New England’s Maritime Landscapes

At first glance, there is nothing particularly maritime about Salem, Massachusetts. Wandering the streets, one finds gracious, federal-style mansions, a certain proportion of witch museums, and the Peabody Essex, a self-styled art museum with a fantastic collection of Asian pieces. If it weren’t for the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, which includes a rebuilt wharf, replica ship, and restored customs house, one could be excused for forgetting that Salem had any maritime connections at all. And yet, Salem’s material environment is fundamentally maritime. Had Salem’s citizens not taken to overseas trade, neither the mansions nor the collections nor the town’s very orientation to the water would be the same. Though the ships are long gone, the Salem we see was built by the ocean.


The Gardiner-Pingree House in Salem, MA, one of many graceful mansions built on the profits from maritime trade.  Photo courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

New England, perhaps more than other parts of America, benefitted from its active participation in maritime trade, and the region has been equally active in preserving that maritime heritage.   Even so, reconstructing New England’s maritime landscape is tricky at best. Take Mystic, Connecticut, as an example. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Mystic was an active shipbuilding center, and local families added to their wealth by owning shares in the ships they built. As with many New England towns, however, Mystic’s shipbuilding fortunes slid after the Civil War, its citizens re-invested in textile mills and other ventures, and the town gradually turned away from the sea.


Photo: Downtown Mystic today.  Photo courtesy of


Part of Mystic Seaport’s recreated nineteenth century maritime village.  Photo courtesy of Mystic Seaport.

Mystic’s maritime heritage was resurrected in 1929 with the foundation of the Marine Historical Association, which would become Mystic Seaport Museum. In time, Mystic Seaport would reconstruct a New England maritime village on its 17-acre grounds from buildings taken from Mystic and beyond. But as instructive and valuable as this village is, Mystic Seaport did not recreate Mystic (nor does it claim to). The town itself is about a mile downstream, its working past obscured under layers of shops and tourist-friendly docks.


 The harbor in New Bedford, Massachusetts, today, flanked by nineteenth century warehouses and homes.  In the early nineteenth century, New Bedford’s whaling elite built their homes as close to the harbor as this photo was taken.

It would be impossible to reconstruct Mystic as the nineteenth century shipbuilding center it was, because doing so would mean demolishing decades of development and a vital modern community. New Bedford, Massachusetts, might seem a better candidate for such a project, as its waterfront stores, banks, and warehouses have survived largely intact. But even here, our ideas of urban space have shifted so much over the intervening years that it is difficult to imagine the landscapes of the past. In the early nineteenth century, New Bedford’s wealthiest citizens built their houses only a block or two from the waterfront to keep a closer eye on their businesses. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that these merchants started moving “up the hill,” putting what now seems a reasonable distance between their genteel lives and the messy, loud, smelly, and profane business of whaling.


Whaleships in New Bedford, c. 1900.  The waterfront in the photograph above would have looked like this.  Photo courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, by way of the Smithsonian.

Even a genteel distance, however, did not have to be particularly far. The fashionable Eastern Neck neighborhood of Gloucester, Massachusetts is home to Beauport, Henry Sleeper’s influential summer house that social elites like Henry Francis du Pont visited frequently. Nonetheless, the center of Gloucester Harbor is clearly visible from Beauport’s playful windows or across the comfortable garden terrace perched over the water. The home of one of the early twentieth century’s more fashionable men, therefore, was in plain sight of one of the nation’s busiest fishing ports, home to an unruly mix of sailors, ships, and fish. New England’s maritime reality was much closer to its genteel places than we might imagine.


Gloucester Harbor from Beauport

In the early twentieth century, New England’s waterfronts did take on a new social meaning.  In 1919, as Plymouth, Massachusetts, prepared for the tricentennial of Mayflower’s arrival, the town opted to move William Hammatt’s 1809 mansion (later called the Hedge House) to make way for the new Memorial Hall. When Hammatt built his federal style masterpiece, he located it on the town’s main street, facing away from the harbor.  Reversing Hammatt’s logic, the Plymouth Antiquarian Society turned the house around so that it had a splendid view of the harbor—and a waterfront that had just been made into a park. Plymouth’s citizens had taken the harbor as a place of labor and remodeled it into a place for leisure. By turning the Hedge House around, they inscribed that changed vision into their built environment.


The Hedge House’s new lawn, which slopes impressively towards Plymouth’s waterfront (here obscured by traffic).

As the shipping industry declined and consolidated in the twentieth century, many of New England’s maritime landscapes disappeared. As towns reclaimed their waterfronts as places of beauty, the logic of the maritime landscape was also lost. By looking closely at the remaining fragments of the material environment, however, it is still possible to reconstruct what these towns were like when New England made its fortune on the sea.

By Elisabeth Meier, WPAMC Class of 2017

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