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Marblehead Town

Essex County, Massachusetts

Photo: Jeremiah Lee Mansion, ca. 1768, Washington Street, Marblehead, MA. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The home is a National Historic Landmark. Photographed by User:Daderot (own work), 2006, [cc-by-3.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed November, 2013.

Marblehead Town Photo

Marblehead Town Hall is located at 188 Washington Street, Marblehead, MA 01945.
Phone: 781‑631‑0528.


Marblehead as described in 1937 [1]

Marblehead, in whose narrow, twisted streets traditions linger, is built upon a rock, and everywhere through the thin garment of turf protrude knobs and cliffs of granite. Along the steep, winding ways weather-beaten houses shoulder each other, with intermittent glimpses of the harbor and the sea between their grayed walls. A mass of tumbled rocks chiseled by the sea forms the grim profile of the "Neck." Reckless, hard-bitten fishermen from Cornwall and the Channel Islands settled Marblehead (Marble Harbor) in 1629 as a plantation of Salem. Their rude huts clung to the rocks like sea-birds' nests. Said a Marblehead native of a later day "Our ancestors came not here for religion. Their main end was to catch fish." As might have been expected from such ungodliness, early Marblehead was a favorite with the powers of darkness. Many a citizen met Satan himself riding in state in a coach and four, or was chased through the streets by a corpse in a coffin. The eerie lament of the "screeching woman of Marblehead" resounded across the harbor, and Puritan Salem hanged old "Mammy Red" of Marblehead who knew how to turn enemies' butter to blue wool. Within a decade unruly Marblehead was without regret permitted to become a separate town, "the greatest Towne for fishing in New England."

The early prosperity of the fisheries was short-lived. The Reverend John Barnard, who came in 1715 to minister to the heathen, wrote, "Nor could I find twenty families that could stand upon their own legs, and they were generally as rude, swearing, drunken and fighting a crew as they were poor." Under his guidance markets were sought in the West Indies and Europe for the carefully cured fish, and a class of merchants began to send larger vessels to more distant ports.

As war with England approached and His Majesty's frigates lay threateningly in the harbor, the rafters of the Old Town House thundered to revolutionary speeches and all Marblehead blazed with patriotism. Her merchants patriotically extended shipping privileges to the merchants of Boston when Marblehead took Boston's place as the port of entry after the passage of the Boston Port Bill (1774). The Tory merchants fled for their lives, seafaring men turned to privateering with its promise of prize money and adventure or joined General John Glover's famous "Amphibious Regiment" which was later with muffled oars to row Washington across the Delaware. The Marblehead schooner "Lee," manned by a captain and crew of this regiment, flew the Pine Tree flag and took the "Nancy," the first British prize.

Privateering became unprofitable as the British blockade tightened. The close of the war found Marblehead economically prostrate, the merchant fleet captured or sunk, the fishing fleet rotting at the wharves. To relieve the distress two lotteries were organized and the fishing fleet was reconditioned with the proceeds, but just as prosperity again seemed assured, the War of 1812 tied up the fleet once more and embargo closed the ports of trade. After the war the fishing fleet gallantly put to sea, but the town with little capital could not compete with the more fortunately situated ports of Boston and Gloucester. The great gale of 1846, which took a frightful toll of men and ships, hastened the end. Undaunted, Marblehead turned to industry. The back-yard shoe shops, a feature of every fisherman's cottage, were amalgamated into factories after 1840, and within a decade, trained hands and mass production methods were turning out a million pairs of shoes a year. Other factories produced glue, rope, twine, barrels, paint, and cigars. But the spider web of railroads that spun out across the country, tapping the resources of the West and concentrating manufacturing in the larger cities, spelled doom to Marblehead as an industrial center, a doom hastened by two disastrous fires.

Ultimately it was the sea that once more brought prosperity. The harbor, where long ago the high-stern fishing boats rode to tree-root moorings, has become the yachting center of the eastern seaboard. Summer estates line the once bleak shore of the Neck and overlook the harbor where hundreds of sleek-hulled craft ride at anchor. In the yachting season more sails slant out past Halfway Rock, where once the fishermen tossed pennies to buy good luck and safe return, ever did in the days of Marblehead's maritime glory.

  1. Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for Massachusetts, Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People, American Guide Series, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1937.

Nearby Towns: Beverly City • Danvers Town • Lynn City • Manchester-by-the-Sea Town • Nahant Town • Peabody City • Salem City • Swampscott Town •