The lower Merrimack River Valley was occupied by tribes of Algonquin Indians for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years prior to the mid-17th century. Upstream fishing stations were maintained at waterfalls and other sites. The Amoskeag site near the present Lowell, Massachusetts was historically occupied by the noted chief Passaconaway and his Penacook tribe. Another Amoskeag site in New Hampshire is one of New England’s premier archaeological sites and was occupied by various native populations from ca. 4000 BC to 1600 AD.
In his 19th century poem, The Bridal of Penacook, John C. Whittier described Native Americans navigating the river below the falls in canoes of “arrow swiftness.” Indian shell heaps near the present Route 1 highway bridge provide additional evidence of aboriginal occupation and river use in the area near Lowell’s Boat Shop. Many local names are also derived from the period of Indian occupation. The Powwow River and Powwow Hill in downtown Amesbury owe their names to that Indian word which was the Algonquin term for group gatherings and celebrations held upon this hill. The name “Merrimack” means “rapid waters” in Algonquian and describes ancient geographic conditions in the lower river valley.
The origins of English settlement lie in the extreme pressure placed on Protestants in England in the early decades of the 17th century. The Mayflower brought the first group to leave England for the new world in 1620. Fifteen years later, in 1635, Newbury was settled, and in 1638 permission was granted by the General Court which governed Massachusetts for a settlement north of the Merrimack River. This new town was Salisbury, and in 1666 the western part of the town broke off and formed the town of Amesbury. The point of land lying between the Powwow and Merrimack Rivers being uninhabited due to its unsuitability for agriculture, remained in Salisbury. Early in the 18th century, however, shipwrights looking for more room than they had found in Newbury, found that this point had high ground well suited to the building of ships, and began to move their operations there.
After the early 17th century, English colonists vied with the Indians for use of the Merrimack River. The English cleared the forests for farming, rafted logs downstream for construction purposes and engaged in shipbuilding along the shores of the Merrimack. The abundance of timber and easy river transport made colonial shipbuilding economically viable. Vessels were constructed and launched for European and American markets in the 17th and 18th centuries. Caleb Peter, George Carr and John Adams were some of the earliest colonists who managed shipyards in Salisbury between 1639 and the early 1700s. During this early colonial period, shipyards were established downstream in Newbury near the river’s mouth and upstream at the confluence of the Powwow and Merrimack Rivers.
In the beginning, people built their own boats. They were a necessity. Roads were few and poor or non-existent. There were only two ferries, one at the Powwow River at a point still called “The Ferry”, and the other three miles downstream at Carr’s Island. Fishing was a major source of food and the town recognized the place of the boat in the town, when in 1656, it authorized Thomas Macy and Richard Currier to build a saw mill and stipulated that, in taking trees, they might not infringe on the “right of the people to build canoes.” For large cargoes on the river, gundalows were the early 17th century means of transport. Oak staves were Amesbury’s chief export at first, and they were shipped to Newbury and there transshipped to the West Indies for the barrels used in the rum and molasses trade.
Salisbury historian Margaret S. Rice has stated that “the high point of the shipbuilding in Salisbury, however, did not come until the beginning of the 1700s, when Salisbury Point was first settled.” Salisbury Point is the local name for the promontory situated immediately downstream of Lowell’s Boat Shop. Rice noted “the first ship builders here were Adamses, Stockmans, and Stevenses, for the latter of whom the point was first known as Stevens Point.” At a later date, the area was sometimes called Webster’s Point. Here, between 1700 and 1750, Websters, Lowells, Hacketts, Fowler and Merrils [Morrills] all carried on shipbuilding, and the river shore was lined with shipyards. So crowded were they that lumber often overflowed from the yards to block the roadway to traffic.
By 1710, a boom in shipbuilding had begun upstream of the confluence of the Merrimack and Powwow Rivers. Sugar and dried fish were the main products shipped. Fish was a very inexpensive source of protein for the slaves working the sugar plantations in the West Indies. Ring’s Island was already being used by fishermen in 1642 for drying their catch, and warehouses had been built there. By 1766 men were going offshore on long fishing expeditions, illustrated by a contract made that year between captain and crew of a fishing vessel stipulating “$6 per month plus $10 per 1000 cod each and $10 for every 24 quantles caught. Each to bring his own boats, tackle, provisions, barrel and rum.” Gideon Lowell, shipbuilder, came from Newbury (1718) as the industry expanded and by the middle of the 18th century, there were 12 houses and at least two dozen shipyards on Salisbury Point, as Point Shore was then known. The town authorized a road in 1763 along the Point which must leave “room along the river only for the shipyards.”
Shipbuilding became a dominant industry for numerous reasons. Construction materials were readily available and the water was deep and calm; the shoreline was unsuited for agriculture and naturally sloped to allow the easy launching of new vessels. Rice noted that at the height of the business, it is estimated that “nearly 2,000 ship carpenters, caulkers and other ship workers [were busy] in the yards of Salisbury and Amesbury” and the region launched well over 600 vessels in the 50 to 800 ton size. These vessels included numerous fishing schooners, sloops, brigs, frigates, provateers and full rigged ships. Margaret Rice noted that “The Salisbury ships were all launched ‘bare’ as the saying was, and taken to Newbury for rigging.” Israel Currier and Jacob Bagley Currier were two shipwrights who owned the present Lowell Boat Shop site before 1797. Jonathan Edmunds was another shipwright who maintained shipbuilding operations on a nearby site sold to the Lowells in 1791.
Shipwrights had a profitable industry and their reputation was so well established that when the Revolution came the Continental Congress placed the order for one of the first vessels for the US navy, the frigate “Alliance” with William Hackett, shipbuilder, on Salisbury Point. During the war, the shipyards on the Point built privateers, but when the war ended, money was scarce. One-half of the shipyards were idle in 1786. Dependence was heavy on the fishing industry, and Amesbury Town meeting in 1782 instructed its representative to use his influence to protect fishing rights in any treaty with Great Britain. Again in 1796 a town meeting was held to petition for a treaty with Great Britain regarding the fisheries. This meeting had the largest attendance on record at that time.
Gideon Lowell’s nephew, Simeon Lowell bought property just down river from the current boat shop in 1793. The deed described him as a boat builder. He was responsible for the design of the early dories for which the shop became famous. In 1797 and 1815 he purchased the two adjacent lots on which the current boat shop buildings were built. The property supports five joined structures, which comprise Lowell’s Boat Shop. The most significant building, the Lowell Building, appears to have been built in 1860 and a small addition was built on its south side circa 1897. Adjacent to the 1860 building, the Morril & Flanders Shop was also constructed circa 1860. The Office was constructed in 1942, while the Show Room addition was constructed in 1946-1947.
Salisbury Point became incorporated into the town of Amesbury in 1886. It is today known as Point Shore. Since the beginning of the 19th century, the dories and skiffs built there have been known as both Salisbury and Amesbury dories and skiffs. Lowell’s Boat Shop is the last surviving boatbuilding enterprise on a waterfront which was once crowded with shipyards and boat shops. The street now called Main Street (which in earlier times was called River Street and “the road leading from Powwow River to Essex Merrimack Bridge”) separates the waterfront from an old residential neighborhood established in the 18th century. Most of the houses near Lowell’s Boat Shop were built for shipbuilding and boatbuilding families who worked on the nearby waterfront.
Lowell’s Boatshop History
Lowell’s Boat Shop is considered to be America’s oldest operating boat shop. It features a continuing establishment of wood boatbuilding since 1793 and is believed to be the birthplace of the American Dory. The Lowell boatbuilding business started on the North bank of the Merrimack River in the last decade of the 18th century and continues on the property that was purchased by Simeon Lowell, the founder. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1990.
Hiram Lowell, who built the oldest shop building standing on the property today, was Simeon Lowell’s grandson, and is considered to be a “pioneer” producer of American dories in the 19th century. He and his heirs developed Lowell’s Boat Shop to become the leading dory shop in America during the late 19th century. Dories are still produced in the ancient buildings today. The oldest structures on the site are Greek Revival industrial structures built circa 1860. By this time Gloucester fishermen had adopted dory fishing as a new and more efficient means of fishing and Hiram Lowell’s dory shop was built to supply custom dories for this market. Lowell’s Boat Shop came to dominate the American dory industry supplying orders of dories locally, nationally, and internationally.
In 1878, Salisbury historian W.H.B. Currier noted:
“Nearly ninety years ago [i.e. in 1791] Simeon Lowell of Amesbury, bought an estate of one Edmunds, ship-builder in Salisbury, and soon after, with his sons, commenced boat-building [on the Edmunds lot]. They built many boats for ships and other vessels, also small schooners for fishing, privateering, etc.”
Prior to moving to Salisbury in 1791, Simeon Lowell practiced as a “boat builder” in Amesbury as early as 1774 (Essex County Deed 144:127), and he moved to the Edmunds lot following the death of his first wife Anna Wadleigh in 1789. Two years after his 1789 re-marriage to Anna Webster of Salisbury, Simeon Lowell purchased the Edmunds lot on the Merrimack River.
By 1793, Simeon Lowell (with his 20-year-old son Stephen Lowell and his 16-year-old son Benjamin Wadleigh Lowell) commenced the Lowell family boat building business on the Merrimack River shore. Located three lots downstream of the recent Lowell’s Boat Shop site, the historic Edmunds lot was used for ship-building and boat-building by the Lowells between 1791 and 1797; it was purchased with a house, barn, wharf and shop buildings and was still owned by descendants of Simeon Lowell in 1927. In 1797 and 1815, Simeon Lowell expanded his waterfront holdings to include the two vacant lots which now support the surviving Lowell’s Boat Shop buildings.
Stephen & Benjamin Lowell
In 1830, Simeon Lowell willed all his property including wharves, boat shed and “part of a dwelling house and barn” (on the Edwards Lot) to six “children and heirs” which included his sons Stephen and Benjamin W. Lowell. Stephen and Benjamin W. Lowell worked together as “S and B Lowell, shipbuilders” between 1805 and 1827. Stephen Lowell’s boat shop became Daniel Lowell’s shipyard east of the present Lowell’s Boat Shop property, and that business continues today as the Pert Lowell & Company boatyard in nearby Newbury. Benjamin, another son of Simeon, took over his shop. He had a shipyard just adjacent to the Shop downstream where he built 40-50 ton schooners. Ralph Lowell recalls that as a boy he saw the ways of what was believed by the Lowells to be Simeon and then Banjamin’s yard. They are still buried there in the mud on the piece of shore property next to the deck and ramp for the float. Lowell believes that the shop built significant numbers of dories when Banjamin was running the business but that the big expansion came in the time of Benjamin’s son, Hiram.
Hiram was born in Amesbury in 1814 and became one of Amesbury’s leading industrialists. He was a skilled boat builder born into an ancient Merrimack Valley shipbuilding and boatbuilding family, and he was primarily responsible for establishing the dory-building business at Lowell’s Boat Shop in the mid-19th century.
During the 1840’s, Hiram Lowell trained with his father Benjamin Wadleigh Lowell in a successor “boatbuilding business” called B.W. Lowell & Son. When he was 34 years old, Hiram Lowell inherited all assets of B.W. Lowell & Son and it appears likely that some of the tools, patterns, etc. of this business were transferred into Hiram’s new shop in 1860. On December 13, 1860, the local newspaper The Villager reported that, “The boat builders of Salisbury Point are making preparations for the Spring trade. Three new shops have been erected, –one by Morrill & Flanders, one by Hiram Lowell, and one by Morrill & Kenniston.” In 1897, the Amesbury Daily News recalled that Hiram Lowell in the early 19th century “built a great variety of boats of different classes” and that “the present dory business [was] a development of the past 30 years [i.e. commenced by Hiram Lowell circa 1860].” Hiram Lowell’s 1860 Boat Shop was built as a 25′ x 46′, 3×5 bay structure, which was 2-1/2 stories tall on the street end, and 3-1/2 stories tall on the river end. It was positioned gable end to the street and was supplied with classical detailing and 6-over-6 windows in the Greek Revival style which was the dominant fashion in America in the mid-19th century. It was originally clad with painted wood clapboards, and roofed with wood shingles. Its overall architectural design closely resembled his uncle’s (Stephen Lowell’s) boat shop which existed downstream on a nearby family property. Hiram Lowell’s 1860 structure survives as the principal and tallest building on the Lowell’s Boat Shop site today. Essex County deeds 163:148 and 208:131 indicate that the property beneath this structure was acquired by the Lowell family in 1815 and early maps from the 1850’s (e.g. Woodford’s Map of 1854 and the ca. 1856 Whitlocks map of Webster’s Point) indicate no substantial structure on the site prior to 1860.
Hiram Lowell, principal dory builder at Lowell’s Boat Shop, was a son of Benjamin Wadleigh Lowell and grandson of Simeon Lowell. Hiram Lowell’s shop achieved peak efficiency after the Civil War. After 1865, the Lowells expanded their operations in the commercial fishing dory line and additionally developed a beautiful new “thirteen foot recreational rowing skiff…for river use.” This recreational line appealed to hundreds of Victorian “rusticators” who sought picturesque and natural beauty in excursions throughout the lower Merrimack River Valley. By expanding their line of mass-produced dories and employing a greater work force, Hiram Lowell greatly increased dory production in his shops. In 1861, Hiram Lowell produced 180 dories annually; between 1871 and 1897, the shop produced an average of 885 dories yearly, representing nearly a five-fold increase in productivity. Commercial and recreational dories from Lowell’s Boat Shop were shipped all over the East Coast. On February 15, 1877, the Villager reported that, “The boat-builders at Salisbury Point are employing extra help in order to fill large orders received all the way from Halifax [Nova Scotia] to Georgia.”
Henry Hall, who visited Hiram Lowell’s boatbuilding shops in 1880 was amazed by the efficiency of Hiram Lowell and Son’s boatbuilding operations. Hall observed:
“The business in the shop is organized in a way not seen in any other branches of boat-building, except in the few establishments (not exceeding twenty in the whole country) where ship’s boats are built on a large scale. Each man has a special task to perform, as the getting out the boards for the floor, the planks for the sides, the frames, or other pieces, the fitting of the several parts of the boats into place, or the painting or finishing. Each one is paid by the piece and the result is seen in a degree of rush and hurry in the large shops not noticed in other branches of the art. The boats are built in winter time and the active work of the men serves to keep them warm in spite of the rather excessive ventilation of the barn-like buildings.”
For most of the latter half of the 19th century, Hiram Lowell resided in the large house across the street now numbered 452 Main Street. It was a simple task for Hiram Lowell to walk to work and to supervise all activities on the waterfront. His name appeared in the name of the shop from the 1820s, and it was variously known as Hiram Lowell, Hiram Lowell & Sons, etc., until Ralph Lowell incorporated it as Lowell Marine Services in 1974.
The firm was always operated as a partnership, and the grandfather sold to the grandson. The place was always valued as a business on the basis of an outside appraisal of inventory, according to Lowell, and nothing was ever given away except the good will and the name itself. Ralph’s father died when he was 12 and Ralph bought out his grandfather in time. “Of course none of the grandfathers demanded cash”, Ralph says. “They always set up a series of notes at interest. The grandsons earned it and paid their grandfathers. As to who ran the shop, Ralph’s father ran the shop, but his grandfather went to Gloucester, went to Boston, chased down the business, collected the money and put his oar in. I think that as long as any of them were able, they made it a point to come across the street. They always lived on the other side.”
Coincident with the boat building business, Hiram Lowell became involved in hat manufacturing and served as President of the Merrimack Hat Company in Amesbury between ca. 1863 and 1897. The Merrimac Hat Company employed steam power to manufacture wool hats, which were in great demand during the Civil War. The business was extremely successful and lucrative. During Hiram Lowell’s presidency in 1877, Merrimac Hat Company built its large and impressive red brick factory which survives upriver above the Amesbury public landing. This Hat Company building is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
George Morrill & William Flanders
The large building upstream of Hiram Lowell’s 1860 shop appears to have been constructed on its present lot in 1860 by Salisbury Point boat builders George H. Morrill and Francis W. Flanders, who operated a boat building company called Morrill & Flanders. This property was purchased from and later sold back to the Lowells and is now part of Lowell’s Boat Shop. The local newspaper, the Villager described the construction of the new Morrill & Flanders shop in its December 13, 1860 issue, while Essex County deeds 699:21, 974:169 and 699:21 trace the subsequent ownership of the property to various members of the Morrill and Lowell families.
Although he is primarily remembered for having been a boatbuilder, George H. Morrill (head of Morrill & Flanders), was also captain of the steamboat Queen of the Merrimac and was owner of a lumber planing mill on nearby Clark’s Road. Morrill may have played an instrumental role in improving the steam power system in the dory shops and probably supplied milled boards for dory construction. The Morrill & Flanders Building was acquired by Fred E. Lowell in 1902 and has been a major part of Lowell’s Boat Shop ever since (Essex County deeds 1537:232, 1537:233, 1676:170).
Fred E. Lowell
In 1874, Hiram Lowell ‘retired from [the boatbuilding] business” at 60 years of age and he left the management of his company to his son Fred E. Lowell. Fred was born in 1839 and was 36 years old in 1874. In 1883, Fred was officially deeded the family property which comprises the east half of the property. Under Fred E. Lowell’s ownership, Lowell’s Boat Shop increased dory production to its highest levels recorded. Annual production topped 1,000 dories for each year between 1898 and 1918 and reached a peak of 2,029 dories in the zenith year of 1911.
By the late 1880s, Fred E. Lowell and others developed Merrimack Valley dory building into a dominant enterprise. In 1888, Lowell’s Boat Shop was recognized as a pioneer boat producer by historian Duane Hurd. Hurd stated:
“The only industry holding place [in Salisbury] since the Revolution is boat-building–the dory manufacture, commenced by Simeon Lowell, and through his generations, reaching to the present time, [now consists] of seven firms [producing] nearly 2500 boats annually for the fisheries of New England, British and French provinces.”
It is possible that initial prototypes of the Grand Banks dory were designed before Simeon Lowell died in 1830; however, Simeon is chiefly remembered for having designed and built round-sided “wherries” for river and surf use.
By 1890, Fred E. Lowell had worked out an agreement with the Moultons who lived across the river to assist him in the delivery of finished dories to Portsmouth and Gloucester. He hung overalls from high points of the shop to signal the Moultons that he had a supply of dories ready for delivery. The Moultons towed the boats across the river, stacked them into horse-drawn carts on their farm and delivered them to customers.
Fred A. Lowell
On August 15, 1914, Frederick E. Lowell deeded the entire property “with the buildings used for boat shops” to his son Frederick A. Lowell. Fred A. Lowell, born in 1862, was also known as “Tink” or “Tinky” Lowell to other workers in the shop. Tinky was 52 years old when he formally received title to the property.
The Bird’s Eye View of Amesbury printed in 1914 provides a clear and good view of the property, which was purchased by Fred A. Lowell. The street facades of the 1860 Hiram Lowell Shop and the Morrill & Flanders building were essentially identical to the facades which survive today. Two small structures (another Morrill & Flanders building and the “flat” roofed building) faced the street on the west. Before Ralph Lowell’s Show Room/Paint Shop addition was built in 1946, the Morrill & Flanders Building also had numerous windows on the west wall. The west wall windows and small storage sheds were removed by Ralph Lowell when the Show Room/Paint Shop addition was built in 1946.
One of the most radical changes to be effected by Fred A. Lowell was the conversion of the shop from steam to electricity circa 1914. New electric operation promised reduced threat of fire damage; reduced threat of physical injury caused by workers contacting shafts, gears and belts; a quieter work environment; and flexibility, because machines run by electric motors could be located almost anywhere, without the need to be oriented parallel to a spinning power shaft. By converting the shop to electricity, Fred A. Lowell was also able to gain increased internal work area by removing the boiler, steam engine, and related components located originally in the basement of the 1860 building. After the steam equipment was removed, the basement was improved as a dory paint shop.
In September, 1923, Fred A. Lowell put an advertisement in the local paper, which read “Wanted….Young Man to Learn Trade.” Aubrey Marshall, then aged 20, joined Lowell’s Boat Shop after meeting with Mr. Lowell and remained working in the shop through the 1970’s. In September 1977, Bob Atkinson’s interview with Aubrey Marshall (subtitled “The Lowell Boatshop as seen through the eyes of Aubrey Marshall”) was published in the national magazine WoodenBoat and Marshall’s reflections on 54 years at Lowell’s Boat Shop were vividly preserved. Aubrey Marshall described Tinky Lowell’s annual trips to Maine to identify trees for cutting, the delivery of dry lumber to Lowell’s by railroad and lumber storage in the upper floors of the buildings. Aubrey also described the “track system” (assembly-line system) which Fred A. Lowell used to build dories inside the shop.
Fred A. (Tinky) Lowell maintained tight control over all activities at the shop and it seems that Hiram’s “piecework” reward system was abandoned by the early 20th century. According to early 20th century workers Aubrey Marshall and Herbert Mann, Fred A. Lowell maintained a rigid work schedule that paid “40c an hour, with a 50 hour week, 7 am to 5pm, with one hour for lunch. Water breaks (there was no running water on the property and workers crossed the street for water) were limited to five minutes each.” Aubrey stated “you worked every minute, no coffee breaks or nothing.” Whenever any conversation arose, Fred A. Lowell would say “Boys, we haven’t got any time for those long stories.” In retaliation, the workers often slowed down production in the mornings when Tinky went to answer the daily mail.
Fred A. Lowell retained ownership of Lowell’s Boat Shop from 1914 through 1942. During this period, the shop responded to pressures and opportunities opened up by World War I, the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s, World War II, the invention of the gasoline powered outboard motor and the virutal abandonment of dory fishing. After 1929, Lowell’s Boat Shop introduced a line of dories designed for motorized use and commercial paints were employed and in-house mixing of lead paint was abandoned. New markets for dories were found with the United States Coast Guard and the Boy Scouts of America.
Walter E. Lowell
Walter E. Lowell, (1891-1933) worked in Lowell’s Boat Shop between World War I and the Great Depression. He was an MIT graduate. Walter Lowell died of diphtheria and pneumonia in the early 1930s and was outlived by his father, Frederick A. Lowell. Frederick A. Lowell sold the family legacy to Walter’s son Ralph P. Lowell in 1942.
Ralph P. Lowell
Ralph P. Lowell (born 1920), Fred A’s grandson, began working at Lowell’s Boat Shop when he was 12. He came to work the summer following his father Walter’s death in 1933 and he continued working at the shop for 43 years. Ralph owned and managed Lowell’s Boat Shop from 1942 to 1976. During this period, World War II, the post-war boom years and new materials (e.g. fiberglass) strongly affected operations in the shop. Ralph Lowell started working in the Paint Room and as a young boy also assisted dory production by turning grindstones for the sharpening of tools and fetching buckets of water from the well across the street. After he mastered these tasks, Ralph progressed to the cutting and shaping of dory frames. Some of Ralph Lowell’s experiences at the shop were documented by Stan Grayson in an article published in Nautical Quarterly in 1985.
When Ralph Lowell was 15 years old, the shop was struck by flood in March, 1936. At this time, between 50 and 60 new boats were stored in the basement of the Boat Shop. At 6:00 am, Ralph asked his grandfather if the boats should be moved and Tinky said, “No, not to bother as the building had never been flooded in its history.” However, by 7:30 am, the water on the basement floor was 3 inches deep and it rose approximately one foot each hour, stopping just below the first floor level. The back windows at the shop were all broken out by the flood and creosote and silt were washed in by the river. The Lowells drilled the holes in the floor to let the water out. After the 1936 flood, the basement windows in both of the oldest buildings were rebuilt as continuous horizontal hands in the new modern fashion. The outhouse and sawdust chutes were also moved to their present positions. Ralph Lowell remembers that traditionally sawdust was dumped in the river in the summertime and saved for burning in the wood stove in the winter. In 1938, the Lowell’s Boat Shop property was struck by a hurricane, which caused the collapse of a flat-roofed boat storage building on the east end of the property, as well as the destruction of additional boats.
In 1942, before entering the military service, Ralph Lowell built a 20’x15′ office addition to prepare for his management of the family property. However, World Wor II intervened and it was not until 1946 that Ralph was able to continue his planned improvements. Using proceeds from a Small Business Administration loan, Ralph took down a dory storage shed which stood on the east end of the property. He rebuilt the wharf near the Office. West of the large Morrill & Flanders Building, he removed the ramp and lumber storage buildings prior to building a large 36′ x 32′ addition which presently serves as paint shop. To join the new addition to the Morrill & Flanders Building, Ralph removed a portion of the west wall of the Morrill & Flanders Building and created an enlarged, unified interior. The new addition was built with a high interior and a trussed roof without support posts to provide flexible use. Ralph had hoped to eventually extend his new 1946 west addition to completely cover the west end of the lot, but further extensions were never built.
The “flat” roofed lumber storage and seasoning shed at the extreme west end of the property was not removed until after Ralph used it to shelter the “Gin-Lu”, a 32 foot motor cruiser which he built and launched in 1946. Ralph Lowell built the “Gin-Lu” to test the feasibility of building large and small boats simultaneously before he signed contracts to build 800 and 900 small boats annually for the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts. Ralph Lowell sold the “Gin-Lu” to Red Hilton of Newburyport and this was the first vessel in the Hilton’s Newburyport fleet.
A number of developments seriously challenged the production of wood boats at Lowell’s Boat Shop after World War II. Fiberglass boats were developed in the 1950s and every year carved out a greater share of the wooden boatbuilding market. The railroads ceased allowing partial car loads to be shipped, so dory delivery to distant markets became problematic. Commercial fishing with dories was abandoned with the development of net-pulling trawlers, eliminating the traditional “bread and butter” of the trade. All of these factors together promised tough times for wooden boatbuilders at Lowell’s Boat Shop and production dropped steadily and dramatically between 1950 and 1975.
Fortunately for Lowell’s Boat Shop, a bold “Wooden Boatbuilding Revival” caught root across America beginning the 1970s. Jon Wilson of Maine launched the new magazine WoodenBoat to preserve and promote the art and science of wooden boatbuilding. Lance Lee, a former student of Aubrey Marshall, also moved to Maine in the early 1970s and founded a series of “Apprenticeshops” to continue traditional wooden boatbuilding as a non-profit educational enterprise. Peter H. Spectre has chronicled the 1970s Wooden Boat Building Revival in his 1989 book Different Waterfronts: Stories from the Wooden Boat Revival.
The historic contents of the Hiram Lowell Boat Shop were given to Strawbery Banke to insure their preservation. Aubrey Marshall, master boatbuilder at Lowell’s moved to Portsmouth to operate the Strawbery Banke Boat Shop and was assisted there by another Lowell’s boatbuilder, Robert Elliott. Elliott remembers that tools and materials given to Strawbery Banke included “quite a large number of dory patterns, with complete plans for 3 or 4 boat [types], some naval architect’s drawing tools, clamps, planes, mallets, nail kegs, tables, angles, and an anvil.” The anvil was probably the same one pictured in Yankee Magazine in 1961 and survived from Lowell’s Boat Shop’s shipbuilding operations in the 19th century.
In November, 1977, Jan Zimmerman published “Building the Banks Dory” in Wilson’s new WoodenBoat magazine. Zimmerman’s article has been described as “A detailed step-by-step explanation of how the Lowell banks dory is built at Strawbery Banke”. During the 1970s, Strawbery Banke’s Boat Shop functioned as a sort of public interpretive center for Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury. In 1979, Maynard Bray explained, “Most old-time dory shops are gone now, but at least two shops still turn out banks dories commercially. At Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the tools, patterns and expertise acquired from the country’s oldest dory shop, Lowell’s of Amesbury, Massachusetts are put to good use as part of that museum’s apprentice program; and in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, the Allen dory shops keeps a full-time dory building crew going.” Strawbery Banke lost some of its expertise, however, when Aubrey Marshall died in 1981. Odells
Malcolm J. (Jim) and Marjorie R. Odell purchased Lowell’s Boat Shop from Ralph Lowell in 1976 with the intent of maintaining and preserving both the Lowell’s Boat Shop Building and the wooden boat-building business. Under the Odells’ ownership, the property was historically researched (1988) and declared a National Historic Landmark (1990). This feasibility study was undertaken to document the historic structure, evolution of the site, and assist in formulating plans to maintain Lowell’s Boat Shop as a non-profit educational enterprise in the future.
The Odells purchased the property under the condition that Ralph (Fred) Tarbox remain on site to build boats and teach traditional boatbuilding methods. Under the Odells’ ownership, use of the sawdust disposal chutes in the Morrill & Flanders Building was discontinued and new rooms for sawdust storage and HVAC equipment were built on the second floor of the Morrill & Flanders Building. Ralph Lowell’s “Show Room” was also converted into a Paint Shop, and new mechanical ductwork was added to remove paint fumes. In 1983, the Odells also introduced plumbing to the property and built a restroom in the basement of the 1860 building.
Lowell’s Boat Shop Trust and Newburyport Maritime Society
By the early 1990’s, Jim Odell decided that the boat shop had to function as a charitable institution to insure its continued operation. To facilitate this transition, it was purchased by the Trust for Public Lands and the Lowell’s Boat Shop Trust was formed to provide operational and financial support. It continued to operate during this period in a manner similar to the mode of operations established by the Odells. In 1994, the Trust for Public lands granted a preservation easement over the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Trust for Public lands acquired the property with the hope that it would be able to interest a local charitable organization in assuming ownership of the property. The Newburyport Maritime Society whose mission was the interpretation of the Maritime history of the lower Merrimack Valley was a logical fit. The Maritime Society assumed ownership of the shop in 1994. The Boat Shop Trust continues as a support organization dedicated to the needs of the Boat Shop.
With the shift to operating as a public charity, the emphasis of operations has also changed. The shop has expanded its teaching programs to include adult and youth boat building courses. Commercial boat building and repair is still offered by the shop with a focus on perpetuating our traditional designs. We are also offering enhanced public access to the site through guided tours and on-site interpretive materials. After the closure of the boat building operation at Strawbery Banke, we reacquired the historical artifacts that help interpret our history.
Our mission is to preserve the tradition of boat building at the shop and to interpret its history. A key component of this has been to insure the structural integrity of the shop. The Maritime Society has completed a $365,000 renovation project that was funded through a grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission. We hope to obtain additional grants to rebuild the docks and floats which will enable us to offer on-the-water programs. The Maritime Society and the Boat Shop Trust are working together to insure our success in these efforts.
Dory Building at Lowell’s Boat Shop
Simeon Lowell bought a property at Point Shore on the Merrimack River in 1793. The deed describes him as a boat builder. Lowell tradition says he was a shipbuilder and probably had been to sea as well. Ralph Lowell is a direct descendant of Simeon, always known as “good old Simmie.” Ralph, is the 7th generation of Lowells to own and operate the Shop. He says that Simeon wanted a better boat than the one he had, which was a wherry. A good rowing boat was required in the 3-knot current of the Merrimack River, and going out over the bar to fish required a seaworthy craft.
The boat he designed was lightweight and quite easy to handle and was extraordinarily good in surf. It had characteristics of the “bateaux” which were being used by the French in the waterways of the northern part of the country. These “bateaux” were built with wide boards for the lap strakes, sawn thin enough to be worked without steaming. They had been used by the French in the waterways of the northern part of the country, were flat bottomed and up to 35 feet in length. They were straight-sided with a good deal of flair. In 1756 Governor Shirley of Massachusetts established a “Battoe” Service under General Braddock to build these boats for use against the French in Montreal and Quebec, and the Service built thousands of them.
Records show Simeon’s uncle, Gideon Lowell, served there and Ralph Lowell says that other Lowells went and were gone for years. They undoubtedly brought back not only ideas for the design of a rowing boat but also the idea of mass production used to build them. Simeon called his first boat a wherry, the boat used at the time. These were round-sided, with a flat bottom instead of a keel. He probably built it in a shop at the back of his house. Ralph tells us that every man had a shop at the back of his house, and we know that many men built their own boats. Simeon’s had round sides, was flat-bottomed and had a high double-ended shape. The transom was raked. It is possible that he had sailed in European waters and seen this shape there. The Scandinavians used it, the Venetians still do, and Portuguese fishermen also used boats with a high raked transom and bow.
What Simeon built, according to Ralph Lowell, “was a good safe boat, safe to use in surf at the bar and the saying was that the nice thing about the dory was that you’d never get drowned in one. It might scare you to death, but they always told the fishermen, “if you get caught in a storm away from your ship in a dory, lie down and ride it out because the odds that it will swamp and capsize are almost nil.”
The seaworthiness of Simeon’s dory was well demonstrated as it came in fully loaded over the Merrimack River bar, and beginning in 1795, James Phillips, fisherman of Swampscott, and later his son Eben, were coming to the Lowell Shop for dories to use there. The gentle slope of Swampscott’s beach required the fishing schooners to anchor half a mile offshore and bring their catch in through the surf. Lowell dories were carried over land until about 1840 when production began in Swampscott. The round-sided surf dory has also been known as the Swampscott dory ever since that time.
The name “wherry” was replaced by the word “dory” during the 19th century. The definition is unclear. Robert K. Cheney says in his important book “Maritime History of the Merrimack: Shipbuilding” that “quite a number of ship carpenters at Salisbury Point are building wherries (dories, invented there), of which they turn out about ten a week. A very profitable business.” Cheney’s statement is in turn taken from a newspaper dated January 2, 1857. Evidently, at that time the term was interchangeable. The word “dory” is old. John Gardner in the “National Fisherman”, August 1976, says it appears in a book “Capt. Urey’s Travels” published in 1726 though Mr. Gardner asks “was it the boat we now have_”. The name now, and certainly from the latter part of the 19th century, is used for a double ended boat, flat bottomed, with flared or rounded sides and a raked V (“tombstone”) transom, the boat which is credited to Simeon Lowell and which he called a wherry.
Early in the nineteenth century, fishing methods began to change. The established method had been handling from the deck of the schooner. Then for reasons unknown to fishermen, they found their catch to be enormously increased by fishing in a small boat away from the schooner. In 1859 the “Barnstable Patriot” reported that the use of dories had become “quite general among the Grand Bank fishermen. Codfish will take a hook from a dory while they will not notice a hook from the vessel anchored within a rod of the boat.” Lowell’s dory was redesigned by straightening the frames and flattening the sides to a flared shape. This was even less expensive to produce than the original boat. It could be tricky to handle but fully loaded was immensely seaworthy. It could be stacked on the deck of a schooner five or six deep and could hold 4000 lbs. of fish. Schooners now went out carrying 12 or 24 dories on their decks.
Neil Duan described the way it worked. He wrote that one man went out in a 12′ (17 l.a.a.) dory. He worked alone from dawn until dusk. If he found a good spot others followed, and there might be 600 dories around him. He used two lines. While one was over the side, he prepared the other, and he expected to fill about six boat loads in a day. At full tide his line was 900′ long and he pulled the lines 75 times daily. The cod he was catching weighed about 50 lbs., and his lines were heavily equipped with fishing hardware. He fished throughout the winter on the Grand Banks and the hands of the fishermen were deeply torn and scarred.
Stan Grayson, researching an article on Lowell’s shop in 1984, interviewed a 92 year old schooner captain in Gloucester. He asked him what dories he used. “We used Lowell dories. Wouldn’t use anything else. They were the best. If you had a Lowell dory, you had a good dory.” And Rev. Roland Sawyer speaks for all the boats built on the Point, “the men who went outside to fish from the mouth of the Merrimack River or who went off from the coast at Hampton and Rye all vowed the Salisbury Dory was the most seaworthy boat ever built.”
The dory changed industry on Point Shore. Demand for dories was great, not because of the numbers used on the schooners, but because the life of the dory, tough as it was, was short. Today they last for a hundred years, but on the Grand Banks, smashed again and into schooners, their time of usefulness was reduced to about 2 years. So, on the Point, boat shops began to replace the shipyards as the major industry and as the boat building industry boomed, the shipbuilding industry continued to decline. “Guinea boats” of between 40 and 50 tons continued to be built here until the end of the 19th century.
Boat shops lined the Shore and the change must certainly have been welcome to the men who were now inside a heated building rather than outside working in the shipyards. And yet today, far from being a warm environment in which to work, Lowell’s Shop is heated with a wood stove and wood furnace, which are started each morning. There is no insulation, few storm windows, and at times during the winter it is almost impossible to work for the first hour or so in the morning. Tools are warmed by the stove and the temperature stands at 50-55 degrees. Boats are and always have been built year-round and stacked outside. The Newburyport Daily News, March 16, 1935, carries a picture of dories stacked in the Kenniston Yard at the foot of Rocky Hill Road. Lumber had always been stacked outside for the shipyards, so that sometimes “the roads were almost impassable”, and now outside the boat shops. Aubrey Marshall recalled that during World War II “we were even building boats in the road.”
Dories of all sizes were built. William Morrill, next to the Dorr homestead on Dorr’s Lane, built the big dories for St. Pierre and Miquelon, and delivered them to Boston, where they were shipped to those islands. Small, inexpensive skiffs were built, and one building experimented with shipping dories in sections to be assembled elsewhere. His customers however, took his patterns and went into the business of building his dories themselves.
After the Civil War recreational rowing appeared in America. Yacht and Rowing Clubs sprang up. In Amesbury the Wonnesquam Boat Club was built and the shops began building a variety of boats for the people who wanted to row and sail for fun: men in their boaters, women with parasols. Lowell built “a gentleman’s rowing skiff” for this market. Summer camps, new ways for children to experience the out-of-doors, came into the American scene. Someone has called them America’s contribution to education, and for teaching children how to handle themselves on the water, they needed a good, safe little rowing boat, and Lowell built them. They were in the catalog of the Boy Scouts of America for forty years, and the Shop shipped boats to the Scouts of America and of England too.
Lumber, essential to the building of boats had always been available. Originally it came from forests around Amesbury, then from areas up the Merrimack and Powow Rivers whence it was floated down. After dams were built and the forests cut over, starting about the middle of the 19th century, lumber was shipped by rail from Maine and brought on the Salisbury Point spur built specially to bring lumber to the Shops. Today, white pine is again coming from new growth in the forests of Massachusetts and Maine, as well as New Hampshire, and is delivered by truck. Mahogany comes from Central America and Brazil, and Sitka spruce from the Northwest. Pine is stacked and dried in the loft, and oak was stacked on the bottom floor and dried slowly to keep it from checking. This is still done today. Since 1641 there had been sawmills, there was one on Rocky Hill Road back of the present church building, powered by True’s pond and after the invention of steam, a steam-powered planing mill was built for the boat shops on the Point by Frank Flanders and George Henry Morrilll.
Initially nails were wrought iron made by the local blacksmith. In 1795 the first nail making machine in the United States was built in this area by Jacob Perkins. It supplied cut nails for building dories. When galvanizing (zinc coating) was developed, galvanized nails were used. Atlas Tack Co. of New Bedford, Mass. produced the most satisfactory clinch nail for use in the boat shops from the turn of the century until the mid-60’s when Atlas was acquired and phased out of business. Fortunately, two of the cut nail machines were acquired by a retired naval officer who recognized their worth. He donated these to the boat shop of the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. Mystic Seaport, boatbuilder Peter Culler and a number of other boat builders, including Lowell’s then joined in an effort to put these machines into production again. Lowell’s Boat Shop gave them an order for nails to be made of copper. From the early days, Lowell’s imported its steel tools from Sheffield, England. Warren Mann reports that when his father was building boats at Lowell’s before electricity came to Amesbury (about 1914 he believes), Marcus Lowell had a very nice business sharpening saws for the boat shops, a task he had to perform at night.
According to Aubrey Marshall, in the early 20th century the shop used an assembly line to produce dories in volume. The shop was organized to accommodate a smooth flow of lumber and boats throughout the site. Lumber was stored in sheds on the down stream end of the property. It was moved to the attic prior to use. Skillets were assembled and beveled on the second floor. Laps were beveled and installed in an adjacent area. The boats were then carried on exterior ramps down to the first floor to the finishers. The finishers cut the risings, installed cleats, caulked seams and smoothed out the inside timbers. The finished boats were taken to the basement where they were painted with a white lead, linseed oil and powder mixture. Once dry, they were taken out on the bulkhead area to be shipped by water, road or rail to their destination.
As the output of dories grew, a system of piecework developed. Aubrey Marshall, shop foreman for many years and boat builder for about 50 years until 1973 said he never saw it in his day, but understood that when a carpenter began to clinch nails at one end of a lap, the foreman might light a match. The lap was finished before the match went out. Warren Mann, son of Herbert, remembers how it was when his father worked at Lowell’s shop, from 1890 when he was 11 or 12 years old and until he was nearly 70. The picture is as he remembers it was when he was growing up. He worked for awhile at Lowell’s as a teenager in around 1916.
The men worked from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., 6 days a week. Dinner hour was from 12 to 1. Herbie lived nearby and Mrs. Mann had his dinner ready at 12 noon sharp. At 12:30 he lay down and rested for almost a half hour, and was back on the job at precisely 1 o’clock. Fred A. (“Tinky”) Lowell was a ‘hard master’, Warren remembers, ‘a businessman all the way through’. Five minutes was allowed to cross the street for water. And when the roof of the outhouse leaked it was not repaired. Tinky didn’t use it since he lived across the street. But once he did so, and the men united their efforts and poured gallons of water on the roof. Nothing was said, but the roof was repaired the next day. “He was good though” Warren says. His father restored, modernized and enlarged the house they lived in, the house shown on the map as that of W.H. Blaisdell. Herbie came home almost every day with a good piece of lumber not usable for boats, and Tinky never charged him for any of it.
Herbie’s wages never exceeded $18 a week, and his son says he worked every moment of his life. Six days a week at the Shop, and the rest of the time at home. He was the dean of the Boat Shop. Warren says his father could make a stem with an adz. “He could shave you with it,” he says. During World War I wages in Portsmouth at the Naval Shipyard were treble those at Lowell’s and it was suggested Herbie take a job there. He judged this unsound. The work at Lowell’s was steady, and since there was no viable transportation, he would have had to stay in Portsmouth all week.
Towards the end of the century, Lowell was shipping boats in 100 lots to France, Portugal, the Azores, and the Northwest. Production peaked in 1911 at 2029 dories, and the record for speed was the order for 200 dories for the Portugal fisheries filled by Fred A. Lowell, Ralph’s grandfather, in 16 days. We don’t have a financial statement for the firm, but the Stevens Duryea that Fred A. Lowell was driving in 1911 suggests that Lowell’s was a profitable enterprise. This is the same Fred Lowell who on occasion delivered a string of dories to Portsmouth or Gloucester, smoking a big cigar as he rowed. He returned by train.
Although some dories were rowed to their customers, the practice was to deliver by wagon to nearby buyers. The Moulton brothers lived on the other side of the River and hauled them to Gloucester and Portsmouth, 12 to a load, stacked catty-corner. When Lowell had a load ready, he hung overalls outside the Shop, one for one wagonload, two for two, hung at the east end for a Gloucester trip, west end for Portsmouth. The driver could deliver his load, visit the local bar, and sleep all the way home. People in Essex claimed that when a load of dories passed through, it would rain the next day.
Dory was King on Point Shore in 1913. Boat shops lined the river front and there were shops on side streets as well. Then customs duties in Europe seriously cut orders from abroad. The United States imposed duties as well, but the fishing fleet, always ready as any business to cut costs, found that boat builders in Nova Scotia could build a heavier, cruder version of Lowell’s dory and sell it for less money. They would use it for a day, and bring it into the United States duty free. Dory sales were now mixed with sales of rowboats and skiffs, and when Ole Evinrude developed his outboard engine, Lowell modified the skiff to accommodate it. In 1929, Walter Lowell designed a transom well to house outboard engines in dories.
The beginning of the Great Depression. There were few jobs and few orders. The fishing fleets had begun to trawl with nets, and trawlers went out with two dories on the deck house for life saving purposes only, and since they weren’t used, they lasted indefinitely. There were few re-orders. Luckily, fishing methods were slower to change in the Northwest, and dories continued to be shipped to the salmon and halibut fleets there until about 1940. The industry had been so seriously damaged, however, that in 1942 there were only 4 boat shops left.
Because of the dory’s capability in the surf, the round-sided boat we call the surf dory was used by the United States Life Saving Service, later incorporated into the Coast Guard. This dory was used at its two worst stations, probably the mouth of the Columbia River and perhaps at Newburyport. The remaining stations used the Banks Dory. The boats were also used for life saving on the East and West Coast beaches until aluminum and fiberglass replaced the wooden boats in the sixties. We saw one of the old Lowell lifeboats in 1984 on Long Beach, California. The use of the dory was so widespread that Donald B. Macmillan, on his return from one of his expeditions to the North Pole, reported that his first sight of civilization was a Lowell dory drawn up on an ice floe, owned by an Eskimo.
During the Depression, however, there were years when the Shop operated only two days a week. And in 1936 the Merrimack River flooded. Ralph Lowell says that in the almost 200 years the Shop has been there, this was the only time there was water on the floor. At 6:30 a.m. water was slapping under the floor. At 7:30 they began moving the boats out; there were about 100 of them. The tide was rising one foot an hour, and when the river crested it had nearly reached the ceiling.
During the War, thousands of dories were delivered to the two Services. Walter Lowell, Ralph’s father, had died at age 42 in 1933 and “Tinky”, Ralph’s grandfather, had taken over again. But when the War came, Ralph went into the Service and Aubrey Marshall ran the Shop. Production was wholly for the War. There were 15 men and they produced about 25 dories a week on an average. Twenty-four dories went to Alaska where they were used, two in tandem with planks across them, for heavy loads such as coal. In South Africa, Lowell dories went out to pick up mines laid by the German Navy along the East Coast to interfere with Allied oil shipments.
When the War ended Ralph Lowell planned a solid future for the Shop. He added a showroom at the upstream end of the the building, and departed from the established dory brown color of the building, painting it white. He had a good work force. Herbert Mann was there and Aubrey Marshall who had been there more than 25 years, Leon J. Ladd, more than 30 years, and Samuel F. Smith had been a boat builder for 43 years. There had been about 250,000 dories built and paint was up to 7″ deep on the floor. Commercial fishing from dories was almost entirely that of clammers and moss gatherers now, but the Coast Guard and the beaches of the East and West Coasts used dories for life boats. There were still some boats built for Gloucester, but summer camps, particularly those of the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts of both America and England used the skiffs. Sample bills of lading in 1954 show 10 boats for a Boy Scout camp in Ohio, 8 for Illinois.
There were rental services and boat liveries everywhere using Lowell outboard and rowing skiffs. They were durable, and they were safe. As a livery owner in City Island in New York City said, “No matter what the weather, they always come back.” Palmer Engine Company in Cos Cob, Connecticut, in conjunction with Lowell, built a hundred or so inboard fishing boats. And there were regular customers for the big 23-4′ Ocean Skiffs. Nevertheless, Lowell recognized the wisdom of diversifying his product when he filled an order for 24 lawn chairs in 1953.
Commander Sheldon S. Kinney, of the U.S.S. Mitschner, began experiments in 1957 with the 18′ dory as a life boat for the Navy, to replace the whaleboats they were using. Dories have been called the broncos of the sea, and Kinney had ridden them surfboard fashion through the surf as a boy in California. Captain Ben Pine, skipper of the last racing schooner, “Gertrude L. Thebaud” out of Gloucester estimated one minute to launch a dory while underway. The experiments were successful, but the project fell before the development of the new boat building materials, fiberglass and aluminum. These materials almost forced the last of the boat shops on Point Shore to close .
And at about the same time, Isbrandtsen, the line that shipped to the West Coast, refused any longer to take deck cargo, such as dories, through the Canal. Further, the railroads, which had been taking boats at the Salisbury Point spur and shipping them countrywide, now would accept only 100 lot shipments. Shipping had been cheap and efficient. A Boston and Maine bill of lading dated December 24, 1957, described two 19′ dories and six pairs of oars, crated for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, the boats to be nested and secured. Must arrive Jan. 5, 1958.” The charge was $347. B&M charged $32.17 to ship two uncrated skiffs to Tidewater, Virginia, that year. Following the loss of ship and rail service, delivery depended on the highly regulated trucking industry, and until deregulation during the Reagan Administration, it cost as much to ship a boat to Alaska as to build it.
As the shops closed, boat builders diappeared. Ralph was finding it difficult to fill the orders he did have. Fortunately for the Shop, Fred Tarbox came to work at Lowell’s in 1959. He had been forced to seek employment elsewhere as the shops went out business, but had been a builder of boats for 20 years. He was, and is, an extraordinarily skilled craftsman. Fred can bevel a strake with the utmost simplicity of motion. He never wastes a movement; and when Jamieson Odell thought about buying Lowell’s, it could only be on the condition that Fred remain. He did remain, and has taught the young boatbuilders there to build dories. Ralph Lowell undertook to teach a boatbuilding class at Whittier Technical High School in Haverhill to keep the craft alive during the early 1970s.
An abortive effort was made in about 1973 by Mystic Seaport in Connecticut to take the entire Shop by barge to Mystic, and after this project was abandoned, Strawbery Banke, the restoration project and museum in Porstmouth, NH, approached Ralph with a plan to produce a replica of Lowell’s Boat Shop there. The project went through. Ralph turned over old tools and patterns, and Aubrey Marshall took over and began building dories there and teaching young men and women the art. Aubrey Marshall died in 1981 and Strawbery Banke has now closed its operation.
As Ralph Lowell and others were trying to save the Shop, interest in the wooden boat was appearing in another quarter. Jonathan Wilson launched “Wooden Boat” magazine in 1975. Its success has been phenomenal, and in 1984 it was the fastest growing specialty magazine in the country.
Ralph Lowell sold his shop to Jamieson Odell in 1976. Jim believed yachtsmen and connoisseurs would be in the market for these beautiful and proven craft, and he began to advertise in the new “Wooden Boat” magazine. He advertised in other publications, took his boats to boat shows and spent up to seven days a week following inquiries and trying to get production to a profitable figure. Interest in the Shop was strong. The Shop built a dory in City Hall in Boston as a part of the bicentennial celebration. It built four dories for the Maritime Museum in Newburyport as a featured display; and built a dory in the Lamont Gallery (Art) at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH.
Lowell’s Boat Shop now produces its traditional flat bottomed dories ranging in size from 7′ prams to 24′ ocean skiffs. Some are equipped with engines or outboards, some with sails, or both. All are exceptionally easy to row, as they always have been, and when interest in rowing as recreation and exercise began to appear, Jim recreated the design and it is now known as the Salisbury Point Rowing Skiff, one of the Shop’s most popular boats. Jim Odell introduced epoxy resin to seal the hulls on bottoms and garboards, with fiberglass cloth to strengthen the bottoms and decrease abrasion. The boats are also treated and finished with 12 coats of an oil preservative and finish. These changes have substantially reduced the maintenance problems that worried many wooden boat lovers.
Lowell’s Boat Shop is unique, not only as the only remaining shop building essentially the same boat in the same way since its founding, but also in its original building on the same waterfront location. There are only a very few boat builders remaining in waterfront locations and their numbers are decreasing as waterfront property becomes scarcer. The rapidly increasing pressure of residential demand at tremendously inflated values presents an almost irresistible threat to the future of the Shop on Point Shore in Amesbury which, except for the Shop itself, is now entirely residential. The shop is now operated by the Newburyport Maritime Society as a charitable institution so that the tradition of dory building can be preserved at the shop.
Historical Significance of Lowell’s Dories
In his book Fast & Able: Life Stories of Great Gloucester Fishing Vessels, Gordon W. Thomas indicated that the average length of the Lowell dory in the 19th century was 18 feet. From the available production figures it is believed that more than 100,000 Lowell dories were manufactured between 1850 and 1990. If laid end to end, these dories would stretch more than 200 miles, longer than the entire length of the Merrimack River. In order to achieve these production levels, Hiram Lowell initiated a system of dory mass-production, which revolutionized the boat building industry.
Although many Lowell Boat Shop record books were lost in a fire in the 1980’s it seems safe to conclude that the majority of Lowell dories were built for offshore Banks use by fishermen in nearby Gloucester, Massachusetts. Gloucester was the birthplace of the American schooner in the 18th century, and became the home part of the majority of the New England fishing fleet by the mid-19th century. Although Salisbury and Amesbury boatbuilders and shipbuilders constructed vessels for Gloucester fishermen in the 18th century, the majority of the earliest vessels were not dories; the earliest Gloucester fishermen simply “handlined” from the deck of their schooners. Merrimack Valley boatbuilders constructed many schooners, sloops and other large vessels for Gloucester fishermen. A noted 19th century Gloucester historian recorded that the Banks fishery “began to decline…after the Revolution” and was almost “totally abandoned“ by the early 19th century. Between 1790 and 1860, Gloucester captains filled the fishing gap by engaging heavily in “foreign commerce.” Banks fishing was revived shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War.
According to the 1876 Gloucester historian, “since about 1860, the increased demand and consequent higher price of fish have induced many [Gloucester] merchants to send their vessels [back] to the ancient fishing ground.“ By 1859, the Gloucester fishing fleet was rebuilt, and it was designed to engage in the new method of dory-fishing, which was far more efficient than hand-lining. In dory fishing, each schooner carried 12 to 20 dories, which were rowed apart to spread thousands of hooks over wide areas of ocean. On January 6, 1859, the Villager of Salisbury and Amesbury noted that a fleet of 300 schooners in Gloucester harbor was preparing to make way for Grand Banks fishing. A fleet of this size required approximately 2,700 new dories yearly. Salisbury and Amesbury boat builders responded to the market by erecting “new shops” to build new dories for the fleet.
In 1897, the Amesbury Daily News reported that “When the manufacture of fishing dories for the Banks trade grew up, Mr. [Hiram] Lowell was one of the pioneers.“ John Gardner and other historians have suggested that Hiram Lowell “invented” the American Grand Banks dory by modifying the round sided wherry and colonial flat-bottomed “batteaux” made by Simeon Lowell and others before 1830. There is additional evidence, which suggests that the name, form and use of the dory derived as well from French fishermen, who used similar boats for Grand Banks fishing.
By 1860, Hiram Lowell modified his family boat building business to produce fishing dories on a large scale. By the last quarter of the 19th century, Hiram Lowell’s boat shop became the leading manufacturer of dories in the United States.
Lowell dories had a reputation for quality, and were popular in Gloucester. Howard Blackburn, the most famous Gloucester dory fisherman who survived a winter storm off Newfoundland in 1881 owed his life to the integrity and design of an 18 foot Lowell dory. During the 1890s Lowell dories were delivered “primarily to Gloucester” and a fishing schooner named after the great dory maker, Hiram Lowell, was built in Gloucester in 1892. IN 1984, the 92 year old Gloucester schooner captain Morton Seilig recalled: “We in Gloucester used Lowell dories. Wouldn’t use anything else. They were the best. If you had a Lowell dory, you had a good dory.” Dory quality was critical to the men whose lives depended on them, and Lowell dories were chosen by many Gloucester fishermen.
Lowell dories became a standard fixture on Gloucester schooners and Gloucester beaches by the third quarter of the 19th century, valued both as a deep sea vessel for use with schooners, and as a row boat for Victorian outings and recreation. American artist Winslow Homer recorded Gloucester dories in many of his marine renderings of the 1870s and 1880s. Paintings and engravings such as Waiting for Dad (1873), Gloucester Harbor (1873), Three Boys in a Dory with Lobster Pots (1875), Children Playing under a Gloucester Wharf (1880), Green Dory (1880), and the Fog Warning (1885) attest to the vessel’s popularity as both a hard-working commercial boat, and a recreational boat for children and mothers in Victorian Gloucester. By the 1890’s, the Gloucester fisherman and Gloucester dory were further popularized by Rudyard Kipling in the classic sea documentary, Captains Courageous.
The Lowell dory was popular in other areas besides Gloucester. The Moultons are known to have delivered Lowell dories north to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The Coast Guard in nearby Newburyport purchased Lowell dories to use as surf rescue craft. The famous Swampscott dories are also believed to have derived in part from Lowell originals. Lowell dories and boats were sent to destinations across the United States and Europe. In the early 20th century, arctic explorer Donald MacMilan witnessed a Lowell dory being used by Eskimos in the far north.