 1660. The Town still held title to a valuable growth of pitch pine timber on Castle Neck and ordered that no tree should be cut which did not measure at least a foot in diameter near the ground, but it was ordered in 1682 that all the blacksmiths should have liberty to fell trees on Castle Neck to make charcoal for their fires.
In 1669, a company of destitute Indians from the Lake Winnipesaukee region appeared at Castle Neck and among them was an old squaw with her daughter, and the daughter’s two children. Captain Epes allowed them to erect a wigwam in the pine woods behind his house and provided for their needs. The sand-covered drumlin has been known since that time as Wigwam Hill.
The mother of the children died about six months later, and a few weeks before her death, Captain Epes went to the wigwam to see her. “She did earnestly desire me to take care of her eldest sonne.” Captain Epes took the boy, whom she called Lionel, into his household and left the baby in the charge of the grandmother. For several years he looked after them, providing a wigwam in the thick woods in winter to secure shelter from the wind, and food and clothing.
Eventually the old squaw went away with her son Robin, but Lionel continued living in Capt. Epes’ family. But when be was about twelve years old, Robin came one day took Lionel and bound him as an apprentice to Epe’s neighbor Henry Bennett, to satisfy a debt he owed him. Epes took the case into Court, and appealed to the Court of Assistants, which reversed the decision and ordered the boy to be returned to him.
Lost to the sand
Daniel Epes inherited, and sold the properties on Castle Hill and Castle Neck to John Patch III. Patch’s will divided his property, leaving to his daughter Mary and her husband James Fuller Lakeman the Wigwam Hill farm, which continued in the Lakeman family. The pine woods still remained and there was a considerable area of orchard, tillage and pasture land.
“Unfortunately,” Thomas Franklin Waters wrote, “Capt. Humphrey Lakeman (1789-1861) cut down the pine grove. The loose sands, driven by the winds, moved irresistibly over the fields, no longer sheltered by the friendly wood. The orchard was submerged to the very tree tops and great dunes grew up on the planting and pasture land until nothing remained but the cranberries which still clung to protected spots.”
The naturalist and Ipswich summer resident Charles Wendell Townsend visited Castle Neck in the late 19th and early 20th Century and recorded how the dunes was gradually enveloping Wigwam Hill:
“In the middle of the dunes on the marsh side is a long hill about sixty feet high, so covered with sand that it is generally considered a great dune. In some places, however, one can scratch the sand and find earth and gravel below; occasionally a boulder projects, and here and there one comes on ancient stone walls, some of which have been uncovered by the blowing sand within a few years.
“In 1892 there was an orchard near the top and on the southwesterly slope, somewhat less than an acre in extent. Part of this orchard was still nearly unscathed by the advancing sand, which had merely dusted the ground, but the rest was buried to the tops of the main trunks, and all the horizontal and drooping limbs were covered, yet the topmost branches blossomed and bore fruit. But the sand encroached more and more, and one after another the strangled trees gave up the ghost. and the tops only of dead branches stretched above the sand. The struggle was a hard one, and for many years some of the braver tree tops blossomed with cheerful promise in the waste of sand, but came to no fulfilment of fruit.
“In 1910 all I could find to mark the place were a few wind and sand-beaten apple branches. The orchard was entirely buried in the white sand! The seaward side of this drumlin, for drumlin it is, on which the old Lakeman farm once flourished, is in places a precipitous gravel cliff more or less whitened with sand. This cliff shows as surely as if it had stated the fact in words, that at one time waves of water, not of sand as at present, beat against its foot. The distance from the foot of this ancient sea cliff to the sea, now filled in by sand dunes, is about twenty-four hundred feet.”
How to see the chimney
Crane Beach and all of Castle Neck are owned and protected by the Trustees of Reservations, which maintains several miles of trails through the dunes. A sign on the far right of the main parking lot indicates the trail entrance. Head in and take a right at the first fork. You’re immediately in the dunes, but after a while the trail takes you through a forest of pitch pine. At the next fork continue right onto the Red Trail. Wigwam Hill rises before you with a steady climb. Near the top you’ll see a narrow path on your left that takes you up to the chimney, all that can be seen of a house long ago buried by the sand. Update: the Trustees have blocked access to this path.
Sources and further reading:
- Waters, Thomas Franklin: “Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony“
- Graves, George H,”Report of Counsel on Ipswich Beach” Ipswich Annual Report pp 3-27
- Townsend, Charles Wendell: “Sand Dunes and Salt Marshes” page 28
- History of the Crane Estate from the Trustees of Reservations Management Plan
- Sears, John: The Physical Geography, Geology, Mineralogy and Paleontology of Essex County, Massachusetts (1905)