The Savor of Salt at Cohasset
Lucy E. Treat
From Savor of Salt, edited by Jacqueline M. Dormitzer (Town
of Cohasset, Mass., 2006), pp. 118-124.
The salary of the early Roman soldier was his regular allowance of
sal, or salt, later the actual money paid for the salt—hence the
expressions “to earn one’s salt,” “to be worth
one’s salt,” expressions that could be applied literally
to many men in the early days of salt making in Massachusetts.
The demand for salt was created by the fishing industry for the curing
and preservation of fish. In the seacoast towns of Massachusetts, men
of initiative and business acumen were quick to realize the profit that
would accrue to them from meeting this demand of the fishing fleets
that sailed from the harbors of these towns. No vessel started out in
the Bay for mackerel or to the Banks for cod without the necessary number
of hogsheads of salt.
The first experiment in the production of salt by the evaporation
of saltwater was made by an old man at Dennis, Massachusetts, with the
somewhat primitive plant of an iron kettle filled with saltwater and
a fireplace in which to heat it. This process . . . was soon discarded
as too lengthy and requiring too much fuel. A much better way was devised
of doing the work out of doors, depending for heat on the more powerful
energy of the sun’s rays. John Sears of Dennis is claimed to be
the originator of the process of evaporation of salt on an extensive
scale. Other towns on the Cape and along the South Shore were quick
to take up this industry.
One of the towns that engaged extensively in the production of salt
by evaporation was Cohasset. As one strolls about its pleasant beaches
today, one can with difficulty conceive of the extent of this industry
and the number of men engaged in work at the salt mills and vats along
those shores during the height of the industry. From Sandy Cove to Green
Hill [in Hull], the arms of many salt mills whirled busily on fresh,
At the entrance to Cohasset Harbor, just before one reaches the rocky
island of White Head, arises a lofty point known as Windmill Point,
because here was the site of one of Cohasset’s earliest pumping
mills, that of Captain Elijah Nickerson, who came from Truro to Cohasset
to engage in this industry. Since this work required skill and experience,
men from Cape Cod were in demand at the Cohasset works.
Captain Nickerson’s tall mill was built directly over the chasm
that extends a third of the way across the point. At high tide the water
in this chasm is five to seven feet deep, which made an excellent situation
for the pump, whose shaft was built directly down through the floor
of the mill to the water. When a stiff breeze turned the arms merrily,
the water was pumped up and through a string of pump logs that served
as conductors from the beach. The pump logs on the beach were elevated
above the ground, supported on trestles running across a small inlet
on the western side of the point, then out through a short stretch of
woodland and out to the adjacent beach, known later as the Cary Beach.
A long line of wooden boxes, or vats, about twenty by thirty feet with
a depth of two feet, extended back from the shore to a salt meadow.
They were arranged like a flight of stairs, the highest vat nearest
the shore corresponding to the upper stair.
In the first one of these vats, the saltwater was allowed to stand
eight or ten days, until the salt flavor became very pronounced. This
water was then drained through the several vats. After remaining in
the last vat of the series—the salt vat—six or eight inches
of salt were usually precipitated here. These vats had long, removable
roofs that ran on rollers and were formed in short sections. This enabled
the keeper to run them off to the ground by day, close them at night
or in case of rain or dampness, and then reopen them to the daylight
The keeper of a string of salt vats was a busy man. It was his task
to furl and unfurl the canvas sails on the arms of the mill, set the
pumps going at high tide, and in case of showers or fog to close the
roof of the vat. It was also his duty to shovel the salt from the vats
and wheel it by barrows to the salt house, located nearby. When an order
came for fifteen or twenty hogsheads of salt, the hogsheads had to be
filled and the oxcart loaded to capacity under the keeper’s supervision,
and the load carted to the harbor.
Sometimes the keepers had a few idle minutes when they would gather
together in groups for sociability. Captain Nickerson had a small fish
shanty in which he kept some fishing gear and chatted with his friends
from the village and the keepers from other mills. Here they exchanged
gossip on the arrival and departure of vessels or changes in the price
and methods of production of salt, and occasionally drank a glass of
bumpus. These salt mills were so interesting that many townspeople visited
The first of the summer was an especially busy period for the keepers.
It was often calm during the day, and therefore when a night breeze
sprang up, it had to be taken advantage of. At night the sound of the
plungers could be distinctly heard. If there were signs of a heavy squall,
the sails had to be quickly furled, or risk being blown away.
Connected with the salt works were small shanties, which were necessary
for the storing of tools and gear used about the mills, such as wrenches,
wheelbarrows, and various tools for repair work. In winter the vats
were covered, the sails furled and stored away in these shanties.
Windmill Point, the location of the Nickerson mills, and the adjacent
property of White Head up through the woods to the homestead on Elm
Street were owned by Captain Nickerson’s father-in-law, Captain
John Lewis. A few years after the former’s death, the works at
the beach were discontinued, and Mrs. Nickerson became the wife of Parson
Flint, one of the early Unitarian ministers.
The most important and largest number of salt works in Cohasset were
at Sandy Cove. Beginning on the south side of the cove, three long rows
of salt works extended north along the beach, which were owned by Elisha
Doane, a man of industrial prominence in early Cohasset. He was the
owner of one of the wharves at the harbor, maintained a large fleet
of fishing vessels, and was one of the originators and owners of the
tide mill at the entrance to the Gulf River, which flows into Cohasset
Mr. Doane’s pump logs, unlike those on Windmill Point, were
bedded in the sand and ran about twelve hundred feet northeast from
the head of the beach to the extreme low-water mark. The vats ran nearly
parallel to each other, the first row extending from the beach to the
foot of Treat’s Pond, so called. The second row ran from the head
of the beach to what is now Atlantic Avenue, and the third row followed
the beach northward, ending close to the works of Captain Levi Tower.
These latter works were later purchased by Captain William Kilburn.
Still farther north were the works owned by John J. Lothrop, whose salt
vats extended two-thirds of the way to his residence.
There were [six] pumping mills at Sandy Cove, three owned by the Doanes,
two by Captain Kilburn, and one by Mr. Lothrop. These mills were located
as follows: one at a short distance from the place where the Treat brothers
later built their boat shop, another in front of the present Fox cottage,
and the third in front of the present Fay residence. Of Captain Kilburn’s
two mills, one stood on the rock in back of Mr. Reed’s summer
house and the other, a double-decker, was located in front of the present
The mills were open, four-sided structures, framed of heavy timbers,
and stood about twenty feet high. Captain Kilburn’s mills, however,
were boarded in. A ladder on each side led to the upper deck to enable
the keeper to go up on the side opposite to the one where the arms were
turning, when he had to attend to his duties at the head of the mill.
A long, vertical shaft led down through the floor of the mill to the
pump, which was located in the lowest section of the mill.
One of the mills had an outrigger, so called, attached to the wheel
shaft. On the end of this was a pump rod. This boom, moving swiftly
up and down, became for the owner’s twelve-year-old daughter a
winged steed. In addition to the thrill of such a hazardous ride was
the hovering fear of being caught by her father, who, realizing the
danger involved, had forbidden these rides. For a time the young lady
in question evaded detection by nimbly jumping ashore and hiding at
her father’s approach. One unlucky day, however, he outwitted
her by taking a roundabout route to the mill and suddenly appeared on
the rock above her. There was nothing for the girl to do but surrender
and retreat homeward to await proper punishment, which was forthwith
Since the salt from the vats was drawn in oxcarts to the wharves at
the harbor, many rough roads led from the shore to the village. In the
center of Sandy Cove, between the first two rows of salt vats, a lane
or road extended to the house, built in . . . [line missing] the keeper’s
house was sold to Mr. Rufus Fish, who later sold it to Dr. Charles Jackson,
one of the earliest summer residents of Cohasset.
Mr. Lothrop’s residence was one of the first built at Sandy
Cove, by William Bailey, the grandfather of Mr. Lothrop’s wife.
Mr. Alfred Whittington, who passed his boyhood days on this estate,
was prominently identified with the fishing industry [and] owned a wharf
at the harbor and a large fleet of vessels. Mr. Lothrop also had a string
of salt works on his front beach, now called the Richardson Beach. Some
of the early keepers of the salt works at Sandy Cove were Isaac Lambert,
Thomas Tower, and Aquila Treat. The latter came from Truro to take charge
of the salt works here and remained in this capacity for many years.
At Beach Island and at Sandy Cove, Captain Nichols Tower ran two strings
of salt works. On Beach Island head, east of the lagoon known as Island
Mill Cove, stood one of Captain Tower’s mills. His salt vats extended
west nearly to Atlantic Avenue over the land of the present driveway
to the McElwain residence. Captain Tower also had a large string of
salt works that extended from the ocean back to the waters of Little
Harbor. A small story-and-a-half house for the keeper of these works
also stood here on the edge of Little Harbor, in back of the beach.
There is an erroneous belief that the two rows of [posts] that can be
seen today running down Sandy Beach to the water’s edge are remains
of the salt works. This is not so. They are simply the remains of a
sluice or box drain that led from Little Harbor down to the beach. North
of Kimball’s Point were the salt works of Captain Isaiah Baker,
who then owned this headland. These followed the crown of the beach
nearly to the center, and the salt house stood on the south edge of
On Pleasant Beach, extensive works that extended nearly the length
of the beach were owned by the Doanes. Two or three small houses that
belonged to these salt works remained from a number of years after the
mills were gone. A picturesque wreck lay for many years on this beach,
on the site of the old mills. A coasting schooner named the Sassanoa,
built at Phippsburg, Maine, in 1871, brought lumber several times from
the Maine coast to Cohasset. During a great gale in November 1888, this
schooner broke adrift from her moorings in Gloucester Harbor and was
driven across the bay to Cohasset, her old port of call. With both masts
and rudder gone, she lay on the sands until destroyed by a fire set
by a crowd of young vandals.
Opposite the Luce boathouse on Pleasant Beach, a timeworn structure,
the old Franklin house, built almost entirely of salvaged wood from
the salt works, stood for many years, a summer boardinghouse and a favorite
resort of gunners in the fall. From Pleasant Beach one had to go to
Green Hill to reach the next string of salt works, situated on the narrow
strip of meadow and beach in back of the hill . . .
[Line missing—probably regarding the use of salt works lumber
for building projects.] Mr. Lothrop, owner of works at Sandy Cove, put
his lumber into a square, substantial dwelling at the corner of Summer
and Main Streets, still standing. Mr. Thomas Bates, who bought the Kilburn
property at Sandy Cove, built a large barn on his property on North
Main Street. Two buildings of a very unpretentious type, built at Sandy
Cove, were Uncle Stephen’s woodshed, still standing, and the one-room
shanty of the hermit of Sandy Cove. In the latter, the odor of the salt
in the boards mingled pleasantly with the scent of tobacco from the
strong pipes of Uncle Henry and his comrades. The salt works lumber
is easily recognized by the silvery coating that covers the boards,
even at this late date.
With the removal of the duty on salt, the industry died out at Cohasset.
Also the great storm of 1851, in which Minot’s Lighthouse was
swept away, destroyed many of the salt works, and they were never rebuilt.
The roar of the same old ocean is heard on Cohasset’s rocky shore,
but the throb of the pump mill has long been silent.
From Lucy E. Treat, “The Savor of Salt at Cohasset,”
Cohasset Cottager, July 24, 1936.