By Dyke Hendrickson
---- — Editor’s note: As Newburyport celebrates its 250th anniversary this year, The Daily News is publishing a series of articles that looks back on the city’s history. Today we focus on Plum Island and its role in community life over the years.
With warm weather coming, the magic name of Plum Island moves into the imaginations of locals and tourists alike.
The beach, marshes and basin have been popular destinations for almost as long as Newburyport has been a community.
Some elements relating to the natural exposure of the island, of course, haven’t changed much. Maritime engineers today are working to fortify the jetties as they did 100 years ago, so vessels can pass more easily through the river’s mouth; houses built close to the water are still being buffeted by high winds, vigorous tides and the resulting erosion and reconfiguration of the beach.
But in other ways, much has changed.
Larger homes are under construction; the last empty parcels are being claimed. What was once a collection of informal seasonal cottages has evolved into a community that includes many million-dollar, year-round residences. Also, access to the water is not as universal as it once was.
A century ago, families would take public transportation to the beach and spend the day near the ocean or basin; in the summer evenings, young men and women would flock to hotels and pavilions for dinner, drinking and dancing.
Today Plum Island is a retreat characterized by many large homes and diminishing acreage of public beaches. (Technically, the 11-mile-long barrier island complex is shared by Newburyport, Newbury, Ipswich and Rowley, but for the purpose of the 250th, the developments in Newburyport and Newbury only will be traced.)
Whatever the boundaries, Plum Island is still a very popular retreat, in the mind or on the GPS.
Historians say that the island was visited in 1614 by the famous Captain John Smith, but not named at the time. The island was included in a 1621-1622 land grant to Captain John Mason by the settlement president and council of Plymouth.
It was dubbed “Plumb Island” because of the many beach plum shrubs on the shore, and the shorter spelling eventually prevailed.
For the first 150 years or so, settlements in Newbury, Rowley and Ipswich used the area for pastureland or perhaps fishing. The salt hay there was valued for mulching and insulation.
Most of Newbury’s land was held in common by the freeholders, but in 1769, municipal leaders in Newbury and Newburyport joined together to share the cost of a hospital for those with smallpox. This was one of the first “joint ventures” of the two communities, as they had separated in 1764.
The hospital, or Pest House as it was called, was located on the north end of the island to make it accessible to arriving ships who sent sick crew members to quarantine.
Supervisors were serious. If a patient left before treatment was complete, Newburyport authorities were quoted as saying, “If you should come away before you are cleansed and your cloths shifted, the People in Town will stone you out again.”
As shipping increased along the coast, a group of private citizens got together in 1783 to fund “range lights to guide incoming ships.” These beacons were later replaced by small wooden lighthouses and a keeper’s dwelling, aided in part by efforts of the Newburyport Marine Society, which was started in 1787.
In 1829, work teams attempted to increase the depth of the water at the bar at the mouth of the Merrimack by constructing of a breakwater. Congress approved $32,000 for the task, and it had to add to it before it was finished, according to historian Nancy Weare. That appears to be the first of numerous attempts to alter the entrance and deepen the river’s mouth.
Many of the early reports of life on the island relate to maritime disasters.
The number of wrecks off Plum Island is hard to imagine now, but in an era before ships had motors to propel them out of raging gales and wild seas, ships would often be driven onto the beach with lives lost.
A report in the Boston Evening Transcript in December of 1849 said, “Schooner Nancy of Wiscasset, with a cargo of bricks bound to Boston, went on shore on Plum Island and has entirely gone to pieces. A considerable quantity of female wearing apparel, furniture, bedding and a letter to a lady in Boston drifted ashore from the wreck. There was no one on board, and all hands are presumed lost.”
A year later, also in December, The Daily Atlas of Boston wrote, “On Monday, during a gale, a schooner was driven ashore on Plum Island, and was almost immediately torn to pieces by the sea, ... the crew were seen from the shore, struggling in the breakers, but no assistance could be rendered to them, and they all perished. Five of their bodies have been picked up from the beach but as yet no clue has been found to ascertain any of their names or that of their vessel.”
But if Plum Island was the recipient of ship wreckages that came up from the sea, it was also recognized as a seaside resource that could be an asset for those willing to stay on land.
Weare, in her 1993 book “Plum Island, The Way it Was,” wrote, “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 the Plum Island River and a toll road from the corner of Ocean Avenue to the Center. A small hotel was erected near the beginning of Old Point Road.”
Most early users of the bridge, which was private, were either tourists or farmers traveling to the salt marshes. This bridge was destroyed in a storm in 1832 but rebuilt more than once over the years.
The desire to develop useful jetties, meanwhile, was another recurring project in Plum Island history.
In 1881, a load of rubble was dropped at the north end. After many delays, jetties north and south were completed in 1900, Weare writes. In 1914, the north jetty was extended and in 1932, both sides were refurbished. Additional repairs were made in the 1960s.
Here in 2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has helped local officials acquire almost $20 million in federal dollars to continue the time-honored task of fortifying the jetties.
Jetties aside, residents from “upriver” started discovering the island as a retreat in the mid-19th century.
Mrs. E. Vale Smith, in her book (1854) “History of Newburyport,” said, “The sandy beach was dotted with tents, and around them were 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.”
Weare says that by 1876, there were “as many as 10 steamers running the river, carrying passengers from as far away as Lawrence and Haverhill.”
Horse-drawn buses left from Market Square to transport people to the island. In 1883, the Newburyport Herald reported “over 200 carriages passed over the Plum Island Turnpike and a thousand or more gathered on the sands” for an outing on the island.
A destination for much of the 19th century was Plum Island Hotel.
In addition to hosting vacationers, the hotel became a destination for duck hunters and fishermen. By 1885, the hotel had expanded to 48 rooms.
Other hotels included the Bay View House and the Oliver House. The latter was built on Black Rocks in Salisbury and moved across the river by barge. It was demolished just last fall.
The building of private cottages began about in 1880, historians say.
Transportation was the key to delivering newcomers. The horsecar line ran until 1895 when it was replaced by an electric railway in 1897. A private road from Rolfes Lane to the island was made public in 1906.
The trolleys ran until about 1922, when the tracks were taken up and rail service was replaced by buses and private autos. When middle-class families began owning cars, the island became a major destination on the North Shore.
But catastrophe could occur on land as well as on the sea. In 1914 the Plum Island Hotel burned down, and in 1933 the Pavilion also was destroyed by fire.
But development continued. Construction on a macadam road now called Northern Boulevard began in 1920. Cottages evolved into year-round homes, as middle-class families began building small residences.
The island was also discovered by emerging naturalists. In 1929, a philanthropist named Annie Hamilton Brown of Stoneham left money in her will to the Federation of Bird Clubs of New England for a wildlife sanctuary on the south end of the island.
By the mid-1930s, almost 1,500 acres had been acquired by the federation, which merged with the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
In 1942, the sanctuary land was turned over to the federal government. A summer camp known as Camp Sea Haven for polio patients and others was operated for several decades through the ’80s, but that facility, as many others, has slipped into history.
Today the southerly, “pristine” end of the Island is known as the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Each year it draws thousands of birders and nature lovers. Among its well-known inhabitants are the nasty greenhead fly and the lovable piping plovers.
In recent years, the increasing population on the north end of the island has raised concerns about water quality. State health officials within the last decade have directed local leaders to develop a new water and sewer system to the island.
The expensive underground project has been in place for less than a decade, but city, state and federal officials have declared that some of its parts are ineffective and/or crumbling. A hydrant section near the Plum Island bridge has “let go” on several occasions.
City leaders are working with state and federal legal officials to develop a plan to remedy the problem through installation of mains and connecting bolts that will be more durable.
It appears that the harshness of winter and the saline tides of the Atlantic have been factors in the apparent breakdown of parts of the system.
That the weather, the sea and the power of nature are factors in the latest chapter of island lore is no surprise -— they have always been leading players in the Plum Island saga.