Join the Ranks of the Great Explorers and Discover Rockport at the Tip of Massachusetts’ “Other Cape”!
Long, long, long (did I say ‘long’??) before Rockport became one of the most picturesque and quaint seaside villages in Massachusetts and easy to get to from the Hawthorne Hotel via either MBTA Commuter Rail or car, it was the destination of some of the world’s greatest explorers.
Almost two decades before the Pilgrims landed on the tip of Cape Cod and eventually built Plimouth Plantation thus beginning the history of permanent European settlement in New England, the northern coast of Massachusetts was being explored by Samuel de Champlain, a French navigator, cartographer, draughtsman, soldier, explorer, geographer, ethnologist, diplomat, and chronicler who became known as “The Father of New France”.
Town of Rockport, MA with Complete History
In 1605 and 1606 – a really long time ago – Champlain explored the North American coast as far south as Cape Cod searching for sites for a permanent settlement for a new French Colony. In July of 1605, that exploration brought him to the peninsula that forms the northern edge of Massachusetts Bay where Rockport is located which he named “Cap Aux Isles” – Cape of Islands – before continuing further south in his explorations after parlaying with the Agawams, the local natives who came to the rocky area to hunt, fish, and dig clams.
In 1614 – still a really long time ago! – the next explorer to come to the area was John Smith, an English soldier, explorer, and author best known for his role in establishing the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia, as well as his brief association with the Virginia Indian girl Pocahontas. In 1614, Smith made a voyage to the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts Bay and named the region “New England”. Part of his voyage brought him to the land that de Champlain had previously named Cap Aux Isles, an area that included the site of what would eventually become the Town of Rockport. Anchoring in what would later be called Sandy Bay, Captain Smith cast his eyes over the landscape before him where he saw the homes of the Agawam Indians in the distance and before him the coast which he declared to be a “fair headland…fronted by three isles.”
Either not knowing or not caring that the area had already been named once, Smith named the area “Cape Tragabigzanda” after a Greek maiden who had been kind to him in Constantinople while the Turks held him captive as a slave following a 1602 skirmish with the Ottoman Empire. The three islands off the coast of the Cape he dubbed as “Turk’s Heads” in memory of his triumph over three Turkish commanders he is reputed to have defeated, killed and beheaded in three separate duels for which he was knighted by the Transylvanian Prince Sigismund Báthory and given a horse as well as approval to symbolize the three Turks in the Smith Family Coat of Arms.
Upon completion of his explorations, Smith presented his map of the area to Charles I of England and suggested that Charles should feel free to change any of the “barbarous names” (meaning the many Native American names) for English ones instead. King Charles did just that making many such changes, only four of which survive today including the change from Cape Tragabigzanda to Cape Ann, which Charles named in honor of his mother, Anne of Denmark, the queen consort of Scotland, England, and Ireland as the wife of James VI and I. The three islands that lie off the coast of Rockport which Smith named the “Turk’s Heads” eventually became known as Straitsmouth Island, Thacher Island, and Milk Island.
The first white settlers to the area, Richard Tarr along with his wife and two children, moved from Marblehead and made Sandy Bay their home in 1690 where they lived pretty much by themselves for ten years until John Pool along with his wife Sarah and their five children left Beverly to also move to the tip of the Cape Ann peninsula. Even though Richard Tarr may have thought, “there goes the neighborhood”, for more than 100 years Sandy Bay was primarily an uninhabited part of the Town of Gloucester which was one of the first English settlements in what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony; founded in 1623, Gloucester predates both Salem in 1626 and Boston in 1630 but we’ll get to Gloucester another time as right now we’re talking about the area that eventually became Rockport!
Located directly east of Gloucester and surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean, the Sandy Bay area was primarily used as a source of timber – especially pine used for shipbuilding as well as the timber used to build Long Wharf in Boston. The waters around Cape Ann were also one of the best fishing grounds in New England so as such, fishing also became a big local industry. For those purposes, in 1743 a dock was built at Rockport Harbor on Sandy Bay which was used for both the shipping of timber and the business of fishing.
By the beginning of the 19th century a major change came to the small fishing village when the first granite quarries were developed; by the 1830s, the high quality granite that was in abundance in the area was being shipped to cities and towns throughout the East Coast of the United States. Located directly on the ocean, the transportation of the granite was easier than from an inland location and Sandy Bay began furnishing most of the country’s granite while the town’s inhabitants became known as the “quarry people.” Granite from the area was used in the Custom House Tower in Boston, said to be the tallest building in the country without a steel frame, as well as in the locks of the Panama Canal. After 1900 use of newer construction materials like concrete caused the granite industry to die out but that’s a story for another post.
While Gloucester became increasingly urbanized, the area of Granitetown as it was increasingly called, consisted mostly of large estates, summer homes, and a small fishing village. In 1840, with a population of nearly eighteen hundred, over four-score fishing schooners and coasting vessels, several churches and schoolhouses, and an established post office, its residents desired a separate enclave with an identity all its own. A petition was made, the area was set off as a separate town from Gloucester, and Sandy Bay was officially renamed as Rockport following a vote by the citizens whose choices were East Gloucester, Granite, Brest, Cape Ann and Rockport. Thus the Town of Rockport came into existence 235 years after Samuel de Champlain first passed through on his explorations and watched the natives dance.
Being an extremely picturesque area, it was around that same time that artists came to Rockport to paint not only the red fishing shack on Bradley Wharf that became known as Motif #1, but also of the fishermen working on their vessels and the quarrymen cutting and moving granite. Drawn to the area because of its rocky, boulder-strewn ocean beaches, its quaint fishing shacks, a harbor filled with small, colorful fishing boats, and that uncommonly magical light that has inspired painters for years, the area that was known primarily for its granite and fishing also became known as an Artists’ Colony. No one is certain who the first painter was to discover this special place, but as word of mouth got out, by 1900 many artists were arranging to spend their summers in studios on Bearskin Neck. Artists such as Winslow Homer, Frederick Childe Hassam, Fitz Hugh Lane, Edward Hopper, and John Marin are just some of the many that made their way to Rockport.
One of those artists to come to Rockport was Aldro Thompson Hibbard, a prominent American plein air (open air) painter who was born in Falmouth on Cape Cod but who lived most of his life in Rockport. In town merely a year, on July 22, 1921, Hibbarb, who became known as the “Painter of New England Winters”, and a small group of artists who were attracted by the beauty and hospitality of the town, founded the Rockport Art Association in his studio as an artist cooperative and social gathering place for artists and art lovers.
On July 12, 1929 the Rockport Art Association moved into its permanent home at The Old Tavern Building located on 12 Main Street. Built in 1787, the building was originally a sea captain’s house and over the years also saw use as an inn, a tavern and a stage coach stop. With a current membership of approximately 250 artist and photography members which are selected through a jury process and 800 contributing members, the Rockport Art Association is one of Cape Ann’s most prominent cultural beacons as one of the oldest and most active art organizations in the country with a long and distinguished history that has spanned over 90 years. For information on the RAA’s hours of operation and a schedule of upcoming exhibits which are always free to the public, be sure to check their website where they also have a calendar listing upcoming demonstrations.
Just down Main Street a short walk from the Rockport Art Association is Bearskin Neck, a small neck of land that juts out of the town center into Rockport Harbor. Though there’s a historical marker that was erected in 1930 with one story, there are several legends as to how the Neck got its name. The first is that the small peninsula is so-named for menacing bears that early settlers routed onto the neck and hunted while a second says it is so named because a bear reportedly got caught in the tide during a storm and washed up on the rocks; after John Babson found the bear, skinned it and laid its skin out to dry on the rocks at the end of the neck, fishermen who saw it gave the area its name. Still another has it that in Revolutionary days one Henry Witham, then quite an old man, was attacked by a bear upon this shore. Having no gun, he stepped into the water and gave battle to the bear with his knife, killing him and spreading his skin to dry upon the rocks. No matter which story is correct, though, Bearskin Neck is definitely the epi-center of the downtown area and as a major attraction for tourists not to be missed!
Once a very busy commercial dock area during Rockport’s early heyday of fishing and the granite industries, the tip of Bearskin Neck actually housed a fort during the War of 1812 which was built with the cost being borne by public subscription as protection against attack by English privateers. The fort was manned by the Sea Fencibles who were members of the Sandy Bay Militia, a locally-sponsored home guard for coastal defense established during the War of 1812. Built of stone, the fort was of a formidable appearance and was mounted with several cannon looking to all the world like a government fort to British ships passing by which apparently made it just too tempting of a target to pass up.
The old stone fort is no longer there; instead in its place stands a nice piece of rental property which was originally a historic transit tower that was erected in 1892. The building is adorned with several signs to commemorate the fort that stood there while down at the beginning of Bearskin Neck is a building that was constructed in 1804 and was the barracks of the Sea Fencibles in 1812.
After midnight on September 9th, 1814, the HMS Frigate Nymphe landed a party of twenty men in barges nearby the fort taking the nine Sea Fencibles inside as prisoners then spiking the cannon while the watchman slept. During the encounter one of the barges fired at a sloop’s mast which alerted the citizenry of the town to the attack as the church bell in the 1803 First Congregational Church rang out an alarm. The barge fired another shot which lodged in one of the steeple posts but the discharge from the shot opened a seam in the bow of the barge and it began to sink. When the crew was forced to pull ashore, thirteen of them were taken prisoner by the townsmen who hurled rocks at them using their stockings as slings. To this day the church belfry is frequently called “Old Sloop” and “Tell-Tale” by the locals familiar with the story of the failed attack. If you look closely, you can still see the small cannonball embedded in the church’s steeple.
Inscription reads: “This British carronade was captured during the repulse at Sandy Bay of a landing party from His Majesty’s frigate Nymphe in the early morning of September 9, 1814”
Today the Neck is known for its artists who set up their quaint little shops in the fishermen’s shacks of the past mixed in with a number of specialty shops and restaurants that line its narrow roads. Visitors who continue out past the shops to the rocky end of the Bearskin Neck jetty are afforded a fine view of both Sandy Bay and the Town of Rockport as well as a great view of the rear of Motif #1 from behind the Rockport Fudgery where you can watch Fudgemasters practice their candy-making craft as they pour fresh cream, milk and pure cane sugar into giant steam kettles. Once the proper temperature is attained, the batch is poured into large copper kettles to begin the cooling process then Fudgemasters hand-whip the mixture with wooden paddles to achieve a smooth and creamy texture adding nuts, flavorings and mix-ins. When the mixture suddenly changes color and consistency, the extra creamy fudge is poured into fudge pans to cool on the Fudgery’s marble tables to await selection. If fudge isn’t your thing – though it may very well be once you get a taste of it! – you can step into the back area of the shop to purchase a handmade chocolate turtle or an elephant ear pastry which is not inappropriately named at all as they’re huge!
As for the history of Motif #1, a favorite subject of painters and photographers alike due to the composition and lighting of its location as well as being a symbol of New England maritime life, the original dark red fishing shack was built in 1884 and had to be rebuilt several times due to the ravages of weather along the coast. In the 1930s, painter John Buckley used the shack as his studio before selling it to the town in 1945 which dedicated it “… as a monument to Rockporters who had served in the Armed Services.” During the Blizzard of ’78 the shack was destroyed when it was knocked into the harbor but the town wasted no time and built an exact replica that same year. Sticklers for detail call the fishing shack Motif #2 as the original building was destroyed but most everyone else still calls it Motif #1.
No longer in service as a fishing shack, the building has been retained by the town as one of the most recognized symbols of New England. Recognizing its iconic value, the Town of Rockport has taken pains to preserve both its structure and appearance including finding a red paint which appears weather-beaten even when new and keeping the area clear of overhead wires, traffic signs and advertising. The old fishing shack, which has been used to market Rockport for a century including on a big sign leading into town that is displayed at the beginning of this post, was featured on the Massachusetts stamp in 2002 as part of the “Greetings from America” postage stamp set and also had a starring role in Sandra Bullock’s hit movie, “The Proposal” in which it was decorated with a sign touting the film’s setting of Sitka, Alaska.
According to a story in John Cooley’s “Rockport Sketch Book”, the building received its name in an impulsive exclamation by Lester Hornby, an illustrator and etcher who lived in Rockport with his wife until his death in 1956. According to Cooley, Hornby, who taught in Paris in the winter and during the summers in Rockport, named the venerable old fishing shack in the following manner:
“He (Lester Hornby) had taught in Paris, where his student’s assignments included drawing standard subjects, or motifs. At his Rockport School he used the same method, with the result that many pupils, walking out of their classroom, saw the ancient fish house and drew it. One day Hornby, confronted with a new likeness of his architectural neighbor, knew that he couldn’t face another. “No, no, no!” he exclaimed. “Not Motif No. 1 again!” It’s been that ever since.”
As you can see, everyone – likes to have their picture taken with Motif No. 1 – even if it’s not the Motif No. 1!
Speaking of any traveller liking to have his picture taken, he did just that when we came across this cannon from the USS Constitution that was presented to the Sandy Bay Historical Society by the family of Rockport’s first settler, Richard Tarr.
The cannon, which saw action on board the USS Constitution during the War of 1812, was originally placed on the T-Wharf overlooking Rockport Harbor but now resides on the grounds of the Rockport Community House at 58 Broadway.
Best Things to Do in Rockport Massachusetts 2018-2019
Rambling Through Rockport Where You’ll Find History, Candy, Clam Chowdah, and Music But No Bars! Get here a list of best things to do in Rockport Massachusetts, USA 2018-2019.
So now that you’ve learned about the history of Rockport and been introduced to Bearskin Neck, Motif #1, the Rockport Art Association, and a few other places around town, it’s time to fill you in on a few other things you might want to see or do while you’re visiting one of the quaintest towns in New England. However, one more interesting piece of history that you might want to know before you go to Rockport, especially if you’re the sort of person who likes to order a drink or two with your meal or hang out at one of the local bars to get a feel for the flavor of a town, is that Rockport 1) has some pretty strict rules when it comes to alcohol consumption in restaurants and 2) doesn’t have any bars.
Well, the ‘why’ is actually pretty simple … and it starts with a ‘way’ … as in way back in 1814 the State of Massachusetts formed the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance (later called the Massachusetts Temperance Society) following the initiation of a temperance movement in the United States in the late 18th-century. Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) is often credited with starting the movement when he wrote that “A people corrupted with strong drink cannot long be a free people,” in An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors on the Human Body and the Mind which was published in Boston in 1790. Using a “Moral Thermometer”, a visual depiction of the horrors that awaited drunkards that placed both moderate drinkers and abstainers on the moral high ground, Dr. Rush made his point illustrating how “cider, wine or porter” could result in “cheerfulness, strength and nourishment, when taken only at meals, and in moderate quantities,” while hard liquor would lead to various “vices and diseases.” Dr. Rush hoped to start a temperance movement so that by the 20th century ” a drunkard…will be as infamous in society as a liar or a thief, and the use of spirits as uncommon in families as a drink made of a solution of arsenic or a decoction of hemlock.”
Taking the words of Dr. Rush to heart, various and assorted temperance societies popped up around the country (New York lays claim to the first) whose members were – not surprisingly – mostly women and doctors. Associating the devil and other demon figures with alcohol as one way to scare people away from liquor (which came to be known as “demon rum,” “the devil’s blood,” and even “the dark beverage of Hell”), society members collected pledges, held meetings, published books of songs, wrote novels depicting the evils of alcohol, and lobbied legislators to pass laws that would slow down or make illegal the consumption of hard spirits.
On March 11, 1847, a temperance society was founded in Rockport and named the Bay Tent of Rechabites (a name that was used by Christian groups keen to promote total abstinence from alcohol) which incorporated over 100 abstainers into promoting temperance in Rockport. Alarmed by the news reports which said that in the United States more than four and half million dollars was frittered away on wines and liquors, the society felt that it was time to take action in Rockport as the men in the town were contributing mightily to that frittering away. Each fisherman who brought home $157 at the end of nine months was spending most of it on rum leaving barely enough for their families to get by on and something needed to be done. Even though the town attempted to curb alcohol consumption by appointing a “Smellin’ Committee” in 1856 – four agents who were empowered to enforce the statutes set by the town fathers – the statutes were openly defied and the use of alcohol rose by an astounding 250%.
Deciding that enough was enough, following the town’s annual Fourth of July celebration in which drunkenness was the order of the day, at 9:00 a.m. on the morning of July 8, 1856, Hannah Jumper – a 75-year old spinster and primary organizer of Rockport’s temperance group – helped lead the members of the Bay Tent of Rechabites to Dock Square in the center of town where they then begin going to previously marked locations where liquor was being, or had been, sold legally and illegally and methodically destroying the town’s liquor supplies. Armed with hatchets, hammers, and tomahawks, “Hannah and the gang” raided thirteen establishments during their five-hour assault which ended at 2:00 p.m. At the conclusion of the raid, the gang left hatchet marks on fifty barrels and destroyed $700 worth of liquor leaving Rockport, according to Eleanor C. Parsons in her 1975 book Hannah and the Hatchet Gang; Rockport’s Revolt against Rum, “as a mammoth punch bowl with which the smell of rum drifted for two miles across the bay” along with the men scarcely believing what they had just witnessed and wondering what to expect next.
Following the raid, over the next decade alcohol sales in Rockport steadily declined as it became one of several dozen Massachusetts towns to be designated as a ‘dry town’ where one could not buy liquor. During every single general election residents of Rockport voted on the issue of the sale of liquor in their community and voted against it. It wasn’t until 2005 that a referendum on the sale of alcohol was approved and the liquor laws changed so that folks could have their favorite drinks and libations when accompanied by a meal/entree but the laws were pretty restrictive allowing inns, hotels, and restaurants to serve alcohol only with meals. In June of 2011, the Board of Selectmen liberalized the town’s alcohol-consumption rules permitting the ordering of drinks with simple appetizers as well as buying beverages without food while waiting for a table if a reservation has been made with restaurant managers. Restricted to having to order a full meal when the law was first approved in 2005, the letter of the law was changed to read as …
“The term meal shall include hors d’oeuvres, appetizers, desserts, sandwiches, soups, salads, entrees and prepared foods but shall exclude chips, nuts, pretzels, popcorn and other snack food…”
Additionally the hours of sales and service were extended to 11:30 p.m., with the removal of beverages taking place at midnight from the previous end of service at 10:30 and removal at 11 p.m. Oh, and if you want to take that partially-consumed bottle of wine with you that you bought with your meal but didn’t quite finish, the new regulations, which follow state guidelines, permit diners to leave with a partially consumed bottle of wine that has been purchased with a meal stating, “The bottle that is removed must be placed in a one-time use, tamper-proof transparent bag with the meal receipt attached to the sealed bag.” In other words, you can get a doggy bag for your wine!
You are certainly more than welcome to “BYOB” when visiting Rockport but bear in mind that there are no liquor stores or established bars in Rockport so if you want to pick up a bottle or sit at a bar and chat with the locals, you’ll have to go “next door” to Gloucester where there are pubs and bars and package stores for your convenience. Just consider the alcohol laws to be part of Rockport’s quaintness as the ghost of Hannah Jumper keeps watch over things and you’ll be just fine!
Now then, just because you can’t find a package store or pub in Rockport doesn’t mean that you can’t find a lot of other good places to go including one that’s been located at 7 Dock Square (backing up close enough to Rockport’s Inner Harbor and Motif #1 that any traveller can pose for a blurry background picture!) since 1929.
After apprenticing under some of the finest candy makers in the area, Walter F. Tuck opened Tuck’s Candy Factory in Rockport and began making and selling his own homemade candies over 80 years ago. Using only the freshest and finest ingredients, Walter’s candies were of such superior quality that they soon found immediate favor with both locals and tourists alike. Following in his father’s footsteps, as soon as Walter’s son Bob could reach the height of the tables, he helped his dad in the candy factory – even standing on a box to dip the Mints! – and it wasn’t long before Bob’s son Dan continued the family tradition and became Tuck’s third generation candy-maker ensuring that their line of homemade candies would continue for many years to come. To this day, the same formulas and many pieces of the original equipment are still being used to make salt water taffy, fudge, Swiss chocolates, peanut butter cups, buttercrunch and much more which continue to increase in popularity year by year, especially now that they can also be ordered online.
A trip home from Rockport simply wouldn’t be complete if you didn’t bring back a box of Tuck’s historically delicious salt water taffy which you can watch being made right there in the shop by Dan so you know it’s good and fresh!
If you’d rather pick out your own flavors of taffy – by the by, Peanut Butter is their most popular flavor if you’re stumped as to what kind to choose – rather than grab a pre-filled box from the shelf you can figure out what’s what with a card that identifies the flavor of the taffy by the color of its wrapper then fill your own box or bag with what is most definitely some of the finest salt water taffy I’ve ever sunk my teeth into!
If by any chance you’re visiting Rockport during the holidays, be sure to stop in to Tuck’s Candies and watch free demonstrations of candy canes, ribbon candy, and satin sticks being made every Saturday between Thanksgiving and Christmas from 10 am to 4 pm and then bring home some sweets to stuff stockings with or simply just enjoy for the holidays yourself! You might also want to keep in mind that during the high tourist season, the lines at Tuck’s can get rather long so you might have to patiently wait your turn to get into the store but it’s more than worth it!
Once you’ve had a chance to check things out at Tuck’s and watch candy being made the old-fashioned way right before your very eyes, be sure to take the time to walk around T-Wharf where you can see boats anchored in the inner harbor, Motif #1 (of course!), stop in at the Rockport Harbormaster’s Office where you can find tourist information, and maybe even grab something to eat at Ellen’s Harborside – home of the best chowdah in Rockport as voted by the masses!
Ellen first started out in the feeding the masses business back in 1954 when she opened Ellen’s Coffee Shop on Mount Pleasant Street; in 1967 she was joined in business by her son, James. In 1975 they moved to their current location on T Wharf and changed the name to Ellen’s Harborside as that’s exactly where it is! Since then three generations of family – Ellen, her husband Charles, their son James, his wife Jean, and their three children – have served up great New England fare during the summer seasons only. “The Best Clam Chowder on Cape Ann” is reasonably priced at $3.99 for a cup or $5.99 a bowl and a Lobster Roll is only $17.99 – probably about one of the best price you’re going to get! For over 58 years they’ve obviously being doing something right at Ellen’s so if it’s good food and non-pretentiousness that you seek then look no further than Ellen’s which comes complete with some fantastic views of the harbor!
That said, there are lots of terrific restaurants and shops in the downtown area which is a great place to take a walk! As a matter of fact, you’re better off walking as parking can be pretty scarce during the high season so if you drove to Rockport and do find a spot, park the car and leave it there as you walk around Dock Square, Town Wharf, and Baptist Square which is also known as the Town Common.
As a quick aside when it comes to parking in Rockport, if you’re going to be there during the high season, chances are really good you are not going to find a place to park in the downtown area so you might want to consider parking in the secure Blue Gate Meadow Lot off of Route 127 just outside of town where you can park your car for free and for just $1.00 per person each way -exact change only! – hop on board the Cape Ann Transportation Authority shuttle bus. The colorful trolleys make the approximately one-mile trip to downtown just about every 25 minutes while saving you the parking headache that unfortunately downtown Rockport can be – including remembering to feed the meter!
Shuttle buses run from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Motif #1 Day and Memorial Day weekend in May, Saturdays & Sundays in June, daily in July & August, Saturdays & Sundays as well as Labor Day in September, and for the Rockport Harvest Festival in October. Schedules are available around town or by calling 978-283-7916; for additional information on all of the CATA’s bus routes, be sure to check out their website.
Meanwhile – back at Baptist Square … For years this area where the World War I and II Monument stands in front of the 1822 Baptist Church was considered to be the winter storage area for fishing craft, an occasional shipbuilding yard, and a dumping place for decrepit wagons and what not. In 1856, the same year that Hannah Jumper and her gang washed the streets down with rum, the town decided to reform the Common and fenced it in. The Common really didn’t become a park though until one of Rockport’s native sons, George W. Harvey, took it upon himself to clean up the area, make improvements, and turn it into a place where people would want to spend time.
George W. Harvey was born in Rockport in 1885 and became a largely self-taught artist known for his landscapes of the Cape Ann area. He studied in Philadelphia and Holland and thus was influenced by the Hague School of painters who generally made use of relatively somber colors, which is why the Hague School is sometimes called the Gray School.
Setting his artistic eye upon the Rockport Common, Mr. Harvey purchased the land, tore down a factory building which adjoined the church, built the parish house, completely remodeled the church, and laid out the shrubbery and lawn vastly improving the area and turning what was most likely an eyesore into a beautiful spot to sit and enjoy the sunshine on a warm spring day. In return, the good folks of Rockport named the park in his honor and placed a plaque on a rock in the middle of the Common.
Across from the Common is a spot to pick up some Visitor Information should you be in need of some guidance and didn’t pop into the Harbormaster’s Office!
Walking back up Main Street towards the Rockport Art Association, you’ll find the 1880 Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall which was later referred to as the Veterans Memorial Hall seeing use as such through the 1920s. For those not familiar with the Grand Army of the Republic, it was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army, US Navy, US Marines and US Revenue Cutter Service who served in the American Civil War which was founded in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, and dissolved in 1956 when its last member died. There were chapters all over the country and this is where Rockport’s Chapter met.
Next to the GAR Memorial Hall is another Tuck’s Candy store but at this one they don’t make the candy they sell (it comes from down the street) and they also have a gift shop area which takes up a lot more of the store. It’s a great place to pick up that box of salt water taffy you might have neglected to buy at the Tuck’s on Dock Square though!
Just a little further down the road and across from the First Congregational Church is the former 1911 Haskins Mercantile Building now known as the Shalin Liu Performance Center – the current home of Rockport Music which has been committed to one enduring purpose since its formation in 1981: enriching lives through great music.
Stunningly beautiful and fitting in perfectly with the historic look of the rest of the village, the Shalin Liu Performance Center was rebuilt from the inside out providing a stunning setting for the annual Rockport Chamber Musical Festival, Rockport Music’s signature presentation, which includes over 20 concerts as well as pre-concert lectures, open rehearsals, and free events for families. With its 18-foot high by 25-foot wide wall of windows that forms the back of the stage overlooking the ocean and acoustics that are unsurpassed, the building is a visual and audio feast for those attending concerts there. Opened in June of 2010, the magnificent building has become an important cultural resource for the greater Boston community as it attracts well-known performers, audiences, and visitors to Cape Ann and Rockport.
If you’re not able to catch a concert, you can still take a tour of the building on Saturdays starting in mid-June and continuing through mid-October when docents conduct free tours every 15 minutes from 12:30-2:00 as rehearsal schedules allow. On Tuesday/Fridays, also starting in mid-June and through at least Labor Day, only the performance hall is open for viewing and photographs while docents are on hand to answer questions and provide information and brochures to visitors. Dates, as always, are subject to change – contact the Shalin Liu Performance Center at 978-546-7391 for the latest tour times and availability.
Continuing past the Shalin Liu on Main Street and past more shops that have been in business in Rockport for years and years, you’ll find a fork in the road that if you take to the right will bring you to Beach Street and the location of the Old First Parish Burying Ground.
Across from the burying grounds is Front Beach and the stone gazebo that is a big point of reference in Rockport as well as a favorite art subject of both painters and photographers alike.
If you continue down Beach Street just a little bit you’ll come to Back Beach where you can get a great view of Rockport’s skyline including the picturesque First Congregational Chuch as well as the back of the Shalin Liu Performance Center. Both beaches are a very easy walk from downtown and there are restaurants nearby.
Back Beach faces to the east and from there you can just make out the Straitsmouth Island Lighthouse which is more easily visible from the tip of Bearskin Neck or by boat cruise. In 1835, a 19-foot high brick lighthouse and brick Keeper’s house were constructed to guide mariners of the fishing and granite industries into Rockport Harbor during a time when an estimated seventy thousand vessels passed Cape Ann annually. During the 1850s, the oil lamps which displayed a fixed white light were refitted with a Sixth-order Fresnel lens and in 1878, a new 1-1/2 story Keeper’s house was built before the present 37-foot high brick tower replaced the original deteriorating tower in 1896. In 1967, the lighthouse was automated and the Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern optic which is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.. During that same year, on December 5, 1967, the island and the Keeper’s House were donated to the Massachusetts Audubon Society as part of the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary for bird and wildlife by Frederick Gibbs who bought the island as private property in 1941.
Though it may seem like any traveller and I have touched on a lot of the historic and interesting places that you can visit in the seaside village of Rockport, we really only scratched the surface as there is so much more there to see and do including the two house museums owned by the Sandy Bay Historical Society: the 1832 Sewall-Scripture House located at 40 King Street (a short walk from Front Beach) which is pictured below and the 1711 Old Castle located on Castle Lane in Pigeon Cove which is just a bit over a mile from the Sewall-Scripture House. Both houses are open to the public but be sure to check the Sandy Bay Historical Society’s website for hours, admission fees, and directions as they do change!
Even though Rockport is a relatively short drive from the Hawthorne Hotel, if you’d like to skip potential traffic and parking problems should you be visiting during the high tourist season (pretty much anytime between Memorial Day and Labor Day), consider leaving your car behind and taking the MBTA Commuter Rail train from Salem Station which is an easy walk from the hotel. The Newburyport/Rockport Line will whisk you to Rockport’s station located at 1 Whistlestop Mall where you’ll find the Rockport Chamber of Commerce Information Office at the station and the center of town only 10 minutes’ walk away.
For more information to help you plan your trip to the quaintest seaside village on Cape Ann that comes complete with lots of interesting history – but no package stores or bars! – check out the Rockport Chamber of Commerce’s website for information on upcoming festivals and events as well as what’s new in town.
Think you’ve seen all that the Rockport has to offer? Not by a long shot, there’s more to come soon as I will check out a few more places in the area that you’ll want to add to your list of places to see! So, this was all about best things to do in Rockport, MA 2018-2019.
How to Reach Rockport, MA, USA: