, Newburyport, MA


January 11, 2013

A look back at Plum Island's stormy history


The history of Plum Island having relevance to our ongoing concerns, I turned early this week, to E. Vale Smith’s history of Newburyport. Insofar as I am informed, she was the only woman editor of a Newbury or Newburyport newspaper up to 1852. Her history was published in 1854, some 30 years before the jetties at the river’s mouth were constructed.

In her accounts relating to the island’s constant role, she reminds us of the timeless realities of life on it — the sheer joy of summers and the bitter penalties of its storm-filled darkest days.

As for the extremes, she wrote:

“There is no native of Newburyport, and scarcely a stranger who has visited our city in the summer season, who does not retain vivid recollections of this fantastic strip of sand. To the minds of most, its associations are of the social gatherings of friends, of sea-side picnics with home companions and stranger guests; the eye recalls the sandy beach dotted with tents; the cloth spread on the clean yellow sand surrounded with groups of young men and maidens, of old men and children, the complacent pastor and the grave deacon, all enjoying together a day of unrestrained mirth ... “

So it has ever been since the road to Plum Island we travel today, and first of three bridges was built.

But so, too, has it been the barrier breaching of great storms.

She writes of a few of the worse at a time when there were no jetties or groins.

“In December, 1839,” she wrote in her history, “occurred one of these terrible storms.

“On the 15th there had been a very high tide which had overflowed the wharves on the river-side and covered the Eastern end of Plum Island with water, so that for some hours the keeper could not get to the lights, a lake having formed between his dwelling-house and the light houses.

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