The Northern End of Plum Island


Nancy Virginia Weare spent 33 years at her family’s summer camp was at Plum Island. After the Parker River Wildlife Refuge was established, she moved to a home on Great Neck in Ipswich overlooking Plum Island. In 1993, after Nancy retired, she wrote “Plum Island: The Way It Was.” Nancy Weare passed away in December, 2017. The book is reprinted on this site with permission from her surviving sister. Featured image: View of cottages at the Basin on the northern end of Plum Island, from Plum Island & Salisbury Memories.

Chapter 2: The Northern End of Plum Island

Plum Island in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries could be reached by boat, but it was too isolated to attract large numbers of people. In winter its remoteness could also be dangerous. Town records show, for instance, that in 1798 Richard Jackman and his eleven-year-old son died from exposure on the marsh while attempting to walk home. They had gone to Plum Island for wood the previous day, and after harsh weather forced them to abandon their boat, the two had tried to make their way home on foot.

The first attempt to promote Plum Island as a resort came in 1806 when a group of Newburyport businessmen formed a corporation to build a bridge over Plum Island River and a toll road from the corner of Ocean Avenue to the Center. In late fall of that year a small hotel was erected near the beginning of Old Point Road, and it is believed that the construction workers were housed there.

An early view of the Plum Island Hotel. The sign in the foreground gives toll rates. (Courtesy, Historical Society of Old Newbury).

Old newspaper accounts indicate that for many years the toll road was used primarily by guests of the hotel and by farmers who took their hay wagons across on their way to the salt marshes.

The hotel, under the management of Benjamin Clifford, quickly attracted summer visitors and sportsmen, but its function as a hostelry was interrupted briefly during the War of 1812 when it served as a barracks for soldiers stationed on the island. It soon returned to its original function, and for several decades the hotel remained the only significant non-government building at the northern end of the island.

Access to the island was not always easy despite the new road. In severe weather the bridge over Plum Island River was highly vulnerable. It was destroyed during a great storm in 1832 and was not rebuilt for several years. In order to transport guests to the hostelry, a canal was dug from the river to the hotel, and ferry service was provided. Traces of the canal, parallel to today’s road, can still be seen.

Plum Island drawbridge in the 1800’s. Note the pulleys used to open the bridge for boat traffic. Courtesy, Historical Society of Old newbury)

In 1827 Moses Pettingell purchased all of the land at the north end of Plum Island from the Proprietors of Newbury with the exception of the government lot containing the lighthouses and the land occupied by the hotel complex. His purchase price of $600 was soon recouped from the sale of timber cut down on the island and from the ongoing sale of sand, which was in demand for use in the building trade.

Sometime in the period between 1840 and the mid-1850’s Mr. Pettingell received an unexpected dividend from the sea. Prior to that time the Basin and all the land between it and the ocean were nonexistent. In December of 1839 three very destructive storms served as catalysts for dramatic changes that would follow in the next few years. These storms cut a channel through a sizeable portion of Salisbury Beach at the mouth of the Merrimack, thereby creating an island in the middle of the river. For a brief period there were two channels into the harbor. Eventually the mouth of the south channel, which had previously been the single point of entry, filled with silt and sand. As this reef expanded northward, it formed the cove we now call the Basin. This new, slender arm of land, which continued to increase in area, was called New Point and retained that designation for many years.

Three maps, based on surveys by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1827, 1851 and 1883, show the changing contours at the mouth of the Merrimack River in relation to the preseeent-day jetties indicated by dotted lines. The views represent the high water marks on both the Plum Isand and the Salisbury shores.

New Point became the subject of a fascinating lawsuit several decades after it was affixed to Plum Island. In 1883, E. Moody Boynton sued the Pettingell heirs, claiming that the new point of land was the same piece of property that had been violently severed from Salisbury Beach during the winter storms of 1839-40 and that he, E. Moody Boynton, had acquired title to it from the Salisbury Proprietors and was thus the rightful owner. A number of local residents, all known to be familiar with the river mouth, were called to provide eyewitness accounts of the events that followed the 1839 storms. There was agreement that the severed land had existed as an island for a brief period, but most witnesses recalled that it had eventually washed away. Other testimony indicated that the formation of New Point was a gradual process, starting as a reef that worked northward from Plum Island. The court decided in the Pettingells’ favor, citing an old Massachusetts law giving such an accretion to the owner of the land to which it was added.

Clam diggers at work near the mouth of the Basin. The dike can be seen at the right of this colorized postcard, based on a photo from the 1890’s.

In 1883 a dike was constructed across the entrance to the Basin. The objective was to prevent the Merrimack River from reverting to its original outlet, which is believed to have been near the head of the Basin. One effect of the dike was to create a new and safe swimming area at all times of tide. The dike remained functional for a number of years but was not kept in repair. Traces of it are still visible at low tide.

The construction of the jetties at the mouth of the river commenced in 1881, and for a number of years the area was the scene of great activity. The purpose of the jetties was to increase the depth of the water at the river’s mouth and to prevent the accumulation of sand on the bar. The plans called for two stone jetties to be built, each fifty feet wide at the base and fifteen feet wide at the top. Both jetties were to be at least four feet above the surface of the water at high tide. The north jetty was to be extended nearly one-half mile in a southeasterly direction from Salisbury Beach, and the south jetty was to run in a northeasterly direction from Plum Island to within a thousand feet of the north jetty.

A lighter discharges its cargo of stone during the building of the jetties. (Courtesy, Custom House Maritime Museum –Cheney Collection)

Work began in April, 1881, when the first load of rubble was dumped to form the base of the north jetty. The south jetty was started in 1883, and the work continued with many delays over a period of years until 1900, when the original jetties were completed. The stone was brought to the mouth of the river in barges, most of it from Rockport although some stone came from the quarry opposite Carr’s Island in the Merrimack. In 1914 the north jetty was extended, and in 1932 both jetties required work to overcome settling. Additional repairs were made in the 1960’s. The effectiveness of the jetties has been a subject of controversy over the years, but they remain a familiar landmark on the island and attract many fishing enthusiasts.

Tourists on Plum Island posing wth the 1898 lighthouse in the background. Photo courtesy of the Lighthouse Antiques website.

Although for years there were accommodations for the public only at the hotel, Plum Island was a favorite destination for people from upriver who came by wagon, private boat or steamer to picnic or camp, often bringing their own tents with them. Mrs. E. Vale Smith in her book History of Newburyport describes a familiar scene at the island: “… the sandy beach dotted with tents, the cloth spread on the clean yellow sand, surrounded with groups of young men and maidens, old men and children, the complacent pastor, the grave deacon, all enjoying together a day of unrestrained mirth and healthful recreation….”

Steamboats, which first appeared on the Merrimack in 1828, made it possible for increasingly large numbers of people to enjoy the river and the beaches at its mouth. By the summer of 1876 there were as many as ten steamers running the river, carrying passengers from as far away as Lawrence and Haverhill. Some of these operated on a regular schedule, stopping along the way to pick up passengers bound for Newburyport, Black Rocks or Plum Island. There was also a ferry service that carried passengers between Plum Island Point and Salisbury Beach.

Fred Parsons, a local historian, described Plum Island as he remembered it in the middle 1870’s: “. . . In our early sojourning there, the number of cottages on the Point could be counted on the fingers of one hand. There stood the government house and lighthouse just where it stands today. To the south of the lighthouse and near the Basin was another building of fair size and bearing the imposing title of Bay View House. . . . Three little cottages stood side by side between the river opening and the government lighthouse… . Farther out toward the ocean front stood what was called the ‘Bug Light.’ And so, to the best of my recollection, that was the extent of the colony on Plum Island with the exception of the Halfway House down the island….”

The Simpson Cottage, near the Center, was a familiar landmark. (Courtesy, Historical Society of Old Newbury)

The building of private cottages began in the fall of 1880 when Michael Hodge Simpson, a Newburyport native and Boston merchant, built a large summer home. This imposing cottage, located on a high dune just south of the Center, still commands attention. For many years the Pettingells had done little with their land beyond the selling of sand at the Point to Boston construction companies that sent old schooners, called droghers, to load and transport the sand to Boston. In the 1880’s the Pettingells began to offer lots for lease, and with-in a decade scores of camps and cottages were built, many of them substantial. The Pettingell leases contained one restriction, however: no alcoholic beverages could be sold.

Although Plum Island never pretended to be a fashionable resort, many prominent business and professional people had summer cottages there. They entertained friends from home and abroad, and one of these guests, a former Japanese ambassador who was a visitor at a cottage near the Basin, is said to have given it the name Rinkoo-Tei, meaning “The Place Between the Waters.”

Visitors arriving by stagecoach on the Plum Island Turnpike

By the 1880’s road traffic had greatly increased. Barges (horse-drawn omnibuses) met the horsecars at Market Square to transport people to the island, and many individuals went by private conveyance. In 1883 the Newbury-port Herald reported that “over two hundred carriages passed over the Plum Island turnpike, and a thousand or more gathered on the sands” for a West Newbury outing held at the island.

Plum Island Hotel

The hotel, which was not part of the Pettingell holding, continued to be the focal point of the northern end of the island and over the years underwent a number of additions. During its one hundred and seven years of existence the hotel had many managers, one of the earliest being Captain Nicholas Brown, a highly respected mariner whose presence attracted many of his seafaring colleagues. During his tenure the hotel staff was always prepared to offer shelter and assistance to shipwrecked sailors. Another notable manager was William Thompson, father of the local photographer W.C. Thompson. During his management the hotel was a mecca for sportsmen and became renowned for its game dinners, so much so that a piazza and a two-story ell were added, the ground floor containing a new dining room. People often came from great distances by horse and carriage to dine there. Mr. Thompson also initiated a coach service to pick up passengers at the Newburyport railroad station at 9:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. daily during the summer months.

Enjoying the beach at Plum Island, 1800’s

In 1886 the Plum Island turnpike, bridge and hotel were sold to E.P. Shaw, a local businessman and entrepreneur. Mr. Shaw immediately built a horsecar railway line from the hotel to the Point in order to connect with the steamers of the People’s Line, also under his ownership. The following spring, tracks were laid the length of Plum Island turnpike linking Plum Island to Newburyport and beyond.

The Plum Island Street Railway

The new horsecar railway line made its first trip on May 9, 1887, carrying fifty invited guests as passengers. The sidewalks of the south end of Newburyport were lined with people cheering with excitement as the four open horsecars went by. The coming of the trolley line marked a new era for Plum Island, making it accessible to anyone who wished to spend a day at the beach. The trip from Market Square to the Center took twenty minutes and cost five cents. Many families now spent vacations and even whole summers at the island, since the regularly scheduled and frequent trips made it possible to commute to work.

Ladies on an outing to Plum Island fill this horsecar to capacity. The hotel is in the background (Courtesy, O.R. Cummings, New England Electric Railway Historical Society)

The horsecar line was a great success. In a letter to the editor of the Newburyport Daily News a reader stated: “I have seen as many as twelve or fourteen open horsecars, with seats running crossways, and running boards on either side the entire length jammed to the limit, leave Market Square for Plum Island hotel.”

The horsecar line ran until 1895 when it was sold and then replaced by an electric railway in 1897. The electric cars served for two decades as the primary means of conveyance to Plum Island and still evoke fond memories for old-timers. For a while, travel by trolley and by steamboat overlapped, but shortly after the turn of the century, the steamboats were no longer able to compete financially, and they soon disappeared from the river. The trolleys survived until 1922 when the tracks were taken up and rail service was replaced by buses and private automobiles.

The hotel itself had been enlarged into a much more impressive structure in 1885 under the management of Mr. D. H. Fowle. The addition of another story and tower increased its capacity to forty-eight rooms, and the Newburyport Herald assured readers that it was now “a la mode.” With the arrival of the trolley, the hotel prospered and was the scene of many business and civic functions.

The Plum Island Pavilion

For entertainment there was bowling in a building opposite the hotel. There were also band concerts followed by dancing, and the latter became such an attraction that a pavilion was built nearby on the ocean front. Among the orchestras that played at the Pavilion in 1905-6 was Bill Hardy’s, whose song “Won’t You Be My Little Sister, Louisa?”was a great hit. Also at the Center, and independent of the hotel, there were a theatre, a small restaurant and a grocery store.

Although the hotel at the Center was by far the largest hostelry on Plum Island, there were two other small hotels at the Point. Bay View House, one of the first buildings on the island, was renowned for its clambakes, relished by upriver excursionists who arrived at the nearby steamer dock. The proprietor, George Torrey, also ran the ferry from Plum Island to Salisbury. Another hotel that was famed for its shore dinners in the early 1900’s was the Oliver House on the present Northern Boulevard. Oliver House was originally built at Black Rocks and moved across the river by barge during the late 1890’s.

In 1913 the Center suffered the first of two devastating fires that occurred in consecutive years. On the afternoon of July 9, a fire started beneath the platform of the refreshment booth run by Charles Noyes. Fanned by a strong southwest wind, the flames soon engulfed the Noyes buildings and the grocery store beside them. Despite the efforts of Captain Maddock of the Life Saving Station and the help of many volunteers, the blaze swept across the trolley tracks, igniting and levelling the Pavilion and a double cottage on an adjoining lot. The musicians at the Pavilion were able to rescue all their instruments except the piano, but little else could be saved. That same evening, at about ten o’clock, a fire destroyed half the length of the wooden bridge, stopping all land traffic and forcing the temporarily marooned island residents to come and go by boat. Both fires were attributed to the careless disposal of cigarettes or matches.

Less than a year later, on the morning of May 21, 1914, disaster struck the recently renovated hotel. Thomas Barney, who had just bought the property, and his staff were in residence preparing for the season’s opening. When the chef, Frank Dyer, entered the kitchen to start breakfast, he was not alarmed by a faint smell of smoke because he knew that a fire in the kitchen range had been allowed to die out overnight. When he returned from outside with a fresh supply of wood, crackling sounds from the storeroom above and thick smoke seeping into the kitchen made him realize that a fire was spreading rapidly. He raced from room to room to waken the occupants, all of whom escaped safely.

Barney telephoned for help from Newburyport and a chief’s call was issued, but streams of water from the fire equipment had little effect on the flames, and the firemen and the people aiding them were helpless in the face of the strong wind that was blowing. In less than two hours, the hotel, a large barn, a carriage house and an ice house — not yet filled — were in ashes, destroyed because of a defective flue in the kitchen chimney. Only two chimneys and some hen houses were left standing. Immediately following the fire, Barney expressed his hopes of rebuilding, but they never materialized and the hotel became history.

Although the hotel was not replaced, a new dance hall was built in 1915 by Paul Currier, and for many years it attracted hundreds of young people who wanted an evening of dancing. An old-timer who frequented it recalled that “a thousand paid admissions on a Saturday night was not unusual.” The charge for a couple was ten cents per dance “under the crystal ball,” and there were also performances by professional dancers. One of the orchestras to play at the dance hall was that of Roy Smith, a long-time resident of the island and builder of the Beachcomber at the Center.

On May 18, 1933, this dance hall, by then the property of Michael Twomey and John (Jack) Kelleher, was also destroyed by fire. Mr. Kelleher, who later became mayor of Newburyport, replaced it with a new ballroom called Jack-OLand, offering roller skating during the week and an orchestra for dancing on the weekends.

In 1920 the heirs of Moses Pettingell agreed to sell their Plum Island land to J. Sumner Draper of Milton, Massachusetts. The property, except for fifty acres deeded to the U.S. Government at the northerly end, was later that same year sold to the Plum Island Beach Company for the purpose of development. At the time of the sale, this part of the island contained approximately three hundred and fifteen houses for which the owners were paying a modest land rent. Writing in the Newburyport Daily News, Roy Smith said, “If you lived on the Old Point Road side of the Basin, you paid $5 a year.. On the west side of the plank-walk or car track, you paid $10 and on the ocean side of the car track, you paid $13 a year.”

The new company proceeded to survey the land, laying out lots and streets. A valuation was placed on each lot, and owners of cottages were given the opportunity to purchase the land or to sell their cottages to the corporation. Not everyone was enthusiastic about the new development. The lots were small, and many of the cottage owners who had previously taken for granted their open space and ocean views now found themselves surrounded by new cottages.

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