In a country dominated by big box stores and strip malls, it can be easy to forget our past, but there are occasional spots that are so well preserved they overwhelm you with a sense of another age. Marblehead, Massachusetts, is one of them.
Founded in 1629, Marblehead soon became a prosperous fishing village. In the 18th century it was home to privateers (a politically correct term for pirates sponsored by the government) who attacked British shipping in the Atlantic. When the American War of Independence started it was Marblehead men who crewed the first ship in the American navy, the Hannah. The town also supplied crews for the boats that ferried Washington over the Delaware river. You don’t get more Yankee than that!
But that promising beginning did not lead to greater things. Marblehead became a sleepy fishing and yachting backwater. This was just what it needed. “Development” generally passed it by, allowing the Colonial houses and winding, cobblestone streets to survive intact. I’ve been all up and down the New England coast and I can think of few places that evoke the 18th century like Marblehead. When antiquarian and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft first saw it in 1922 he was so taken with its beauty he used it as inspiration for his fictional town of Kingsport, the setting of several of his stories. Don’t worry, there are no sinister denizens summoning up unclean gods, just wealthy New Englanders with an appreciation for the past.
The best way to see Marblehead is to simply wander in the old town center, where historic homes cluster around the harbor. You’ll spot buildings that are two or even three centuries old, and while you may be familiar with this sort of architecture, seeing so much of it is what’s truly impressive. It’s a bit like a Yankee Pompeii, where the vistas once admired by periwigged gentlemen can still be seen and entire blocks once inhabited by America’s early merchants are still preserved. The homes of 17th century fishermen and the cemeteries of Revolutionary War heroes are much as they were. Don’t forget to stop by the J.O.J. Frost Folk Art Gallery to see the work of the famous local artist and the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum. These two stops will give you some historic background to the town.
Marblehead is great for history buffs, but it’s a popular fishing and yachting destination too. I’m not much of a sailor (although I did catch a sand shark off Cape Cod once) so I don’t have any first-person experience with this side of the Marblehead experience, but the beautiful harbor and numerous yacht clubs show a lot of promise. Vicarious landlubbers can get a splendid view of the harbor from Fort Sewall, dating back to 1644.
[Photo courtesy Judy Anderson]