Marblehead on My Mind

Travel through time on a visit to this Massachusetts town with nearly four centuries of maritime history behind it.

Written by Betsy Frawley Haggerty; Photography by Benjamin Boynton

Boats of all types, shapes and sizes fill Marblehead’s well-protected natural harbor.

“Marblehead forever

God bless that good old town

May she never shame her noble ancestry . . .”

These words, to what I have always thought of as Marblehead’s anthem, have echoed in my head ever since my family moved to this quintessentially quaint New England town on the Massachusetts North Shore more than a half-century ago. Although I now live 200 miles away, I still view Marblehead, where I learned to sail as a young teen, as my spiritual home. I return most years to cruise its wonderful harbor and stroll its quirky downtown, and I assure you that its “noble ancestry” is still in tact.

The 4.4-square-mile town, which traces its lineage back to a rowdy bunch of English fishermen who settled in what they called “Marble Harbor” in 1629, occupies a rocky peninsula that juts into Massachusetts Bay, approximately 12 miles northeast of Boston Harbor. Originally part of nearby Salem and a recreational boating Mecca since the late 19th century, Marblehead incorporated as a town in 1649, and celebrates its maritime past at every opportunity.

Kayakers enjoy a summer paddle through Marblehead’s crowded inner harbor.

Nascent Navy

For starters, Marblehead maintains that it is the “Birthplace of the American Navy”—a title to which Beverly, Massachusetts; Whitehall, New York; East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia also lay claim. Although the Navy has not yet officially weighed in, this much is true: In September 1775, at George Washington’s request, Marblehead ship owner (and later Revolutionary War hero) John Glover assembled a fleet of ships, including his own schooner Hannah, to patrol the coast and intercept ships that were bringing supplies to the British during the siege of Boston. Glover and his Marblehead regiment were involved in a number of other Revolutionary War feats, most notably rowing Washington and the Continental Army across the ice-filled Delaware River from McKinley’s Ferry, Pennsylvania, to Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas Day, 1776, leading to a turning point in the war.

Locals are so enamored of Marblehead’s Revolutionary War contributions that in 1974 a group of townspeople established the nonprofit, all-volunteer Glover’s Marblehead Regiment (gloversregiment.org) to honor and re-enact historic moments. Don’t be surprised if you hear cannon fire as you pass Fort Sewall, the public park to starboard as you enter the harbor. Each summer, on the weekend after July 4, regiment members dress in 18th century garb, pitch tents at the fort and re-create an authentic Revolutionary War encampment, complete with war games and demonstrations of bullet making, musket cleaning and marching music.

The 17th century fort protected the town during the French and Indian Wars, as well as the American Revolution, and played a key role in the War of 1812 by providing shelter for the U.S.S. Constitution. With two British ships in pursuit, “Old Ironsides,” crewed by local seafarers who knew these waters well, ducked into the harbor and anchored beneath the fort. Noting the Sewall’s considerable guns and the unmarked, rock-strewn waters, the British ships turned back, and the Constitution remained unscathed.

Fort Sewall served as a Colonial stronghold during the revolution.

Dockage & Moorings

Now about those rocks: The local waters are littered with shallow shoals, ledges and islands, all of which pose a threat to boaters. That said, entering Marblehead Harbor is not difficult as long as you pay attention to your chart and the well-marked channels. The mile-long, 700-yard-wide, horseshoe-shaped harbor is 20-plus feet deep, but crowded with moored boats (some 2,000 of them), kids messing about in runabouts and little sailboats, and lobster pots scattered willy-nilly. A small mooring-free channel runs close to the western shore.

Finding a place to park your boat can be a challenge, but not impossible, especially if you make reservations. “We try to make room for everyone,” says harbormaster Mark Souza, who notes that the town maintains 10 moorings for visiting boaters, as well nearly 200 linear feet of transient dock space at Tucker’s Wharf, in the historic district. Three Marblehead yacht clubs also make guest moorings available to visiting boaters. There are no marinas in town.

Marblehead light stands sentinel at the tip of Marblehead Neck.

Key Landmarks

No matter where you end up, it’s always a treat to take a harbor tour before exploring the town on foot. Fort Sewall and Marblehead Light, the latter a fixed green beacon atop a 103-foot skeletal tower, stand on opposite sides of the harbor as you enter, with Fort Sewall on mainland Marblehead to starboard and the lighthouse on the tip Marblehead Neck to port. As you thread your way through the harbor, take time to admire the array of sleek racing sloops, cruising sailboats, classic motoryachts and even working lobster boats.

Marblehead began life as a fishing port, but in the early days of yachting, from the 1870s to the 1930s, it was the hub of recreational sailing, the self-proclaimed “Yachting Capital of the World.” It was the first to popularize small-boat racing and served as homeport to several America’s Cup boats and sailors. Today the town regularly hosts national sailing championships, and its youth sailing programs continue to mint some of the best sailors in the world.

The magnificent Corinthian Yacht Club was established in 1885.

Six Clubs

Magnificent multi-million-dollar homes and handsome century-old yacht clubs dominate the Neck’s shoreline. The Corinthian, the first club you’ll encounter, and the Eastern, a short distance to the south, occupy stately buildings dating back to the 19th century. The Pleon Yacht Club, adjacent to the Eastern, was founded in 1887, according to its website, by a group of boys with “boats too small and finances to meager” to join the other clubs. It’s the oldest junior yacht club in the world and still trains scores of young sailors every year. On the mainland side of the harbor, closer to the causeway that links Marblehead and Marblehead Neck, the Boston, the Dolphin and the Marblehead complete the roster of this tiny town’s six official yacht clubs.

Old-town Marblehead hugs the shore to starboard as you motor south through the harbor, with Abbot Hall’s iconic 150-foot-tall, red-brick-and-sandstone clock tower dominating the skyline. A collection of colonial buildings painted in grays, whites, reds and yellows beckons visitors to come ashore and wander the narrow streets. Built in 1876, Abbot Hall is the best place to start. It serves as both the seat of the town’s government and a museum. Pick up a map for a self-guided walking tour from the Marblehead Historical Commission, but before you go, check out the maritime history room, the wonderful WPA murals from the 1930’s and “The Spirit of ’76”—the iconic 1875 oil painting by Archibald Willard and one of the town’s proudest treasures.

The historic district is filled with eclectic shops and boutiques.

Magical History Tour

A walking tour of Old Town usually takes some time, given that history awaits at every turn. Approximately 1,000 Marblehead buildings and homes are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the town has one of the largest concentrations of pre-Revolutionary War structures in the United States.

Not to be missed is the Marblehead Museum, which actually comprises three separate buildings. Its small headquarters at 170 Washington Street has changing exhibits on the first floor, with the second floor dedicated to a gallery featuring the work of J.O.J. Frost (1852-1928). A lifelong Marbleheader, at the age of 70 Frost began painting fanciful scenes of colonial and 19th century Marblehead in a primitive style, using wall boards, house paint and whatever media he could find. His work was ignored, even laughed at, during his lifetime, but is now prized as important folk art and displayed in many museums.

The Jeremiah Lee Mansion, an opulent home built by a prosperous ship merchant and patriot leader, is across the street. Considered one of the country’s best examples of pre-Revolutionary Georgian architecture, the home, which celebrated its 250th birthday with a big party in June, is open for tours. Visitors can explore its large rooms, intricate carvings and original, hand-painted 18th-century wallpaper.

The third museum building, the pale-yellow Old Townhouse, built in the 1720s, stands proudly in Market Square, a few blocks away. It was here that patriots and loyalists debated the pros and cons of independence and volunteers departed for the Civil War. It now houses the Grand Army of the Republic and Civil War Museum in the large upstairs meeting room. The ground floor, which served as the Marblehead police station from 1853 to 1961, is now a small police museum.

Bathers cool off by leaping from the float at the Crocker Park town landing.

Tough Crowd

Marbleheaders have always been a strong-willed and resilient bunch, and the current residents showed their mettle when three Nor’easters battered the town last winter. Storm surges with abnormally high tides flooded streets, homes and businesses, knocked down railings along the waterfront, uprooted cement benches and damaged docks at the town wharf.  Townspeople took it in stride and made repairs.

What happened at the Landing Restaurant at State Street Wharf is a case in point. A beloved Marblehead restaurant for more than 40 years, the Landing stayed open during the first storm on January 4. “Water was coming over the dock, and surging through the hatches in our floor,” recalls General Manager Robert Simonelli. The staff cleaned up and reopened two days later. Then the temperature dropped and the pipes froze. A main sprinkler pipe on the second floor broke, sending water into the restaurant through the light fixtures and sprinkler heads. “That demolished 75 percent of the restaurant,” Simonelli said.

The solution: rebuild. It took months, but the Landing reopened in late June with a new waterfront bar, a heated deck, and same the popular chef who has been there for 18 years.

The Barnacle offers outdoor seating with a great view of the harbor.

Shopping & Dining

There is more to Marblehead (population circa 20,000) than its waterfront and historic district, of course. It has several residential neighborhoods, a handful of beaches and two distinct commercial districts filled with shops and restaurants—one in Old Town and the other about a half-mile walk away on Atlantic Avenue and Pleasant Street. There a boater can find most anything he or she would want, from marine supplies and foul-weather gear to fine art and eclectic crafts, artisanal foods, and fine wine. Local restaurants serve up everything from high-end continental food to lobster rolls to grilled-cheese sandwiches.

When I visited in June, I stopped by the Marblehead Chamber of Commerce to ask what was new in town. Executive Director Beth Ferris, a local who took the job at the chamber because she loves the town so much, named a couple of new shops and restaurants. Then she got thoughtful. “Part of what’s new and exciting is that Marblehead doesn’t change that much,” she said. “We have our history and our beautiful harbor and our residents with great civic pride who make this town work. No matter what happens, Marblehead is still Marblehead.”

To my way of thinking, nothing could be better than that.

Marblehead at a Glance

Harbormaster

(781) 631-2386, marblehead.org/harbormaster

Dockage, Moorings & Service

Town of Marblehead

(781) 631-2386, VHF channel 16, marblehead.org/harbormaster

The town-owned Tucker’s Wharf in the historic district has just shy of 200 feet of linear dock space, available for $5 per foot per night. The town also rents 10 visitor moorings at $50 per night—five near Tucker’s Wharf in the inner harbor for boats up to 40 feet; five in the outer harbor for larger vessels. Launch service, provided by the Boston Yacht Club, is available for an additional $25 per night for the inner harbor moorings. Electricity, restrooms, showers and laundry facilities are available. Reservations are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis through dockwa.com. Free dinghy tie-ups are available at the town wharf.

Marblehead’s pump-out boat can be hailed on VHF channel 9, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Marblehead Trading Company  (781) 639-0029,

Full-service yacht yard offering engine, fiberglass, rigging, and electronics service and repair, with a small retail chandlery called the Forepeak. Also sells fuel.

Yacht Club Moorings

The three largest yacht clubs—Boston, Corinthian and Eastern—make moorings available to visiting boaters for $45 to $50 per night, including launch service. Membership in reciprocal yacht clubs is not required. Best to reserve in advance.

Boston Yacht Club (781) 631-3100

Corinthian Yacht Club (781) 631-0005

Eastern Yacht Club (781) 631-1400

Fuel

Marblehead Trading Company (781) 631-7184

Boston Yacht Club (781) 631-3100

Launch Ramp

The town launch ramp the southern end of the harbor is suitable for small boats and kayaks only. Water depth at high tide is less than three feet. Trailerboaters who want access to Marblehead Harbor are better off launching in nearby Salem.

Where to Eat

The Barnacle (781) 631-4236

Cozy, rustic eatery with a great harbor view, indoor and outdoor seating and a full bar. Best for sandwiches, salads, chowder and seafood.

The Driftwood (781) 631-1145

With its weathered red-shingle exterior and diner-style seating inside, the Driftwood has been a local favorite since the 1950s. Open for breakfast and lunch 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with good, inexpensive food. Serves a mean $3 grilled cheese!

The Landing (781) 631-1878

Reopened in June after storm damage, with the same good food it has been serving for 40 years and a new harbor-view bar and dining area, plus a heated outdoor deck.

Maddie’s Sail Loft (781) 631-9842

The sailor’s bar in Marblehead—famous for strong drinks, colorful characters and fabulous local stories in the downstairs bar and good, simple food in the upstairs restaurant.

The Muffin Shop (781) 631-8223

A favorite North Shore gathering place with homemade muffins and scones and a full breakfast and lunch menu. Not open for dinner.

Cool Shops

Crosby’s Marketplace (781) 631-1741

Well-stocked grocery store close to the waterfront in Old Town, with basic and specialty foods, beer and wine.

Shubie’s (781) 631-0149

Wine, spirits, prepared and specialty foods, imported cheeses and funky gifts.

Arnould Gallery (781) 631-6366

Fine-art painting and prints by local and nationally recognized artists, many showing Marblehead scenes.

Hestia (781) 631-2727

Marblehead-themed ceramics, miniatures, watercolors and Christmas ornaments.

Marblehead Outfitters (781) 631-4660

Men’s, women’s and kids’ outdoor wear, with a good supply of boating and foul-weather gear.

The Spirit of ‘76 Bookstore (781) 631-7199

Independent bookstore, serving Marblehead for 50 years, featuring classics and best sellers, local interest and children’s books and a variety of gift items.

Stowaway Sweets (781) 631-0303

Marblehead’s favorite chocolatier, with hand-dipped chocolate and fudge to die for.

Wednesdays in Marblehead 

Not a brick-and-mortar store but a fabulous website with images of Marblehead. It’s creator, Eyal Oren, is a local allergist and skilled photographer who uses his day off to take photos of his hometown. Photos are available for purchase.

Things to See & Do

Abbot Hall (781) 631-0000

Historic building with town offices, murals, paintings, a maritime museum and a gift shop.

Marblehead Museum (781) 631-1768

Gallery plus nearby historic buildings to tour—the Lee Mansion and Old Townhouse.

King Hooper Mansion (781) 631-2608

Historic home that dates back to 1728, now headquarters of the local arts association, with art exhibits throughout the building and a gift shop.

Old Burial Hill 

A park-like historic cemetery overlooking the harbor, that’s worth visiting just for the view. Graves date back to 1681 and include John Glover and other historic notables.

 

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