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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, windy days.

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 sun.

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 them often.

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 Harbor.

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 Arthur cottage.

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 coming.

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 the beach.

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.

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