Plum Island: Early Years

Plum Island was visited as early as 1604 by Champlain and by Captain John Smith in 1614.  This barrier island was originally under the jurisdiction of the General Court of Massachusetts, and after the settlement was established at Newbury in 1635 the towns of Newbury, Rowley, and Ipswich share the use of it.  In 1649 the land was divided between the three towns, and Newbury received the northern part of the island.  Because the island was primarily used for grazing, horses and cattle were allowed to run wild, which led to the destruction of much of the vegetation and caused considerable controversy among the towns.  In 1679, the General Court ordered "that no horses and cattle be allowed on the island without the consent of the major part of the proprietors of the said island."  At that time, the Newbury section of the island was held in common by the inhabitants of Newbury, except for about 80 acres that had been previously granted to Henry Jaques and Richard Dole.

 

There were no buildings on the island until the Town of Newbury built a house for its own use in 1752.  The federal government built a lighthouse in 1790 to replace beacons that had been in use since 1783.

 

Hotel and Shifting Sands
In 1806 the Plum Island Turnpike and Bridge Corporation received permission to build both a turnpike from Rolfe's Lane to the newly-built Plum Island Hotel and a bridge on the turnpike over the Plum Island River.  The project was completed in 1807, and the corporation was given the authority to collect tolls on the road.

 

The Plum Island Hotel had numerous landlords during its history, but probably reached its greatest fame under the proprietorship of Captain Nathaniel Brown in the 1830s and of William H. Thompson in the 1840s and 50s.  During this period it was renowned for its game-bird dinners, and people came great distances (mostly by horse and carriage) to dine there.  It was remodeled several times and continued to be in business until is was destroyed by fire on May 14, 1914.

 

The entire lands belonging to the "proprietors" - some 600 acres - were sold to Moses Pettingell in 1827 for the sum of $600.  The public buildings and the lighthouse were not included in the sale.  In the mid-1800s the Merrimack River changed its course and the mouth of the river shifted to its present position.  As a consequence, about one mile of land shifted from Salisbury to Plum Island.  In 1883 Moody Boynton sued Pettingell, claiming that the shifted land still belonged to him.  Boynton lost, however, and the Pettingell family became legal owners of the new section of Plum Island, which is now within the borders of the City of Newburyport.

 

The Building Boom

The first summer cottage, the Simpson House, was erected in 1881, and the building boom began in earnest in 1886.  On July 30, 1920, the Plum Island Beach Company purchased Plum Island's Newbury section, which had no road or electricity, from the Pettingell family.  The Company built the road that is now Northern Boulevard, installed electricity, divided the land into lots, and offered them for sale to the public.  Thus, the northern end of the island has become very heavily built up over the years.

 

In 1909, W. Starling Burgess, a boat builder and designer from Marblehead, began building airplanes from his own designs.  A launching ramp and a hangar were built in the general area of the present wildlife refuge entrance.  The planes were brought there by boat and testing was carried out for his new airplane designs.  In 1934, Warren Frothingham leased land on the Plum Island Turnpike and ran a successful aviation business there until the 1941 ban on private flying in a Coastal Defense Zone forced it to close.  The airfield reopened in 1945.  Today, the airport is a thriving operation known as the Plum Island Aerodrome.

 

In the early 1930s, the Massachusetts Audubon Society purchased 1,500 acres on the island and established a bird sanctuary.  In 1941 under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 3,000 acres were added to this sanctuary to establish the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.  The refuge occupies the southern part of the island, and comprises all of the original Rowley and Ipswich island allotments and a small part of Newbury's original share.  Its 6 miles of sandy beaches and nature trails attract some 250,000 people per year.

 

Newbury Historical Commission   : :   25 High Road   : : Newbury MA 01951   : :   HistoricalComm@TownOfNewbury.org   : : www.Newbury1635.org