Ship-building in Essex MA

Building a ship in Essex

The town of Essex MA was originally a parish of Ipswich known as Chebacco. The decline of the fishing industry sailing out of the Ipswich River during the latter half of the 18th Century contributed to an economic decline.. In 1818, the citizens of Chebacco petitioned the Legislature for incorporation as a separate town, and the town of Essex came into being on Feb. 5, 1819, 

By the early 1840s, Essex no longer had its own fishing fleet, but had turned to year-round shipbuilding fostering a symbiotic relationship with the successful fishermen in Gloucester. Captains traveled from other ports to the town of Essex, MA and contracted for a new vessel because the Essex shipbuilders possessed unsurpassed skill and craftsmanship. Much of the skills required of shipwrights or shipbuilders were obtained through on-the-job-training, and many of the earliest shipyards and boat shops operated as family businesses passed down from generation to generation.

Frame Up! A Story of Essex, its Shipyards and its People by Dana Story explores the rich maritime history of Essex, Massachusetts, it shipbuilding industry and its people. From one of the oldest shipbuilding families in Essex, Story’s book is a captivating collection of memories and narratives about the town, its eccentric inhabitants and working in the shipyards.

The town became widely recognized as North America’s leading producer of the popular “schooners,” which enabled fishermen to sail far offshore and withstand rough seas. These large wooden vessels featured two masts carrying two principal sails supported by booms and gaffs and had one or more triangular head sails rigged to a bowsprit.

It is estimated that over 3500 wooden ships were constructed in Essex over three centuries. By the 1850s, 15 Essex shipyards launched more than 50 vessels a year, most of which were built for the Gloucester fleet. Read more at the National Park Service site.

Ships being built along Main Street in Essex, 1872
Ships being built along Main Street in Essex, 1872
A few  from the other direction, about 1900.
A view from the other direction, about 1900.
Essex Main Street, also known as the Causeway
Essex Main Street, also known as the Causeway, circa 1900
The A.D. Story Shipyard in Essex Massachusetts
The A.D. Story Shipyard in Essex Massachusetts, early 20th Century. Photo courtesy Essex Shipbuilding Museum and the Smithsonian
The A.D. Story shipyard in Essex, Mass, 1924
The A.D. Story shipyard in Essex, Mass, 1924. Photo courtesy Bob Swan
Building the frame at the Story shipyard
Building the frame at the Story shipyard
The Columbia is launched

This very entertaining mid-20th Century documentary is shown at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, just a short drive from Ipswich. Viewing time: 20 minutes.

View below, “Legacy: Shipbuilders, Fishermen and the Age of the Gloucester Schooners” (58 minutes) produced by Jim and Laura Lowell.

The 55-foot pinky schooner Ardelle was designed and built by Harold Burnham of Burnham Boat Building in Essex MA using locally harvested wood and hand tools and similar techniques to those that Colonial-era shipbuilders used. Hundreds of spectators watched from the Essex Shipbuilding Museum in 2011 for the launching of the Ardelle into the Essex River.

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