Many colonial New England towns have their historic claim to fame but for the town of Essex, located on a winding salt marsh tidal estuary, there is no disputing that claim is its shipbuilding legacy. From this unlikely location, the town of about 1,500 souls launched nearly 4,000 vessels over 400 years and set the standard in North America for fishing vessel construction throughout the great age of sail.
In1668, the shipbuilding industry was important enough to the town that an acre of land was set aside “for the men of Essex to build vessels and employ workman to that end,” and that land remains available for the same purpose today. In fact, it was used most recently by Essex-native Harold Burnham for the construction of the schooners Thomas E. Lannon and Lewis H. Story.
After WW II, some historians mistakenly assumed that shipbuilding ended in Essex. True, the industry moved away from the waterfront and into shops that better accommodated the smaller vessels being built at the time. Essex natives Nick Hemeon designed and built more than a score of vessels, and Brad Story built 52 in his shop before he retired. Story, in part, mentored Harold Burnham as a young man.
At 29 years old, Burnham was given the opportunity of a lifetime by neighbor and friend Tom Ellis. He designed and built the 65-foot Thomas E. Lannon owned by Ellis over the winter of 1996/ 1997 and cemented his position among the best traditional wooden boat builders in the country. Although not the first or last vessel built in Essex, the construction of the Lannon created a renaissance in town as she was the first vessel built outside along the waterfront and in view of the general public in nearly fifty years. Because of her size, many long dormant shipbuilding techniques were used including sawn frames and trunnel fastenings. As important as the Lannons’ construction was to the shipbuilding industry, it also reconnected many townspeople to their roots and brought them together around a heritage they all share in a unique way. Some believe that the neighbor helping neighbor atmosphere of Essex today may have begun centuries ago when it was a credit society built between the shipwrights and shipyards, shipyards and boat owners and between the smaller shops that depended on the overall industry.
Today, located between the town’s shipyard of 1668 and the working shipyard Harold Burnham is now operating on the other side of the creek is the Essex Shipbuilding Museum. The museum promotes the methods, craftsmanship and ingenuity that support the industry as well as running tours, educational groups and programs through the shipyards.
“Either the industry is alive and vibrant and is real and people can earn a living at it or the industry is not preserved,” said David Brown, rigger, instructor and a board member of the Essex Shipbuilding Museum. “If the industry is not vibrant, than it is simply remembered and only pieces of it are preserved.”
Burnham still relies on local shipwrights and tradesmen to help build his schooners. Since he finished the Lannon, Burnham has gone on to build the Lewis H. Story, the Fame of Salem, the Isabella and is currently constructing the 50-foot schooner Ardelle. The Ardelle will be owned and operated by Burnham and be available for day and group charters out of the Heritage Center in Gloucester starting this summer.
“It has become something of a mission of many of us to preserve the shipbuilding industry in Essex,” Burnham said. “And, for me personally, I am eternally grateful to all of those whom have been so helpful to this end in so many ways.”
Author: Laurie Fullerton