Marblehead, Massachusetts - Visiting a Colonial Seafaring Town North of Boston
The New England coastline has a culture and a feel like none other in the world. Maybe for this reason Boston has always been a great foil to New York City because Boston retains both maritime and colonial flavors that have been mostly washed out of frenetic New York City. Walking around in Boston you still smell the sea, which you rarely can in New York (in winter food vendors predominate common odor registers, while in summer it’s likely garbage that you smell on Big Apple sidewalks). Many of the streets of Boston have that centuries old feel of tall-ships and salty commerce traders. Ascending Beacon Hill can feel like a trip back into the heart of our colonial heritage.
It isn’t only among America’s largest cities that Boston is distinctive in this way. There are only a handful of true sailing towns in America that weren’t grinded down by the harsh progress of the machine age. The cloudtravel page on visiting Newport, Rhode Island, includes passages about how America’s maritime commerce past is preserved there. Marblehead, Massachusetts, a tiny seafaring village 17 miles north of Boston, is another treasure from a bygone age of sea-going commerce. It is a surviving treasure from a lost way of life that can ease you into forgetfulness about the modern world.
The great North Shore of Boston (pictured at right as viewed from Fisherman's Beach, Swampscott, with the lights of Boston twinkling on the horizon) spans northeast from Logan Airport including famous and picturesque towns like Salem (of the “witch trials” fame), Gloucester (of “A Perfect Storm” fame) and Rockport (Frommer's map references). These towns capture the dyed-in-the-wool character of maritime New England, but none more so than Marblehead, which is one of the first stops up the coast from Boston along coastal Highway 1A, with fairly direct and brief car access from Logan Airport and downtown Boston.
The maritime town of Marblehead is tied to the very foundations of colonial America. It was chartered in 1629, less than a decade after the first pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock (Marblehead timeline). Within three years of its founding, the fishing capital produced an entire shipload of cured fish for shipment to Europe. In 1636 there was a proposal to build a college on Humphrey’s Farm in Marblehead – the college went to Cambridge instead and was called “Harvard.” By the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Marblehead, with a population of 4,386, was one of the largest and most prosperous settlements in the American Colonies.
Abbott Hall in present day Marblehead peeks down from a rise of land over the main thoroughfare of Washington Street. Inside of Abbott Hall is housed the original Archibald Willard painting “Spirit of ’76,” that famous portrait of fife and drum and flag known to every schoolboy and girl. The Marblehead Historical Society maintains assorted artifacts from the bedrock of American history. For instance, there is a cannonball that was pulled from under the clapboards of the Three Cod Tavern on Front Street (est. 1680) during a reconstruction project a century and a half after the lead shot was fired into the wall by the British frigate, Lively, while policing Marblehead Harbor in 1775.
Today Marblehead survives intact for visitors and residents as one of the great sailing capitals of the world. Preserved here on a rocky outcrop on the coast surrounded by the cold, blue Atlantic is one the best collections of pre-revolutionary buildings in America. Marblehead survived hard economic times at the end of the sailing era by turning to shoe manufacture, a mild economic occupation that spared many of the old buildings in Marblehead from being pulled down to make way for light industry, a fate that befell many other New England towns that came to look stripped and defeated after the heat of the industrial revolution cooled and passed. Marblehead, by contrast, looks as bright and composed as it must have looked three centuries ago when it was a prince of the golden age of tall ship commerce.
The winding streets of Marblehead are still fronted by the maritime-influenced clapboard houses that have been there as long as Americans have been there. During 1996 a town meeting voted to have most of the power lines buried underground to help preserve the colonial atmosphere of Marblehead. The decision to conduct Marblehead’s own “big dig” to bury the utility cables was smart as well as characteristically tidy. Marblehead doesn’t need overhead power lines – it is about the sea and the sky. In clear weather the water and the sails and the rocky outcrops produce sterling reflections of pure light.
The maritime outfitters on Washington and Front Streets aren’t just for show – this is a serious sailing community. Marblehead Harbor has over 1,600 boats moored each summer and it is a host for dozens of sailing competitions including the Commodore’s Cup Team Races, the Marblehead-Halifax Race, the NOOD Regatta, the Friendship Sloop Regatta, the PHRF New England Sailing Championship and the Sonar Atlantic Coast Championship.
Part of the charm of Marblehead is that (unlike Salem, for instance) it isn’t a tourist haven. The local residents maintain their stamp on tiny Marblehead and no rising tide of seasonal visitors ever changes this for very long. Consistent with this independent mentality, there isn’t a commuter train line directly to Marblehead and finding good accommodation is can be a challenge (though "Nan" writes to me from www.visitmarblehead.com and pledges that the site she works with can offer a lot of assistance). Tripadvisor sites what are arguably the best two hotels in town: Marblehead Inn and the Harbor Light Inn (both in the $130-$200 night upscale range for small-town hotel rooms).
The Marblehead Inn (781-639-9996) is perhaps more family friendly of the two leading hotels, but it is located on Route 114 (264 Pleasant Street) between Marblehead and Salem so by staying here you lose the priceless unique feel of Marblehead’s colonial downtown. For my money I go straight to the romantic and nautical-themed Harbor Light Inn right at 58 Washington Street in the thick of the old downtown (781-631-2186). The Harbor Light has trim rooms that balance a disciplined, sea-trader aesthetic with the most gracious kind of New England hospitality. With a good complement of 23 rooms, it can also balance the best features of a full-service hotel and a guesthouse.
As far as restaurants, you can’t go far wrong at lunch and dinner with the fresh seafood at the Barnacle (141 Front Street – 781-631-4236). The Barnacle is a block from Washington Street and overlooks the water between Marblehead and the expensive residential real estate and yacht clubs out on Marblehead Neck. A few yards up and down Front Street from the Barnacle are the Landing Restaurant Deck and Pub (81 Front Street – 781-639-1266) and the famous local’s breakfast and lunch haunt, Driftwood Restaurant (63 Front Street – 781-631-1145). Maddie’s Sail Loft (15 State Street – 781-631-9824) is another lunch and dinner favorite for locals. A tidy lunch and pastry choice is Foodie’s Feast right on the main drag of Washington Street (114 Washington Street – 781-639-1104).
It’s not often, particularly among the homogenous cities and towns of America, that a place can pull you completely into a different culture. Most often when a destination tries to transport you directly in to the mindset of a different time or way of living it relies on touristy tricks and trappings. Colonial Williamsburg is like this, as well as aspects of Boston and Salem. Marblehead is an exception to the idea of commercialized culture. A short visit here can change your point of view in a way that feels like it was meant to happen.
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© Copyright 2006 Chris Cloud.
Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:36:41 PM.