By Joe Chetwynd, Pembroke

The work has begun to remove and restore the ten cast iron plaques which line the North River, from Hanover, through Norwell, Scituate, Pembroke and Marshfield., Mass, which identify ten major shipyards that operated between 1670 and 1840, when this river valley was a major center of  Colonial shipbuilding. From these yards, some very famous vessels were launched,

Among them was the brig BEAVER, built at the Brick Kiln Shipyard in Pembroke, which was one of the three vessels that were set upon by a band of men and boys dressed in “Indian garb”, who then proceeded to break open the cargo of wooden tea chests and then threw the contents into Boston Harbor. In December, 1775 this bold act of rebellion by the citizenry against King George III was one of the sparks that lit the fire of the American Revolution.

In 1773, the brig COLUMBIA was launched from the ship yard of James Briggs, at Hobart’s Landing. Scituate. This  vessel, under Captain  John Kendrick , departed Boston Harbor on September 30, 1787, in company with the sloop WASHINGTON ( aka Lady Washington ) , commanded by Captain Robert Gray .This expedition was  organized under the auspices of a newly formed Boston Fur Trade and China Trade company, and were provisioned with  cargoes of trading goods; ie, blankets, iron bars, copper pans, etc which were proper items for trading with the Indians of the Northwest Coast. They sailed for Cape Verde Islands, then, to the Falkland Islands, re-provisioning at both stops, and then headed south for Cape Horn, doubling the dangerous cape in January, 1788. The vessels were separated by heavy gales, and the WASHINGTON proceeded alone, arriving at a place near the mouth of a great river and was nearly lost by grounding, and was then attacked by natives. The crew suffered one man killed, and one wounded, and they escaped their predicament on September 17th, finally reaching Nootka Sound  where they found several other vessels were lying, safe. The COLUMBIA arrived there some days later, having had to put into the Spanish Garrison Island of Juan Hernandez in May 1788, to effect necessary repairs and refitting , the result of serious injuries to the vessel suffered in a storm. Both vessels spent the winter of ’88 – ’89 at Nootka Sound.

The COLUMBIA went on to explore the NW coast and, under Capt Gray, they discovered the great river which they named after their ship, which we know as the Columbia River. COLUMBIA continued to sail to the orient, visiting China and other coastal and island nations, and then sailed across the Indian Ocean, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and then sailed onto London, England. When the vessel finally reached Boston Harbor, she became the first American flagged vessel to circumnavigate the globe.

Not only was the North River a major shipbuilding center for British vessels being built prior to the American Revolution, and later, for American flagged vessels following our War of Independence, the river was also the ” nursery”  for  many of the best shipbuilders , with several notable families giving as many as  three generations  of men to that trade. When new centers of shipbuilding were developing in such places as Camden, Maine, Newburyport, Medford, South Boston, East Boston , Chelsea, Milton, Quincy,  and Fairhaven, Massachusetts, the pioneer shipbuilders were mostly North River men. Many of the greatest Clipper ships ever built were built by North River men.

All tolled, over one thousand vessels of various tonnages, rigs, and styles were built on this tidal river. Many were employed in whaling, sailing to the far reaches of both oceans, several even into the arctic, in search of ” greasy luck”, whale oil and bone.  Others were used to carry cargos and passengers across the Atlantic and to the Orient. Many schooners were built for fishing, others for coastal work, and sloops were built for use as packets from North River to Boston, trading in local goods, produce and wares.

(Photo right: The TENEDOS built at the Brick Kiln Yard in Pembroke in 1827 for trading, converted to a whaler in 1840. Photo courtesy of Jeffery Ripley)

The Shipyard Plaques were originally cast and installed about 1919, through the concerted efforts of several local businessmen who understood that the history of shipbuilding on North River was being all but forgotten, and it was their noble plan to identify at least ten of the major shipbuilding yards which once lined the shores of the river. These signs were their legacy to both locate, mark and commemorate this river’s proud shipbuilding history before it was obliterated by time and  the loss of persons who were descended from those illustrious and industrious shipbuilding family. By the time that Dr. L. Vernon Briggs, a fifth generation of that prolific and ancient family of shipbuilders, set about to assemble the definitive account  of this  by-gone era, it was nearly half a century after the last of the old yards had closed and the shipbuilders had removed to the ” Boston yards ” ,  and a bit over a decade after the last ship to be built on the river was launched in 1871; the schooner  HELEN M FOSTER, launched from the old Chittenden yard . In 1889, Briggs published his opus book, “History of Shipbuilding on North River …1640 – 1872 ”. It has stood since as the “North River Bible of Shipbuilding ” . With the installation of the iron plaques in 1919, the ten major yards were celebrated and consecrated. This latest initiative to restore those signs, and to, perhaps add several more, is proof positive that the great history and importance of the North River is an everlasting spirit  and restorative tonic for the soul. There are many more stories that can and will be told about these men and their ships in the many decades that will follow.