History of Amesbury
Settled in the northeast tip of Massachusetts on the New Hampshire border, Amesbury is one of the oldest towns in America. Our rich history is filled with a number of significant “firsts” that have influenced the country’s industrial, economic, political and creative history.
First settlers traveled up the Merrimac River in the 1630’s to the mouth of the Powow River, both named by our Algonquin ancestors. Our earliest settlement took advantage of the Powow’s water power, still visible in the heart of Amesbury’s Mill yard. Amesbury was formally incorporated in 1668.
Ship-building and trade were our first major industry, producing well over 600 wooden ships. Most famous is Alliance, one of the first ships commissioned by Captain John Paul Jones for the First Continental Navy. Known for her speed, Alliance led the Navy in battles against England during the American Revolution. Today, the site where Alliance was built by the Hackett brothers is a park where visitors can admire the Powow River as it joins the Merrimac. Another famous ship, the whale ship Essex was also built in Amesbury but had a more tragic end as it was “stove by a whale” in the Pacific Ocean in November, 1820. Preserved by crew members who survived in whaleboats for 3 months, the story of the Essex influenced Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, as well as Nathaniel Phil brick’s In the Heart of the Sea.
Today, visitors can still experience traditional wooden boat building at Lowell’s Boat Shop, the oldest continuously operating wooden boat shop in America. Established on the Merrimac River in 1793, founder Simeon Lowell designed the first dory which became the key component of the nation’s expanding fishing industry. The Lowell family continued to own the Boat Shop for seven generations, building thousands of dories and skiffs. Today the Shop is a non-profit working museum, dedicated to preserving the craft of wooden boat building by offering tours, classes, and student apprenticeships.
During the 350 years of Amesbury’s presence, a number of other well-known folks have been influential, including Josiah Bartlett, the second signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first Governor of New Hampshire; Jacob Perkins, the founder of the first nail factory; Susannah Martin, executed on Proctor Hill in Salem as one of 19 people wrongly accused of witchcraft in 1692; first President of the United States, George Washington, who reviewed the militia at Training Field Park in 1789; Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science religion; and veterans of every American war including General Frank Merrill, who led “Merrill’s Marauders” in World War II. A stroll along Main Street reveals much of Amesbury’s colonial history with well-preserved homes such as the Macy Colby House, the city’s oldest standing home built in 1649, and a guided tour of the Bartlett Museum, a former neighborhood schoolhouse.
Influential artists also established Amesbury’s reputation as a community that inspires creativity. Most notable is 19th century poet John Greenleaf Whittier, one of the first abolitionist voices against slavery as well as a nationally loved Romantic poet. His well-preserved home is a museum treasure, and any visitor traveling to Amesbury along Rte. 95 crosses the newly renovated Whittier Bridge over the Merrimac River. Robert Frost spent a summer in Amesbury, influenced as Whittier was by Amesbury’s natural beauty. Other artists include Nathaniel Currier, of Currier and Ives lithographic print fame, and Al Capp, famous “Lil Abner” cartoonist. Today, our community of writers and artists thrives in studios in renovated mill buildings.
These mills preserve Amesbury’s influential industrial past, joining Manchester, NH, Lawrence, and Lowell as leaders of New England manufacturing centers along the Merrimac. The Merrimac Hat Company, producing men and women’s hats, along with a number of textile and shoes factories and boat builder shops, provided job opportunities as the town grew.
But Amesbury’s most famous legacy is its place as the Carriage Center of the World, the “Detroit of the East,” the home of carriage manufacturers such as Biddle and Smart, T. W. Lane, and S.R. Bailey, the man responsible for what is considered the Rolls Royce of carriages, the Bailey Whalebone Road Wagon. As the carriage industry faded, the Bailey family led the way in establishing a thriving automotive industry, beginning with the Bailey Electric Victoria Phaeton and ending with the manufacture of glass-run window channels. Thomas Edison was inspired to investigate the invention of the Bailey Electric. In the 20 I 5 Fireball Run, Bart Bailey, a direct descendant of Samuel Robinson (S.R.) Bailey, drove one of the four remaining century-old Bailey Electric Cars to Cape Canaveral!
Visitors to Amesbury will experience every stage of well-preserved American history in one place, from our earliest history as farmers and boat builders, our meeting houses and churches, our memorials to veterans, our library and museum collections – all fully integrated into our thriving community today.