History Research at Newburyport Public Library

August 4, 2014 by Gray Fitzsimons

Newburyport, MA

One important part of this project that is examining the dynamics of coastal change at Plum Island centers on historical research that aims to identify major human interventions in the lands and waterways of the Merrimack Valley, with an eye toward understanding how these alterations influenced the geomorphology of Plum Island. While this research encompasses a broad range of time in which these changes were carried out, most of it is focused on the 19th and 20th century when industrialization of the Valley was marked not only by a growth in population, trade, and commerce, but also by a massive transformation of the land, streams, and rivers.

Most recently I have been researching changes to the land in and around Plum Island, and found that the Archival Center at the Newburyport Public Library has some exceptionally good resources. This includes a series of maps, clippings files, and numerous secondary sources tied to the history of the Lower Merrimack Valley.

In 1920, Draper’s Plum Island Beach Company ran a series of ads in New England newspapers as part of its vigorous campaign to sell beach properties on Plum Island. This was among the larger ads published in the Boston Globe, August 15, 1920.

One particular source that caught my attention was a copy of a real estate brochure, dating from 1920, that was produced by the Plum Island Beach Company. Led by J. Sumner Draper, who hailed from a wealthy Boston-area textile manufacturing family, this syndicate acquired the Pettingell property, which comprised most of the land north of the Plum Island Turnpike. Draper’s company constructed the first electrical power lines as well as the first paved road on the island (now Northern Boulevard) and quickly began the work of surveying and laying out nearly 12,000 lots, on 1,400 acres of land. These small lots were advertised for sale to various individuals, including “men of moderate means.” Upon some of these tracts of land were built a variety of wood-frame cottages.

The extent to which this real estate syndicate was financially successful is not known, but in 1933 the company was dissolved. Its legacy, however, remains as evidenced by the many subdivided parcels of land and, of course, Northern Boulevard. In addition, as ecologist Mark J. McDonnell observed some years ago, the result of these changes was the elimination of much of the existing vegetation and the destruction of sections of the dunes north of the Turnpike. Since the 1970s, however, the work of dunes restoration has sought to reverse the ill-effects of this early, large-scale commercial development of Plum Island.

This detail from the Plum Island Beach Company’s brochure offered prospective purchasers of beach property a glimpse of the company’s development scheme. The bird’s-eye drawing was produced by the well-known New York commercial real estate firm of Harry A. Chandler. A copy of this brochure is available at the Newburyport Public Library’s Archival Center.

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