Old footbridge on the Ipswich River at the downtown dam.

A photographic history of the Ipswich Mills Dam

Arthur Wesley Dow cyanotype (circa 1900) of the earlier footbridge at the dam.

Until 350 years ago, the Ipswich River ran unencumbered from its origin 35 miles upstream, carving its way through a 148-square-mile watershed. Herring, shad, salmon and alewife swam upstream to spawn. Thomas Franklin Waters noted that, “Great shoals of alewives came up the river in the Spring and were seined at night by the light of torches under the arches of the old Stone Bridge. A line of dories intercepted their passage over the dam at the foot bridge, and great quantities were taken with a dip net.”

As dams were built, migration of fish along the river diminished and has now all but ended. Construction of fish ladders at the present Ipswich Mills dam at EBSCO has had little or no effect.

The Ipswich Mills Dam, 2014. Photo by Glenn Harris
The Ipswich Mills Dam, 2014. Photo by Glenn Harris

Geologically, the Ipswich River is quite young. The Laurentine ice sheet during the last ice age receded to the northern border of Massachusetts only about 14,000 years ago. The drumlins, moraines and eskers it left dictate much of the course of the river, until it encounters the foot of Town Hill in Ipswich. That large chunk of granite is believed to have drifted to this location from an area that is now the Antarctic, hundreds of millions of years ago.

Ipswich Mills
Ipswich Mills in the early 1900s. The dam is barely visible on the left.

A dam has existed in the vicinity of the Ipswich Mills Dam site since 1637. The current dam was built in the early 19th Century, and was most recently modified in 1908, increasing its structural design in order to supply the mill with a reliable source of power. The dam no longer serves its industrial purpose. The Ipswich River Watershed Association has conducted a preliminary study that will help determine the feasibility of removing the dam.

Aerial view of the mills, dam and Riverwalk
Aerial view of the mills, dam and Riverwalk

The following article was written by John Stump in 2011 for a presentation at the Ipswich Museum

“The origins of a dam at the location we today call the EBSCO Dam in Ipswich can be traced back to 1635. Long before the first dam was built here there was a set of natural waterfalls that are referred to as the Upper Falls. These falls made an ideal location for a dam. (The Lower Falls are located just below the County Street Bridge and can be seen easily today.) This early Dam was the first ever built on the Ipswich River by English Colonists and was located approximately 30 feet above today’s present Dam.

The Ipswich River was drawn down behind the dam in August 2016 to inspect the dam, footings at the EBSCO buildings, and determine existence of ledge. An old gas line to the mill was exposed, sitting on top of the remains of an earlier loose stone dam. Photo by John Fiske.
Day 2 of the August 2016 draw-down exposed the early boulder dam mentioned in John Stump’s presentation. Wayne Chase of the Ipswich River Watershed Association drove rods between the rocks to a depth of several feet, but was unable to affirm the presence of ledge beneath the “upper falls.”
Ipswich mill dam drawdown
The remains of the earlier dam are visible on the right during the August 2016 draw-down.
Dry Ipswich River
This photo looking downstream from the pedestrian bridge was taken by Bill Sargent a week before the August, 2016 draw-down, as the North Shore experienced an historic drought.
Ipswich Mill drawdown
View of the August 2016 draw-down, taken from the gate platform. An old gas line lying on top of the earlier rock dam was exposed.

The reason for this early Dam’s construction was to provide water-power for a gristmill located on the north side of the river approximately where today’s EBSCO cafeteria is located. Richard Saltonstall built and owned the gristmill at the relatively young age of 25, after arriving in New England with his father Sir Richard Saltonstall, only 5 years earlier. This was the only gristmill in Ipswich until 1687 and the only one on the Ipswich River until 1697, thus giving the Saltonstall family a complete monopoly of this very necessary and important business. The Saltonstall family held a financial interest in this mill site until 1729. This early Dam was most likely built of logs and stones strategically placed in the Falls and would need constant attention and maintenance.

The old stone mill, and the dam that was built in the early 1800s.
The old stone mill, and the dam that was built in the early 1800s. Photo by George Dexter
A view of the rear of the buildings on South Main Street, just below the dam was known as "Little Venice." Photo by George Dexter, circa 1890.
This view of the rear of the buildings on South Main Street just below the dam was known as “Little Venice.” Photo by George Dexter, circa 1890.

The name “Mill Garden” was given to this area due to the numerous types of mills located their throughout the years. At different times, there were gristmills, fulling mills, dye houses, sawmills, bark mills, tanneries and as early as 1657, a hemp mill. A sawmill can be documented in operation on the south side of the river next to the Dam in 1729. By the year 1792 Asa Andrews was operating it, along with a scythe mill. In 1796 Mr. Andrews was appointed to the prestigious and important capacity of being the first Customs House Collector of the Port of Ipswich where he served for 33 years.

By the 1830s Benjamin Hoyt was operating a sawmill here and on October 1, 1843 he signed a 10-year lease, at a cost of $100 annually, for the right to build and operate a new sawmill. The lease also allowed the rights to the water-power. The sawmill is believed to have been in operation until 1858 when the structure was moved to a new location at 17 County St. The owners of the dam would maintain it and lease water-power to the businesses that used it.

Photo of the mills, taken from the roof of the Ipswich Female Seminary on North Main St.
Postcard of the mills, photo taken from the roof of the Ipswich Female Seminary on North Main St.

It was not until 1827 that we know of a substantial stone Dam built at today’s location. It was built for the Ipswich Manufacturing Company, consisting of Joseph Farley and brothers George and Augustine Heard, to power a stone textile mill that would be located on the north side of the river and would manufacture cotton cloth. This was the first time water-power had ever been used in Ipswich to produce cloth. At this time the ancient ford-way that went across the river below the dam was closed and no longer used. The height of the dam could be adjusted with the addition of wooden flash boards attached to the top of the stone.

Ipswich Mills with the Old Stone Mill
The Ipswich Mill, with the Old Stone Mill still standing behind it.

In 1830, 12″ flash boards were added and by 1858 the flash boards had been raised to 18″. Due to the higher flash boards properties up river were being flooded and Augustine Heard, who owned the dam at this time, was compensating them financially for the loss of their lands. In 1846 the Dane Manufacturing Company purchased the business, but not the Dam, for $24,000 and continued to operate at this site making a coarse cotton cloth called drilling.

Amos Lawrence purchased the mill and it’s associated properties on January 16th, 1868 for $70,000. It was then renamed The Ipswich Mills Company and began the production of hosiery instead of cotton cloth. The Ipswich Hosiery Mill was in operation until 1928 and at one time was the largest stocking mill in the country.

Water-powered machinery in the Ipswich mill.
Water-powered machinery in the Ipswich mill.

In 1941 Sylvania purchased the mill buildings, as well as the Dam, where they produced various products including proximity fuses, military and commercial transformers as well as tungsten coils. EBSCO Publishing bought the remaining buildings along the river in October of 1995 from Osram Sylvania and moved in during July 1996 after renovations were completed.

This photo just upstream from the dam and the former pedestrian bridge shows one of the mill buildings being demolished in the mid- 20th Century.
This photo just upstream from the dam and the former pedestrian bridge shows one of the mill buildings being demolished in the mid- 20th Century.

The dam is believed to have been rebuilt in about 1880. The technique used to cut the stone as well as the size of the stones are the primary basis for this assumption as well as 2 maps showing different shaped dams. There is a record of additional work being completed in 1908. Rebuilding was most likely driven by large maintenance costs as it fell into greater degrees of disrepair.

The average size of the stones today is approximately 6 feet wide x 20 inches tall and four feet deep and weighing on average approximately 5,000 pounds. In 1982 the Town of Ipswich purchased the Dam from GTE Sylvania and today the Ipswich Utilities Department is responsible for its maintenance.”

The Ipswich Mills dam, winter 2015
The Ipswich Mills dam, winter 2015

*Dick Dunn tells us that he was a Sylvania employee in the 1960s, and worked with a crew that took the dam down and replaced it with the present one. (We have been unable to confirm his story).

“I remember cutting down the structure in the picture with an acetylene torch. Then we lifted the sections out with a crane. There were gates that could be opened with big wheels on them to lift the gate. Once we opened the gates the water level dropped to 4 to 6 inches some spots were bare. We walked back and forth across the river without boots. Under the dam on the river bed there were these cypress planks maybe 5 inches thick that the structure sat on. I was down in the river when the crane pulled them up huge ells slithered out from under gave me quite a start. The entire dam was removed the water level dropped to just a little stream in the middle just a few inches deep. The current cement dam was built by Stephen A Stickney Co. from Boxford Ma. I am not sure what time of year it was but it was fairly warm. If they remove that dam there will be times when there will be no water in the river and you will be able to walk across.”

Sources and further reading:

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