The Other Cape


Long past are the moonless nights when Chris Craft motorboats glided in from the deep to offload cases of hooch from Canada onto pickup trucks. Those boats were, oddly enough, landing in a place where prohibition was nothing new. It had been established in 1856—and remains, locally, to this day. If the 1920s made Rockport infamous, what had first made it famous was the granite blasted from its quarries, which was of such fine quality that it was specified by architects all over the United States. You can see it in municipal buildings in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington. Indeed, it gave the town its name. From the early 1800s until just before World War I, quarrying provided steady revenue and year-round employment, but with the advent of reinforced concrete, the quarries began to close. Today, most of them are privately owned. Some are used as water sources; all are off-limits to swimmers, though that has never discouraged local kids from trying.

Of Cape Ann’s four towns, Essex is the least populous, with fewer than 4,000 year-round residents. A casual observer on Main Street could be forgiven for concluding that the town begins and ends with browsing for antiques and eating clams, but in fact more two-masted boats have been built there than anywhere else on earth. Shipbuilding began in Essex early in the seventeenth century, and by the 1850s more than 15 yards were operating full tilt in town. In a single three-year period from 1850 to 1853, 169 completed vessels were launched into the Essex River and thence put out to sea.

The tradition and art of wooden-boatbuilding remain vigorous in Essex. Two local families, the Storys and the Burnhams, have been in the trade for more than 300 years. Today, they specialize in pleasure craft, and along the tricky currents of the Essex River, kayaks, Sunfish, and outboards far outnumber fishing boats.

In 1976 the town opened the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, just in time to prevent centuries-old tools and techniques from sliding beneath the waters of oblivion. Today, the museum, in conjunction with the Essex Historical Society, operates a year-round program of lectures and hands-on projects. Directly behind it lies the town’s cemetery. A sign bearing the date 1680, hand-painted in large print, hangs from its gate. Within resides an assortment of mossy, often tilted headstones, their inscriptions gentled by the years into near-extinction. A bit of searching will reveal the grave of John Wise, who is considered by every resident of Cape Ann to be the founder of American democracy. It was he who in 1687 publicly proclaimed, in protesting a newly levied British duty, that “taxation without representation is tyranny.”

In the steeple of the town’s Congregational church hangs one of the few surviving bells cast by Paul Revere in his foundry in Boston’s North End. It weighs 827 pounds and owes its exceptional musical tone to the enthusiasm of the townspeople, who in the 1790s contributed silver dollars, silver teaspoons, and jewelry to be melted down and stirred into Revere’s cauldrons.

Cape Ann’s quartet of towns, distinctive as they are one from another, share a bond that forever trumps their disparities. Each in its own manner looks to the sea for its well-being, its economic survival, and, in ways not easily defined, its spiritual fortitude. That was true 300 years ago and will doubtless be no less true 300 years hence.