Isinglass Mill in Ipswich MA

The Mill Road Bridge and the Isinglass Factory

The triple stone arch Warner Bridge that connects Mill Rd. in Ipswich to Highland St. in Hamilton was designed by architect Henry Hubbard. Thomas Franklin Waters wrote that it was first constructed in 1829, and Ipswich town history records that it was “rebuilt” in 1856. In 1931, the roadway was raised; stone parapets and the wooden sidewalk on the upstream side were added.

Warner Bridge, Mill Road

The arches of the Mill Road bridge are “dry-laid,” without any mortar. During the 2006 “Mothers Day Flood,” the bases of the two piers were undercut by the force of the water, and a serious dip formed in the roadway, as can be seen in the photo below. There was fear that the bridge could collapse into a giant pile of rocks in the river. As part of repairing the flood damage, holes were drilled through from one side to the other and giant steel rods inserted and bolted. The ends of the bolted rods were plugged with stone.

The Warner bridge on the Ipswich River connects Ipswich and Hamilton.
The Warner bridge on the Ipswich River connects Ipswich and Hamilton.

Waters wrote the early history of the dam, mill, and houses in his book Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vol. 2:

“Where the stream narrows in the beautiful gorge between the hills, a bridge, probably of logs, was built by the tanners, whose land abutted on the river on both sides, about 1667. In that year, John Adams, Nathaniel Adams, Samuel Adams, Joseph Safford, Nicholas Wallis and Thomas Stace were ‘freed from working in the common highway for 7 years upon consideration of their building a bridge over the river at there own expense.’

“Sargent Nicholas Wallis received permission in March, 1686-7 to improve the water by damming in the river against his own land, not exceeding three foot, for the building a fulling mill or mills, provided he do it within a year and a half. Sergeant Wallis did not improve his privilege, and in March. 1696-7, John Adams, Sen., his son John, Jim. and Michael Farley Junior petitioned the Town for permission to build a dam, and operate a grist mill and a fulling mill. After a little delay, they received the desired liberty, and built the dam, with a fulling mill on the north side and the grist mill on the south, in the year 1697.

“The Town granted the petition, with the provision that it would not prejudice any former grants and the mills be ready for use in a year and a half. There was a lurking jealousy regarding the mill privilege, which we may infer from the fact that on May 6, 1697, it was reported to the Town that the vote of March 3d was unsatisfactory to Lieut. Adams and his associates, and that they would not build on these terms. Whereupon, the objectionable clause was removed, and “The Town doth now grant to said parties all their interest and right in the stream against sd. Adams land and make a Dam, provided they set up said mills in a year and a half.”

The petition to the town is recorded in Wilde Genealogy

“The humble Petition of we whose names are under written to the honored Gentlemen & Inhabitants of the Town of Ipswich, now assembled March 3, 1696/7. Our request and desire is that you would please to grant us leave to make a Dam cross the River against my land in order to the building of a corn-mill and a Fulling-Mill for the use and benefit of the Town, I having a place that is judged very convenient for such a purpose without damage to the Town in any particular person. The request we doubt not but you will readily grant, which will oblige us to serve you accordingly to the best of our abilities. And your petitioners shall ever pray— John Adams Sen., Michael Farley Jr., John Adams Jr.”1795_map

Water’s history of dam continues:

“Mr. Farley bought an acre and a half of upland, on the north side of the river, opposite the Adams land, from Thomas French, on June 3, 1697. The dam was built forthwith, a fulling mill on the north side, and a grist mill on the south bank, and on the 4th of May, 1699, a formal agreement was ratified between the owners. Farley had borne half the cost, and the Adamses the balance. The title of each was confirmed accordingly, ‘and whereas for ye setting Placing advancement & benefit of sd Mills by Damming & flowing for Rocks and Gravelling sd. Michael purchased one acre and a halfe of land of Thomas French against part of which said Dam abutteth on ye north side sd River sd Michael Gives & grants same to bee & remain forever as a Mill lot for ways to & use of said owners.’

“In like fashion the Adams, father and son, set apart a lot of the same size on their side, for common use. John Adams Senior conveyed his farm to his son, John Jr., on 7 April, 1698, but retained his ownership in “ye land the corn mill stands on & highway to go & come from said mill.” He sold his quarter interest in the mills and dam to Mr. Farley, July 26, 1702. John bequeathed the mill and property to his only son, John in his will.”

The Caleb Warner house on Mill Rd., Ipswich MA.
The Caleb Warner house on Mill Rd faces the Ipswich River and Warner’s Bridge

“Caleb Warner, clothier, bought Mr. Farley’s interest in 1734, and in November of that year married Elizabeth Brown. She was the sixteen-year old-daughter of Benjamin Brown, the recently deceased miller who lived close by and who may have been the employee of the wealthier Michael Farley Jr. Waters noted an unusual incident at the mill:

“A mulatto man on March 20, 1737 with force & arms entered the fulling mill of Caleb Warner in Ipswich. He stole a piece of woolen cloth of brownish color about 13 yards valued at £5. The sentence was that he pay £24 damage and be whipped 10 stripes on his naked back at the public whipping post. He also stole 8 yards of bluish cloth valued at £5 for which the penalty was £15 and 10 stripes. As he was unable to pay, the Court ordered that Warner may sell him to any suitable person for six years.”

Caleb Warner prospered, and by 1755 had gained possession of a large farm by several purchases. He built the large home that still stands by the riverside. At that time, the road from the dam to Topsfield road was located west of the Mill Road, which was laid out and accepted by the Town in Dec, 1817. Waters continues,

“The fulling mill was operated by the Warners, and William Warner added a carding machine prior to 1794. Caleb Warner’s son Barnabas succeeded him, and David, son of Barnabas, sold to Ammi Smith in 1827, and the Smith heirs to Caleb and Jerome Norwood in 1868. The sawing of fine veneers was carried on with success. This property was conveyed by the Warner heirs to Ammi Smith, in 1858. The water power that had once been utilized for the fulling and scouring mill, and the carding of wool, was then used by the isinglass factory. The sawmill across the river continued in use. During the Civil War, blankets were made in this facility for Union soldiers.

Mill Road Warner Bridge, Ipswich
Crossing under the Warner Bridge from upstream. Photo by Scott Sazin.

“In the Spring of 1820, the Warners and others petitioned the Court of Sessions for a bridge. The Town opposed but the Court ordered it built. The Town then petitioned for a discontinuance of the road. Another petition was filed by the Warners in the following year with no better success. Five years then elapsed. The petitioners were as determined as the Town, and in 1829, they secured from the County officials a fresh order to the Town to proceed. The bridge was built, a beautiful three-arched structure of granite, but the Town voted in July, 1832, to employ Rufus Choate “and such other learned and respectable counsel as may deem proper,’* to contest payment of any portion of the expense. The case went to the Supreme Court, which rendered an adverse decision in November, 1833, and assessed the Town $1498.”

In an address at the Tricentennial Celebration of Ipswich, 1834, the famous lawyer Rufus Choate refers to “$5000 of our money, enough to build the Ipswich part of Warner’s Bridge more than three times over.”

Engineering sketch of Warner's Bridge on Mill Rd. in Ipswich
Engineering sketch of Warner’s Bridge on Mill Rd. in Ipswich
The Warner Isinglass Mill sat on the downstream Ipswich side of the bridge, in front of the Caleb Warner house. The dam that is visible in this photo but long gone, created a mill pond above the dam.

Caleb Norwood purchased the properties from the Warner heirs in 1880. He built a large four story mill below the house to manufacture isinglass, a collagen from the air bladders of sturgeon, cod and carp, which is converted into gelatin. This form of isinglass was used in the clarification of wines and beers and for thickening confectionery and glues. Thirty five employees processed 100,000 lbs of isinglass yearly. After the mill closed in 1912, the building was unusable for any other purpose and was demolished. The mills on the Hamilton side of the river ceased to operate in 1919 and the sawmill still stands.

The Massachusetts isinglass industry began in 1822 in Rockport. In the procedure the cleaned sounds (bladders) are soaked and softened to the desired consistency then converted into ribbon isinglass by rollers, then dried. Isinglass was manufactured only in the cooler months because of rapid putrefaction in hot weather. Fish glue nonetheless has a pronounced odor and the area around the factory surely reeked.

Mill Road, Ipswich Ma
Members of the Appleton Family on the Mill Road side of Warner’s Bridge, courtesy of David Thayer.
Mill Road bridge Ipswich and Hamilton
An early photo of the old Mill Road bridge. The sawmill on the Hamilton side of the river still stands. The house in the background is probably the Norwood house that was moved to the other side of Highland St. In front of the sawmill is the frozen mill pond. The tall building behind the sawmill may be the Norwood barn, apparently moved across Highland Street where it still stands today as a residence.
Logs were floated downstream to the sawmill.
Logs were floated downstream to the sawmill, the building on the left. The Norwood mansion on the far right was later moved across Highland St. to its current location.

Opposite the isinglass factory and still standing on the Hamilton side of the river is an old grist mill building which also served as a saw mill and cider mill. The grist mill processes almost seven thousand bushels of corn each year, and the cider mill annually produced 2000 barrels.

Violet Thayer and family members upstream from the Mill Rd. bridge in 1916. Photo courtesy David Thayer.
Violet Thayer and family members upstream from the Mill Rd. bridge in 1916. Photo courtesy David Thayer. The Isinglass factory can be seen through the arch on the left, and the old mill is visible on the right.
Norwood Mills lumber mill
The old sawmill still stands. All that’s left of the large isinglass factory across the river are a few foundation stones near the river.
Norwood’s Mills, photo courtesy of David Thayer
1832 map of Mill Rd. and the Ipswich River


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