Photo by David “Stony” Stone
The Fox Creek Canal is the oldest man-made tidewater canal in the United States, dug in 1820. The following was written by Thomas Franklin Waters:
“As early as 1652 a move was made toward cutting a passage way for boats through the marshes from Ipswich River to the River of Chebacco to avoid the long and sometimes dangerous passage by the mouth of the river. In that year the town granted Thomas Clark and Reginald Foster that “when they shall have cut through a passage from this river into Chebacco river of ten feet wide and soe deepe as a lighter may pass through laden and to make a ford and foot bridge over that then the town have given unto them £10 toward said passage.”
Evidently the canal was not completed as in 1682 it was “granted to any one of the inhabitants to perfect cutting the cut that comes up to Mr Eppes’ bridge if they will submit to the selectmen yearly the setting of the toll for those who pass through and who do not help cut it .”
But still the work was incomplete and in 1694 it was granted that “such persons of Ipswich as will may have liberty to cut the cut through on the hither side of Castle Neck. If any pass through who do not help do it they shall pay for a passage as the selectmen set the price. Whoever will cut the cut through the marsh by Mr Eppes sufficient for boats to pass through laden shall have liberty such as pay. Those who help toward doing it shall pass free. Such as pay nothing shall be charged in money for a cord of wood or load of hay or ton or other loading.”
Despite these liberal terms no one seems to have had enterprise or capital to complete the work and it was not till 1820 that a stock company was formed which dug a navigable canal from Fox Creek to Chebacco or Essex River. $1100 was expended but the tolls on traffic were sufficient to pay nearly six per cent on the investment. Much ship timber was brought down the Merrimack through Parker river and the canal for the Essex ship yards.”
by Joseph Felt
1694. “Granted that such persons of Ipswich, as will, may have liberty to cut the cut through on the hither side of Castle Neck ; and if any pass through, who do not help do it, they shall pay for a passage as the selectmen set the price.” “Whoever will cut the cut through the marsh by Mr. Eppes’ sufficient for boats to pass through laden, shall have liberty. Such as pay about 5 shillings towards doing it, shall pass free. Such as pay nothing, shall be charged in money, a cord of wood, or load of hay, or ton of other loading.”
1820. A company became incorporated for having a canal from Ipswich to Essex. It was made navigable early in 1821. Its length is about half a mile. It commences at Fox Creek and runs to Chebacco River. It cost near $1100. This stock is divided into twenty-seven shares of forty dollars each, and pays nearly six per cent, on the original amount. As an inlet to Essex from Merrimack River for ship timber, it has kept this article down lower than it would be, had dependence been placed solely on what the vicinity would supply.
Prices of freight through this canal. — Oak timber seventeen cents, and pine fourteen cents a ton. Oak sawn stuff of an inch thick, forty cents M., and of other thicknesses in proportion. Pine sawn stuff of one inch thick, thirty cents; hard wood thirty cents, and pine twenty cents a cord. Hogshead staves seventy-five cents, and barrel staves forty cents M. Hogshead hoop-poles one dollar, and barrel hoop-poles seventy-five cents M. Clapboards, forty cents, and shingles ten cents M. Each light gondola five cents, and every ton of loading fifteen cents.
Fox creek is tidal and fills in quickly. In 1938 it was dredged again to accommodate ship-building at Robinson’s Boatyard. The boatyard was razed after the war.
William A. Robinson was an engineer from Kenosha, WI who sailed around the world in 1928 at the age of the 25 in a 32-foot Alden ketch named Svaap. He later sailed the ship from New York to the Galapagos Islands. Cornelius Crane, (the son of Richard T. Crane Jr and his wife Florence) met the young man, introduced him to his sister (also named Florence) and they married.
An engineer by training, Robinson started a shipyard on Crane property along Fox Creek to build replica sailing ships. In 1937 he built a topsail schooner for himself, the “Swift of Ipswich”, which is now owned by the Los Angeles Maritime Institute as a training vessel for at-risk youth. The boat was once owned by actor James Cagney and appeared in several movies. Also still sailing is his second ship, the 70-foot brigantine Varua.
During the Second World War, Robinson landed a contract to produce 100 small minesweepers and other small craft. Over 200 vessels were built here in Ipswich. Since most young men were overseas during the war, many of the workers were older men. The work was outdoors, not in a building, and they didn’t stop for the cold or snow. Read an in-depth story about working at the boatyard.
After the war ended, Robinson and Florence Crane divorced. He closed the boatyard and moved to Tahiti. Cornelius Crane is said to have razed the buildings so that they would not be a constant reminder to his sister of her ex-husband. All that remains are a few posts sticking out of the water from the former piers. The channel at Fox Creek has filled back in. Read the full story of Robinson’s Shipyard, written for the Boston Globe in 1992.
Photographs taken before the 20th Century show cottages along Fox Creek below Tilton Hill, named for Abraham Tilton, an early Ipswich settler. The Ipswich River is beyond, with an unpopulated Little Neck in the distance. Beyond the tree in the middle are a few buildings on tiny Fox Island, which abutted Robinson’s Shipyard during WWII. The confluence of Fox Creek/ Ipswich River) is on the right, where you can faintly make out a large ship or two in the channel on the other side of the dunes. Very faint in the distance are two cottages at Ipswich Bluff on Plum Island. This image was digitally produced from a glass plate negative and dates to the earliest era of photography, between 1860 and 1890.
The following article is by the late John Fiske :
Memorial Day, 2014: 76º, humid, hazy clouds, and the end of a long spell of unseasonably cool weather. Just the day for our first cruise of the season, puttering among the salt marshes in our little boat. One of our favorite routes is go down the Ipswich River almost to the ocean and then turn right and head upstream, winding up Fox Creek. I particularly enjoy Fox Creek for the way it intertwines landscape and history — you can’t separate one from the other, not that I would ever want to. They both turn me on.
On the second bend of the creek, we swing to port (that’s to the left, for you landlubbers) and there on our starboard (on the right, get it?) are rows of old, rotting wooden piles. They are all that remains of a surprising boat shop.
Just before WWII, William Robinson began building replica sailing ships here, but the war changed his business. Wooden hulled boats made ideal mine sweepers – mines were magnetic and their hulls were not. Robinson’s boat yard produced up to 200 vessels for the US Navy, but all that remains now are slowly rotting piles – the channel that they had to dredge to accommodate the ships has filled back in, and Fox Creek is once again as it always was.
We putter on past, steering round bends that are only just short of 360 º, till we see on our starboard a narrow waterway that is almost dead straight. Odd – well, not odd, just unnatural; man-made, for man likes straight lines, nature does not. It’s the Fox Creek Canal, dug in 1820, making it the oldest tidewater canal in the country. Now, 1820 is pretty late for a town founded in 1634, but 1820 is the only the latest date in the history of the canal.
In 1652 (now we’re getting somewhere) the town of Ipswich promised Thomas Cole and Reginald Fletcher £10 “when they shall have cut through a passage from this river into Chebacco River, of ten feet wide and soe deepe as a lighter may pass through laden.” Sadly, Tom and Reg don’t seem to have been up to the task, for in 1682, the selectmen tried again, offering to grant “to any of the inhabitants who perfect cutting the cut, that comes up to Mr. Eppes’ bridge, if they will submit to the selectmen, yearly, the setting of the toll for those who pass through and who do not help cut it.”
Even the chance of setting their own tolls didn’t appear attractive enough: in 1694, the selectmen made a third attempt, “Whoever will cut the cut through the marsh by Mr. Eppes’ sufficient for boats to pass through laden, shall have liberty. Such as pay about 5s. towards doing it, shall pass free. Such as pay nothing, shall be charged 3d. in money for a cord of wood, or load of hay, or ton of other loading.”
Either the marsh was too difficult to dig through, or the financial returns weren’t attractive enough, or both. Whatever the reason, the selectmen’s pleas fell on deaf ears, and the canal did not get dug until 1820. When it finally opened, we may assume that the company formed to dig it got a decent return on its investment. The tolls were:
Prices of freight through this canal. Oak timber seventeen cents, and pine fourteen cents a ton. Oak sawn stuff of an inch thick, forty cents M., and of other thicknesses in proportion. Pine sawn stuff of one inch thick, thirty cents M.; hard wood thirty cents, and pine twenty cents a cord. Hogshead staves seventy-five cents, and barrel staves forty cents M. Hogshead hoop-poles one dollar, and barrel hoop-poles seventy-five cents M. Clapboards, forty cents, and shingles ten cents M. Each light gondola five cents, and every ton of loading fifteen cents. (“M” is a volumetric measurement of timber – I think.)
For what seems the reasonable cost of $1,100, the canal provided the missing link between the forests of New Hampshire and the shipyards of Essex. Lumber boats would sail down the Merrimac to Newburyport, cruise south along the landward-side of Plum Island and reach the Ipswich River without ever having to go on the ocean. Then, if they were small enough, they would be poled through the canal: if they weren’t, they’d unload, and the logs would be floated on the tide along the canal and then up the Chebacco River to Essex. Our little boat is not built for the ocean either, so we’re real glad that the canal finally got dug: now we, like the logs, can get safely to Essex where, unlike the logs, we’ll eat some of the best fried clams on the planet.
All this history took place in an unchanging landscape. The salt marshes are still wide and horizontal, they grow the same reeds and grasses, and they still open our hearts and our vision. But that, come to think of it, is where there is a historical difference: I’m not aware of anyone living in pre-industrial Ipswich or Essex who enthused over the beauty of the salt marsh. Now, everyone does.
Most Americans today are city folk, or they live in towns that we think of as small, but in the seventeenth century would have seemed enormous. And the streetscapes where we live today are essentially vertical with lots of right angles and short sight lines. We’re hemmed in by them, so a horizontal salt marsh with sight lines that reach to the bottom of the sky is truly a thing of beauty, of awe and of spiritual refreshment. But to our forefathers, it was bloody hard work, nothing more, nothing less. –John Fiske
- Robinson’s Shipyard, Boston Globe, 1992
- No Ordinary Summer, by David T. Lindgren
History of Ipswich, Essex and Hamilton by Joseph Felt