Thursday, September 20, 2018

Noteworthy North River Ships

The Beaver, one of the ships involved in the Boston Tea Party, was built on the North River.
The North River today is so serene: it can be difficult to imagine that it was once a booming center of industry. Beginning in the mid-1600s and continuing long into the 19thcentury, this 12-mile waterway was home to a total of 24 shipyards. Between 1645 and 1871, more than 1,000 vessels were constructed along the river in Hanover, Pembroke, Marshfield, Norwell and Scituate. 

The shipbuilding industry provided jobs for all sorts of craftsmen – carpenters, caulkers, liners, sailmakers, and so on, -- as well as sawmill operators to provide lumber, and pilots to maneuver the ships downstream to the ocean – a complicated process that often took a full week. Vessels were commissioned by such entities as the US Navy, British trade companies, and whaling fleets from Nantucket, New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard. 

If you’re interested in the histories of the North River shipyards and the vessels constructed there, check out L. Vernon Briggs’ book, History of Shipbuilding on the North River, which is available in most of our local libraries. In the meantime, I’ve compiled some basic facts about some of the more famous ships.

The Beaver: One of the ships involved in the Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773) was The Beaver, a whaler constructed by Ichabod Thomas at the Brick Kiln Shipyard in Pembroke. Commissioned by the prominent Rotch family of Nantucket, it measured 85 feet in length, with an almost 24 foot beam, and a draft of only nine feet, to accommodate Nantucket’s shallow harbor. Captained by Hezekiah Coffin, the Beaver made its maiden voyage from Nantucket to London to deliver whale oil. As was customary, it took on a different cargo for its return, in this case some fine English furniture as well as 112 chests of tea from the British East India Company. After spending two weeks in quarantine in Boston Harbor, due to a case of smallpox on board, it finally docked at Griffin’s Wharf on December 15, 1773. The next day, The Sons of Liberty, a group of more than 100 men from all walks of life, led by Samuel Adams, boarded the Beaver, as well as two other ships loaded with tea -- the Dartmouth and The Eleanor. Being careful not to damage the ships, they smashed open 340 chests of tea (approximately 92,000 lbs.) and dropped them into the harbor, a significant act of protest in what would become the American Revolution. The Beaver returned to the whaling industry but was sold shortly thereafter.

Further reading:Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America by Benjamin Carp

The Columbia: It is possible that the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe was constructed on the North River. Some say the ship was actually built in Plymouth, but that its keel was constructed here. But local history claims that James Briggs constructed the three- masted ship at Hobart’s Landing in Norwell in 1773. It was 83 feet long, with a 24-foot beam and an 11-foot draft. Owned by John Kendrick or Joseph Barrell, its captain was Robert Gray. Gray was active in the gold and silver trade with China. However when he found that European traders were consistently outbidding him, he began instead to purchase fur in the Pacific Northwest. In 1792, he observed the Columbia River near what is now Portland, Oregon, and named it after his ship. The Columbia River became a major venue for the fur trade. The ship itself was decommissioned for salvage in 1806.

Further reading: Columbia’s River: The Voyages of Robert Gray by J. Richard Nokes

The Essex– Another disputed North River vessel was whaleship Essex. Local records indicate that it was built in 1796 on the North River, with no exact location provided. However the town of Amesbury on the North Shore makes a similar claim. The ship – which was 87 feet long, with a 24-foot beam and 12-foot draft -- was launched in 1799; in 1804, Nantucket merchants purchased it in Salem. In August 1819, George Pollard Jr. was its commander when it departed Nantucket for the South Pacific. On November 20thof that same year, the captain spotted a school of whales and set off in pursuit. A large sperm whale struck the ship forcefully with its head, knocking those on board off their feet. Soon after the same whale struck again, this time completely staving in the ship’s bow. The 20-man crew quickly gathered equipment, food and water, and disembarked to 3 smaller boats, then watched while the Essex sank. What followed was an ordeal that included dehydration, starvation, taking refuge on a small tropical island, and eventually cannibalism. Two men survived. If this sounds familiar, it might be because it served as the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. 

Further reading: In The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

The Globe– A local ship with an equally remarkable story, The Globe was constructed at Wanton Shipyard in Norwell in 1815. With two decks and three masts, the ship measured 94 feet in length, with a beam of 26 feet. A successful whaler, it is renowned as being the first ship to bring 2000 barrels of sperm oil into the United States. But The Globe is best known for a gruesome mutiny in 1824. The ship was owned by C. Mitchell & Co., and commanded by Thomas Worth. After sailing from Nantucket on December 20, 1822, it arrived in the Sandwich Islands in the South Pacific on May 1, 1823, then continued to Hawaii and Japan. By then, six of the 21-man crew had deserted. The Globe continued south toward Fanning Island. In January 1824 ,after an incident during which a crewman was whipped as punishment, crewmen Samuel Comstock and Silas Payne murdered the captain as well as the first and second mates, then threw their bodies overboard. Not daring to go to port for fear of repercussions, they ran the ship aground on Mili Atoll, with a plan to take the provisions, strip the ship, and burn it, and then take up residence on the island. But there was more trouble to come. Comstock was killed by his shipmates. Crewman Gilbert Smith took charge of the ship and escaped by night with five other men, leaving the others behind. When The Globe arrived at Valparaiso, Chile, in June, the American Consul took possession of it, and sent it back to Nantucket. Most of the men remaining on Mili Atoll were killed by the natives, but two survived and were rescued after 22 months. The ship was sold for salvage in 1828.

Further reading:Demon of the Waters by Gregory Gibson.

by Kezia Bacon
September 2018 

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to protecting our waters. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 22+ years of nature columns, visit

A view of the Brick Kiln Shipyard in Pembroke.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Celebrating Our Rivers’ National Natural Landmark Status

A summer view of the South River from the Francis Keville Bridge in Marshfield.

Are you aware that we have a nationally recognized landscape in our midst? Like California’s Mount Shasta, the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, Kentucky’s Red River Gorge and Ship Rock in New Mexico, the North and South Rivers are one of our country’s National Natural Landmarks.

In 1977, the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior designated the North and South Rivers of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, a National Natural Landmark (NNL). The rivers were recognized as “possessing national significance in illustrating the natural character of the United States,” The area of designation comprised 5400 acres, including over 3600 acres of saltwater marsh.

While the designation went into effect 40 years ago, until now it has lacked a public face. However that’s about to change. On September 23, Congresswoman Nikki Tsongas will appear at a celebratory rededication of the rivers’ National Natural Landmark status. At 1pm there will be a ceremony at South River Park (2148 Ocean Street), where a plaque marking the designation will be installed. The event will also honor the late Senator Paul Tsongas’s commitment to the rivers of Massachusetts. 

Tsongas was instrumental in obtaining the designation in the first place. Efforts began in the early 1970s, when former Pembroke residents Jean & Jack Foley, Marshfield resident Bill Finn, and other members of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, nominated the rivers for the NNL program.

In September 1977, the Foleys and Finn provided a boat tour of the North and South Rivers to Dr. H. W. Vogelmann Ph.D., who had been contracted by the government to review the rivers for NNL designation. Vogelmann also viewed the area from an airplane, and at the end of the year submitted an evaluation to the Department of the Interior, recommending that the rivers receive the designation.

Vogelmann observed that, “the marshland systems of the North and South Rivers are extensive and complex,” and noted that the rivers were “classic examples of drowned river mouth estuaries.” He said, “Extensive marshland systems and relatively unpolluted rivers are a rare occurrence near a metropolitan area like Boston.”

National Natural Landmark status was conferred soon thereafter. This was especially significant because until then, the program had only accepted more nationally well-known sites. There were only 66 NNLs at that time.

“But nothing happened,” remembers Finn.

The official designation date for the North and South Rivers as a National Natural Landmark is 1977. But according to Finn, it took several years for the designation to be declared. Repeated inquiries to the National Park Service (NPS), attempting to determine whether or not the rivers would receive the designation, yielded nothing. Finally in 1979, after Tsongas was elected to the US Senate, the wheels began to turn. Theta Leonard, who worked for Tsongas, along with the senator and Bill Finn, collaborated with the NPS to tie up loose ends.

Finally in May 1980, during the second annual Massachusetts Rivers Celebration, a dedication ceremony was held at Mass Audubon’s North River Sanctuary in Marshfield. Tsongas, several local political figures, as well as representatives from the NPS and other state and federal agencies, joined NSRWA members and officials for a canoe trip down the North River. Two wooden signs were presented, but they were not the type that could be installed outdoors. With the installation of the plaque on September 23rd, the final loose end will – finally! -- be secured.

Samantha Woods, current Executive Director of the NSRWA, recently commented, "The foresight of the organization back in 1977 to obtain this National Landmark Designation has truly helped the rivers. In fact the South River Park, where the new plaque commemorating the designation is to be placed, couldn't have been built without a $250,000 Land and Water Conservation Grant that was enabled, in part, because of this national recognition of these two rivers as being unique to the nation's natural resources."

According to the NPS “the National Natural Landmarks program recognizes and encourages the conservation of outstanding examples of our country’s natural history.” To date, 599 sites have been designated. In order to obtain NNL status, the site must be “one of the best examples of a natural region's characteristic biotic or geologic features.”

Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall founded the program in 1962. Its primary goal is to “encourage the preservation of sites illustrating the geological and ecological character of the United States, to enhance the scientific and educational value of sites thus preserved, to strengthen public appreciation of natural history, and to foster a greater concern for the conservation of the nation's natural heritage.”

All sorts of different landscapes may be considered for NNL designation. The present sites include lands used for ranching, agriculture, recreation, nature preserves, research areas, camps, conference centers, and commercial ventures. They vary in size from a 7-acre bog to a 960,000-acre glacier. Some, like Connecticut’s Dinosaur Trackway, involve only a single remarkable feature, while others encompass large, widely diverse landscapes. Public access is not a foregone conclusion. Some NNLs may be too ecologically fragile to permit visitors – or it might be the best remaining example – in the country, or even worldwide -- of a certain, often irreplaceable, type of landscape feature. Unlike the lands in the National Park system, National Natural Landmarks are not owned or managed by the federal government. They may be privately or publicly owned.

The Natural Landmark program’s aim has been ”to encourage and support voluntary preservation of sites that illustrate the geological and ecological history of the United States, and to strengthen the public’s appreciation of America’s natural heritage.” In order to maintain NNL status, the only requirement is that the “significant natural values of the site” are preserved as much as possible. No new land use restrictions are set upon the site. The NPS does make occasional visits to verify a site’s condition and maintain good rapport with landowners.

To learn more about National Natural Landmarks, and to read a complete listing of NNL sites, visit

by Kezia Bacon
August 2018

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to protecting our waters. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 22+ years of nature columns, visit