Ipswich town wharf circa 1930, photography by Edward Darling

The Old Town Landings and Wharfs

*Reprinted from an article published in 1971, courtesy of Jane Ward

The Ipswich River, as far as Ipswich is concerned in the present day, is a thing of beauty, hopefully a joy forever, but of not much practical use. The dam across it at the old mill site does not produce the power; the sand has blocked its channel so that only small boats may enter and leave its mouth, and the various town landings much in use in past centuries have, for the most part, disappeared not only from sight but from memory.

Old footbridge on the Ipswich River at the downtown dam.

There is one man who remembers, however, and he is William J. Barton , 83, of Argilla Road, who says he is probably the oldest man still clamming on the river’s flats. “When I was on the river, that was the happiest time of my life,” he tells his grandchildren.

William Barton believes the breakwater built off Little Neck near “Lower Graverly” in the early 1900s under the auspices of the late Richard T. Crane is the cause of the blockage of the river channel today.

Ipswich River breakwater
Crane’s breakwater between Steep Hill Beach and Little Neck changed the river channel.

“The breakwater only lasted a few years, and then broke up,” he says. “When the engineers planned and built it, the local fishermen who had been going up and down the river all of their lives tried to tell them that it was no place to put it, but the engineers wouldn’t listen. It should have been constructed at a point near the end of Little Neck, where extensive erosion has taken place over the years, and extended about a thousand feet under water to the Red Buoy where you make a left turn to into Parker River. Under that thousand feet of water are unlimited tons of stones eroded over hundreds of years from Little Neck. Before this mistake of a breakwater, there was always a good channel with 12 feet of water. It was no trouble for two and three masted vessels to come up to the wharves with loads of coal up to 250 to 400 tons in weight.” He said sailors on these vessels used to call the Ipswich “The Yellow River.”

“The sand would come in with the tide, and rush out with it. It left a straight line channel and a deep one,” said Barton. The Feoffees of the Ipswich Grammar School attempted to halt and to correct the erosion at Little Neck three years ago, at what Barton calls “considerable expense.”

R. W. Davis, Ipswich MA

Many a pleasant sail down the river are in the memories of William J. Barton. “Starting on the left-hand side of the river, at a point opposite the former R. W. Davis Garage on South Main Street, there is a strip of land, 30 or 40 feet wide, owned by the Town of Ipswich. It was formerly a road or ford to a town landing and wharf. However, by a vote of town meeting many’ years ago, the landing and wharf were deeded to the Ipswich Mills as the site of a boiler room. (That strip of land is the new Ipswich Riverwalk extension.)

Ipswich River footbridge cyanotype by Arthur Wesley Dow
Cyanotype by Arthur Wesley Dow

One of the conditions of the deed was that the Mills would keep open the foot bridge for the convenience of the public going from the South Side to the Boston and Maine Railroad. The mill closed in 1928, and so did the foot bridge.” (The present footbridge opened in 2006).

County Street bridge and factories, Ipswich MA
The County St. Bridge in the second half of the 19th Century

Continuing his imaginary sail, Barton guides us under the Choate and County Street bridges, and over the dam that once furnished water power for Damon’s grist mill, later Carter’s.

View of the County Street mills from the Cove at Poplar St. Photo by Edward L. Darling.

“Turning to the right, you came to a public town landing off County Street, at the foot of Elm Street. (‘There is still a flight of stone steps leading from the bank down to the cove.) Further to the right, along the cove, there was Heard’s Wharf, at the rear of 2 Turkey Shore Road, which was then called Prospect Street. Quantities of salt fish were shipped from this wharf to the West Indies, and the returned cargoes of molasses went to John Heard’s distillery in the 1790s. A public way and road led to the wharf, and to Bird’s Glove Mill, which rain parallel to Prospect Street.

Ipswich River lower dam and the House of Correction. Photo by Edward Darling, courtesy of Bill Barton. The remnants of the old dam are still clearly visible.

Looking toward the other side of the river, he described it this way: “There was also a wharf on County property, where the County Jail stood, and where the Junior High School now stands. There was another town landing, after you passed under Green Street Bridge, on the left, at the foot of Summer Street. Thousands of barrels of bloater herrings landed here every fall, and were hauled by horse-dray to Gloucester, Marblehead, Swampscott, to the fishing fleets for bait for their trawls.

Choate’s boatyard was at today’s Outboard Club location

“Where the Outboard Ramp is now located was Choate’s Wharf, at the foot of Choate’s Court, now known as Scotton’s Lane. Further down stream on the left there was another town landing at the foot of Hovey Street. Howard Dodge had a building there where he stored coarse bar sand, and sold it to masons for plastering. Still further along, a landing existed this side of Granite Wharf. To the right was another town landing and wharf at the foot of Tansy Lane, but it’s hard to find now, although it was called to the attention of the Selectmen several years ago to see if it could be opened.

Mid-19th Century photo of Water St. and Clam Shell Alley from the collection of William J. Barton

“Granite Wharf, later called Sam Bailey’s Wharf, was located where Melanson’s Boat Yard is now, and a lot of granite from Rockport landed there. There were also loads of timber and lime arriving next to the wharf. One time, a vessel loaded with lime sprung a leak, and it was towed across the river to the Tansy Lane wharf, where it sank. Part of the wreck still can be seen in the mud of the river. “On this same wharf (Granite) the Ipswich Custom House was located. James W. Bond was customs inspector in 1875. The next year, the Port of Ipswich was abolished and annexed to Newburyport.

Granite Wharf, by Arthur Wesley Dow

“After the Customs service left, John Glover, and later, Charles Lovell, conducted a coal business on the wharf. Still later, Alexander Clark docked a naphtha, or gasoline steamer there, and made trips to the Isle of Shoals. Finally, the wharf became a town landing or slip, to pull boats in. This is at Water and East Streets.

Coal schooner at Glover’s Wharf
The Ipswich River circa 1900
“Pirate’s Cove” was filled in to build the current town landing.

“Next to this is Brown’s Wharf, called Paul R. Eames Wharf at the beginning of the 20th Century. This is where the steamer ‘Carlotta’ landed at high tide. To the left of this was ‘Pirates’ Cove,’ where the early settlers were said to have landed, among them, ancestors of the Perkins family.

“This landing is where the state’s Public Access Launching Ramp is now. Into this cove, from the town’s earliest days, clammers came in with the tide with their bushels of clams each day. In 1898, dealers who bought their clams were Joseph Foster Claxton, and later Emery Hall and Farley C. Lord. In Claxton’s time, he paid $1.50 a barrel; Lord paid $3. I think the price today is around $30 a barrel.

The ship Carlotta
The Carlotta

‘”The Carlotta’ had an elevated walk over the cove so that passengers could get to the river on a low tide. Fishermen maintained a small wharf on the cove’s north side and, on the Agawam side Jim Hull had a spot where he transacted business with the diggers.

A schooner at the Ipswich town wharf
A schooner at the wharf. Ring bolt rock is in the foreground

“Opposite the wharf, on the right side of the river, is `Ring Bolt Rock.’ Two and three masted vessels would run a line in this bolt and snub, or turn, them up the river. Around the corner from the wharf, on the left, was Roger’s Point, the site of a shipyard operated by Edward W. Choate at one time. it was here. in 1878, that The Carlotta’ was built, along with several other schooners. If the tide was extremely low, the Carlotta would deck here, rather than at the wharf.”

Nabby’s Point by Arthur Wesley Dow

Rounding the next point of the river, the sailor sees Nabby’s Point, where there is another ring bolt rock. Opposite was Frenchman’s Cove, so-called because members of that nationality made it their first objective, upon arriving in town. “If they were available, that’s where they wanted to get their clams,” Barton explained.

Now the clam flats begin. On the left they were called “Paw Paw” or “Pee Paw.” What is now Gould’s Creek was formerly Labor-in-Vain Creek.

Labor in Vain bridge over Goulds Creek
The old bridge over Gould’s Creek (Labor in Vain)

“From a point opposite Hovey Street, and continuing to the Creek, it was always known as Labor-in-Vain Reach because it was almost impossible to sail a boat between these two points. Many a time I’d get as far as Hovey Street with a fine wind filling my sail, but it always dropped right there, and it was a hard struggle until you got to the Creek, where you’d pick up the wind again.

Diamond Stage and Treadwells Island in the 1832 Ipswich map

“After Gould’s Creek, there’s a flat called Bare Ass Nub, and further along, a large piece named Cineretta after a mine in the West where someone in Ipswich was supposed to have struck it rich. Opposite Cineretta is South, or Scotton’s Bank, Robinson’s Creek and Greenwood Creek, Myers’ Ground and Spew Island Creek. There was a bridge over the creek on the north side to haul hay from the farm on Treadwell’s Island. The land in front of the island was known as Treadwell’s Island Reach, and the flats were Low’s Gravel. Opposite is Old Maid’s Bank. Beyond the island are Deep Hole, Uncle Jerry’s Garden and Bungo’s Point.

Diamond Stage
Diamond Stage is about 7 ft. above sea level, which has risen almost a foot in the past century. It is expected to disappear permanently beneath the tide in this century. Photo by Kerry Mackin
Diamond Stage on the Ipswich River
The 1832 Ipswich map shows the Town Landing at Diamond Stage

“Probably the earliest wharfage in town was the Diamond Stage, an ancient landing place at the end of Newmarch Street. A building here was originally a life saving station manned by volunteers, who went to the aid of any vessel in trouble. My father was a member of this group. To the left of the landing is Diamond Stage Creek, and its reach extending to Neck Creek. Opposite was Horse Shoe. After Neck Creek came Neck Cove, and opposite High Sands. These are nice clam flats.”

Photograph of Fewkes Island by Edward L. Darling, from the collection of William J. Barton

Barton reels off names such as The Beach, The Spit, Western Branch Fox Creek, now called Treadwell’s Island Creek Flats, The Cow yard, Margaret’s Hole, the southern branch of Fox Creek, later Jack Stratton’s, and still later, Fewke’s Island, all as familiar to him as his own back yard.

Robinson’s Boatyard was built at the foot of Fewke’s Island, seen in the right background. The Boatyard was taken down at the end of WWII.

“It was at Fewke’s Island that Robinson’s Shipyard operated during World War II. Nearby are The Cedars and Lower Graverly and, of course, what was built to be a breakwater, but which only lasted a few years. Opposite this are Plum Island Sound and River. On your right as you go out of the river is Steep Hill, Middle Hill and Castle Hill, as well as Castle Neck, Ipswich and Crane’s Beaches. Off the beach is the Ipswich Bar and North Spit, and at the end of the beach there are three separate sand bars. These are called one, two and three South Spits, and are excellent spots for digging sea or bar clams.”

Wreck of the Ada K. Damon at Steep Hill Beach

With the sail about to be concluded, Barton almost visibly made the ropes fast, and prepared to lower anchor.

“On the right is where the Ipswich River, the Castle Neck River and the Essex River empty into Essex Bay, to eventually find their way into Massachusetts Bay, and finally, the Atlantic Ocean. “These were the names of the places and flats along the Ipswich River before my time, and familiar to me during my time. They were used by the fishermen and clammers. I know. I was one of them. It was the happiest time of my life.”

More photos and additional information:

Along the Ipswich River: Historic photos of the Ipswich River from original glass negatives taken by early Ipswich photographers Arthur Wesley Dow, George Dexter and Edward L. Darling.

The Ipswich River: The 35-mile Ipswich River flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Ipswich Bay. The Ipswich River Water Association works to protect the river and its watershed. Foote Brothers Canoes on Topsfield Rd provides rentals and shuttle service from April to October.

The Industrial History of the Ipswich River: The Industrial History of the Ipswich River was produced for the Ipswich 375th Anniversary by John Stump, volunteer for the Ipswich Museum, and Alan Pearsall, who produced the Ipswich Mural with funding from EBSCO.

The Choate Bridge: The American Society of Civil Engineers cites the Choate Bridge in Ipswich as the oldest documented two-span masonry arch bridge in the U.S., and the oldest extant bridge in Massachusetts.

When Herring Were Caught by Torchlight: In the late 19th Century, most of the men around the river would look forward to “herringing” when fall arrived. The foot of Summer Street was the best landing. One year so many herring were caught, they were dumped in the Parker River, and Herring did not return for many years.

County Street, Sawmill Point, and bare hills: The town voted in 1861 to build County Street and its stone arch bridge, connecting Cross and Mill Streets. A Woolen mill, saw mill, blacksmith shop and veneer mill operated near the bridge.

The Town Wharf: The Ipswich Town Landing is one of several locations along the River where wharves were located over the centuries.

Diamond Stage: In 1673, two fishermen from the Isles of Shoals, Andrew Diamond and Harry Maine, arrived together in Ipswich. Mr. Diamond built a platform for salting and shipping fish, and became quite successful. The location is still known today as Diamond Stage.

Water Street: In the book, Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Volume I, Thomas Franklin Waters recorded the history of Water Street, which is part of an early public right-of-way that extended from the wharf to the Green Street Bridge, then cotinued along the Sidney Shurcliff Riverwalk to County St.

Visit the Ipswich River Watershed Association site

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