In My Footsteps
Trip 106: Newburyport & Plum Island, Massachusetts
January 9, 2011
An amazing area at the very top of Massachusetts’ North Shore Newburyport is filled with beautiful scenery and lots of history as most North Shore towns are. Plum Island is a little finger of sand sticking out into the Atlantic with a feel much like the Cape Cod National Seashore to me. It was a beautiful drive as well but not quite large enough to warrant its own article. Therefore I am wedging Plum Island in with Newburyport since they are very closely connected.
|The diminutive Front Range Light|
Located forty-five minutes north of Boston the small town of Newburyport is an historic seaport and also an affluent community with major tourism. Once you enter its borders it’s easy to see why. The first spot I visited was the home of the town’s historical society which is housed in the Cushing House on High Street. The brick mansion built in 1808 was home to Caleb Cushing who was a Massachusetts Congressman from 1835-43 and was Attorney General under President Franklin Pierce. There are gardens on the grounds as well; they are probably better suited to be seen during the warmer months.
I love lighthouses and so it was quite obvious once I heard of the pair of lighthouses in Newburyport that I would be paying them a visit. The Newburyport Range Lights, Front and Rear, sit along the Merrimack River and were used to help guide ships into the harbor. Despite being a pair they could not be more different.
|Rear Range Light on Water St.|
Front Range Light, on the grounds of a Coast Guard station, is white and stands only fifteen feet in height. I remarked that it looked like somebody had built a small shed in the shape of a lighthouse as I could imagine doors opening and a lawnmower being pushed out of it. This lighthouse at one point had a wooden section on top of it making it thirty-five feet tall but it was damaged by fire and the resulting restoration left it in its current shorter stature. It is hard to gain access to but it is easy to see through and over the surrounding chain link fence.
Rear Range Light is a little less traditional if I say so myself. It is a more rectangular shape and made of brick which is not so odd, but the fact that it sits on Water Street in among the shops and restaurants is what caught my eye. It is painted white on one side which faces the river to help it to be seen and people can pay to have dinner up in the top. There is a dinner table up there and it is a popular spot for wedding proposals.
Despite the original oddity for me Rear Range Light seemed to fit in perfectly with the rest of Water Street and Newburyport as a whole. Sitting just to the east of the lighthouse is a unique set of shops, unique because of the building they sit in that is. The collection of five buildings listed as ‘Mills’ contain many stores but to me the buildings were more impressive.
|Mill No. 5 store, very odd and unique.|
They looked like a series of telephone poles had been attached together to form the shell of each building. It is something I had never seen before and even now am having trouble describing. That’s what photos are for. Mill No. 5 was the one that I had the most contact with. That came from the fact that you can climb the internal stairway up to the roof which gives you a pretty sweet view of the Merrimack River, Rear Range Light, and the surrounding area. Front Range Light is obscured because of its diminutive stature.
For more beautiful scenery there is Atkinson Common on High Street. Established in 1893 the twenty-one acre park has been slowly restored over the past ten years and looks great as far as I could tell when I arrived there. The hundred year old gazebo is small and through the restoration is filled with vivid colors again. It is yellow with a red roof and from what I have read is a well known landmark from post cards all the way back to the 1950’s.
The grounds were covered with snow and I am sure that when the trees and flowers and in full bloom it is even more impressive but Atkinson Common still had some great scenery. That included a thirty-foot tall stone tower which was neat despite its dilapidated condition. It is severely in need of work when compared to the rest of the common but I suppose that it all depends on contributions to get that done. That being said it sort of fit in on the cold wintry day.
|The renovated gazebo at Atkinson Common.|
A great spot for a broader view of American history is Brown Square. Moses Brown, the creator of the square in 1802 was a wealthy philanthropist but his money came indirectly from slavery through the ‘Triangle Trade.’ This meant that Brown made his money not from the slaves but from the sugar that they harvested. I found it ironic that the man who founded the square was profiting from slavery in the early 19th century and that one of the most famous abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison, was born in Newburyport. So Brown Square has a plaque for Moses Brown and one for William Lloyd Garrison not far apart as well as the Garrison Inn built in 1850 which is a luxury hotel overlooking the square.
After visiting Newburyport it was time to drive out to Plum Island. The drive reminded me so much of heading up to the seashore on the Cape, it was like home. On the northern coast of the island sits a lighthouse so of course I stopped to check it out. Located on the grounds of the Parker River Wildlife Refuge the lighthouse is easily accessible. The current lighthouse was built in 1898 after a century beginning with lighting fires on the shore to guide ships and continuing with a pair of range lights that continually toppled and were inadequate.
At one point in its heyday Plum Island had a trolley line running its eleven mile length. Today there are many Bed & Breakfasts and other spots to stay. However much like the seashore on the Cape erosion is a huge problem. That played a part in the last spot I visited on this day.
|Plum Island Lighthouse|
I happened to get out to Plum Island just as a house on Annapolis Way was being torn down due to the erosion of the sandy cliffs the house sat on. There were several news crews on hand as well and I ended up finding myself on a few videos later in the day. The irony of it was the fact that the person who bought the land where the house stood has plans to rebuild on it. I wish him good luck as I can only see this process of the cliffs eroding and the new house being torn down happening over the next several years. It was both exciting and sad to see the house get razed but it reminded me of what erosion can do.
Newburyport and Plum Island are both part of that same amazing section of the great North Shore that I have professed my love for several times. I highly recommend enjoying a drive along Plum Island, preferably when it’s warmer. The range lights in Newburyport can be enjoyed any time even if you don’t want to dine in Rear Range Light. There are many other scenic spots and some good shopping in those oddly beautiful Mill shops. It is easy to spend a day or more in this absolutely awesome area, so take your time. Have fun and happy traveling!
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Here is a video of the house at Annapolis Way being razed: YouTube – Plum Island House Torn Down.
Directions: Front/Rear Range Lights: From I-95 take exit 57 for Rt. 113, turn right and follow 2.3 miles. Turn left at Summer St., turn right at Merrimac St., continue onto Water St. The lighthouses are on the left and the Mill shops are next door.
Atkinson Common: From I-95 take exit 57 for Rt. 113, turn right and follow 1 mile, turn left at Plummer Ave. There is a small parking area on the left.
Plum Island: From I-95 take exit 57 for Rt. 113, turn right to continue onto Rt. 1A. After 3.5 total miles turn right at Rolfes Ln., continue onto Ocean Ave., turn right at Water St. Continue onto Plum Island Turnpike, follow 2 miles, turn left at Northern Blvd., follow it to Plum Island Light.
References: New England Lighthouse: Newburyport Range Lights