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A Brief History of Cohasset

Oliver H. Howe

From Savor of Salt, edited by Jacqueline M. Dormitzer (Town of Cohasset, Mass., 2006), pp. 1-7.

Oliver H. Howe (1860-1948) was a physician and local historian. Born in Dedham, he earned his medical degree at Harvard and began his practice in Cohasset in 1887. He was a member of the first Committee on Town History, which published Bigelow’s Narrative History of Cohasset in 1898, and a trustee of the Cohasset Free Public Library. Howe wrote this overview of Cohasset history in 1941, at the age of 81.

Every town has a certain individuality owing to its site, its occupations, and the traditions of its people . . .

Cohasset was originally a part of Hingham, which was settled and incorporated in 1635. The area of Cohasset was common land in the early years; but the salt marshes, being clear of forest and with hay ready to be cut, were of particular value and began to be divided as early as 1647.

In 1670 it was desired to divide all the land which is now Cohasset among the Hingham proprietors. Lieutenant Joshua Fisher, a noted surveyor of Dedham, was engaged for the purpose. Previous to this, travel was probably along the shore and by Indian trails. Fisher laid out a road system; each road straight with intersections at right angles. The whole tract was divided into 700 shares; individuals were granted shares in number corresponding to their prominence and rank. Lots were generally a mile long and varied in width according to the number of shares the individual had. All boundaries were straight and usually parallel to the intersecting roads. The narrower lots were only two or three rods wide. Each lot from its length contained salt marsh, hillside, forest, and swamp; like corned beef, “a streak of fat and a streak of lean.” Four divisions were made and every man had a lot in each division, so that every proprietor’s land was widely scattered. Some old stone walls in the woods stand on the original lines of this survey.

Fisher evidently had a strong agricultural motive in mind, for he laid out the main street [King Street], twice as wide as any of the others, a mile from the harbor. Cohasset is a town of rugged rocks and it is evident that Nature did not intend it for agricultural territory. This does not imply a lack of fertility in the soil, but is mainly due to its rocky character and the fact that the ledges do not allow for large fields. On the other hand, the rocks increase the romantic beauty of the town and also of many gardens.

The early Cohasset deeds contained the phrase: So many “acres, more or less, of land and rocks.” In recent times, however, the rocks have become more valuable than the land, as they form picturesque sites for summer cottages.

The transition from farming to the more profitable fishing industry was emphasized by a sudden occurrence. When Hingham reluctantly granted the privilege of a separate meetinghouse for Cohasset, the farmers living on Lieutenant Fisher’s main street, a mile from the shore and now known as King Street, said: “If we are going to have a meetinghouse, the place to put it is up here on the hill.” So they prepared the timbers and spread them on the ground, ready for framing; but some active men from the harbor came in the night, took the timbers, and by morning had the church all framed together on the lower level of the Town Common.

There it stands today (a newer and larger building, however), and their bold adventure proved to be manifest destiny, for Cohasset’s chief activity has been its fishing industry.

Up to 1840, cod fishing was the main business and was carried on in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Since then, the mackerel fisheries were more attractive, with the advantage of shorter voyages. At one time sixty Cohasset vessels were engaged in this trade, and in the 1840s, ‘50s, and ‘60s [Cohasset] was one of the leading fishing ports of Massachusetts.

Boys looked eagerly toward the far horizon and began a life on the sea in early years. One of them later testified that he went to sea at the age of six years! Many of them became captains at the age of twenty-one years or younger.

In the spring the schools of mackerel made a regular progress up the coast. They were first found as far south as Cape May and during the season had to be followed north as far as the coast of Maine. The early fishing was by hand lines from the decks of vessels, each man using two lines. Later, seining was used, the seine being carried by a small boat around the school, and the bottom of the seine was closed by a “purse line.” This was a more rapid method of fishing but required more equipment and a good deal of skill. Cohasset wharves, now deserted, were in the first period covered with flakes for drying codfish and later with men and boys salting down the mackerel in barrels.

Many of the vessels were built of timber grown in Cohasset forests and launched into our harbor. Sailmaking, blacksmithing, coopering, and other accessory trades were busily carried on, and salt for the fish was provided by several extensive plants in which sea water was evaporated. Stores for outfitting vessels for new voyages occupied several large buildings. The experiences of fishing voyages produced a race of deep-sea captains sailing for foreign ports and around the world.

These are now favorite waters for yachting, and Cohasset has had an active yacht club since 1894. Captain Aubrey Crocker of Cohasset sailed the yacht Puritan in the 1885 races defending the America’s Cup. He also sailed the Navahoe against the Britannia from the Isle of Wight to Cherbourg in 1893, winning back the Brenton Reef Cup to American possession. Boat building and repair work has been well cared for in Cohasset, and although types of craft have shifted, the harbor still has a nautical atmosphere.

Land travel and transportation in the old days, on account of poor roads, was difficult, and packets took all the freight between Cohasset and Boston. No charge was made for passengers, but if the skipper needed help in managing sails, he was free to call on them.

The Cohasset Historical Society has the seat of the first four-wheeled wagon used in the town—a primitive affair supported by a buckboard.

The South Shore Railroad was opened in 1849 and ran two trains to Boston and two returning, changing at Braintree. Cohasset was the terminus.

Aside from the marine trades, Cohasset, unlike its parent town, Hingham, has not aspired to manufacturing. Nevertheless, Mordecai Lincoln, ancestor of Abraham Lincoln, had ironworks here in 1704. He smelted iron from bog iron ore and made hinges, andirons, and other domestic articles. He had three dams on the same stream and besides the ironworks had a sawmill and a gristmill.

Like Mexico, Cohasset has a gulf, and the entrance of this gulf furnished waterpower from the tides. In 1792 a notable mill was erected which ground all sorts of grain and rice and was in operation for seventy years until it was burned in 1862.

For many years wrecks were common upon the savage rocks off the Cohasset shore, and Cohasset men displayed great heroism in saving lives and vessels. The most important wreck was that of the emigrant ship St. John from Galway, Ireland, in 1849. The number of lives lost was ninety-nine and only twenty-two were saved. It is well described by Henry D. Thoreau in his book entitled Cape Cod. Every winter storm had its full toll of wrecks, and even in November 1888 there were fifteen vessels wrecked between Scituate and Boston. With the more general use of steam navigation, wrecks are much less frequent. In old times a northeast gale too often drove sailing craft upon our lee shore. The Massachusetts Humane Society, which established its first lifeboat in Cohasset, relied upon these same sturdy men. The United States Coast Guard, with permanent stations, crews, and more elaborate equipment, has superseded earlier methods of life saving, but the valor of the hardy Cohasset fishermen has not been surpassed.

The most disastrous storm within my recollection was that of November 1898, when the steamer Portland was lost. It was quite as damaging to shore structures and roads as to vessels. I went down to our harbor at high tide and found the roads flooded and boats traversing the streets. The water was up to the windowsills of a small store. The next morning I went down again, and the proprietor of the store was sweeping off his platform. I said: “Mr. Nichols, did the storm damage your goods very much?” “Not a bit.” I then told him how I found the water the day before and he said: “You know I have lived round here quite a while. I have been expecting this.” “Well,” I said, “we have not had such a storm for fifty years, have you been expecting it all that time?” “Well,” he said, “when I go home at night, I put the goods on the counter.” How is that for an example of prudence? Going inside the store, I saw the wet mark all around the wallpaper, and he showed me the old mark on the same wallpaper made by the water level in 1851, which was thirteen inches lower than that in 1898. A very accurate record and very durable wallpaper!

The building of Minot’s Lighthouse fulfilled a pressing need. The first lighthouse, a skeleton iron structure, was destroyed in the great gale of 1851. After several years of difficult planning, the new lighthouse was begun. The ledge on which it stands was under water at most stages of the tide, and work was only possible for very brief periods during the first year and those were often prevented by rough water. The uneven surface of the rock had to be cut into several levels and the first course of stone fitted into it with great nicety. The stones of later courses were all dovetailed together and the different courses secured with iron dowels. The tower is thirty feet in diameter at the base and 114 feet high. The first forty-four feet is solid, with the exception of a well three feet in diameter in the center, which contains enough drinking water for the keepers for six months. Minot’s was completed in 1860 and now shows distinctive flashes 1-4-3. The stone is Quincy granite, and it was cut and fitted on the Cohasset shore, at a place called Government Island. Two circular stone pavements are still to be seen upon which the different courses were set up and fitted before being taken to the ledge. In severe storms the lighthouse is at intervals enveloped in a column of spray rising to 150 feet, so that it entirely disappears from sight for a few seconds.

The keepers’ families live on Government Island, so called. Two men must always be on the light, and changes are made, “weather permitting,” every three weeks.

A large tract of 700 acres of unbroken forest known as the Whitney Woods is held by the Trustees of Public Reservations, who have maintained bridle paths, foot trails, and picnic privileges that are enjoyed by the public, and it is visited each year by several thousand people. The town has also Wheelwright Park, a forest area of eighty acres, and Sandy Beach is held by a board of trustees for bathing of Cohasset residents.

The central feature of Cohasset town life is the old Common, more than a quarter mile in length, well shaded by elms and with an attractive natural pond. Two old churches dating from 1747 and 1824, together with the town hall, form a nucleus of public buildings, and the dignified stone tower of St. Stephen’s Church commands it from the adjoining rocky hill. The surroundings of the Common consist of dwelling houses of the old type; six of them bear dates in the 1700s, and several were built by old sea captains. The aspect of the whole scene is one of quiet dignity and beauty unsurpassed in Massachusetts.

The first homes in Cohasset were those of the sons and daughters of the Hingham proprietors and were upon the lots that had been granted to their parents. The houses must have been very simple and primitive. The people were noted for industry and frugality. Whether supported by agriculture or by fishing, they lived only by hard work. The frugal type of mind persisted through later generations and is even now recognized.

Records of old-time frugality are shown by an old town report of 1849—almost a century ago. The total expenditures of the town in that year were $4,979.84. For schools, $1,261.50—Roads, $800. Wages for a man, yoke of oxen, and a cart, one day, were $1.50. For a man, horse, and plow for one and a half days, also $1.50. The combined offices of selectman, assessor, and overseer of the poor commanded a salary of $28 for each member.

There was no town hall, but the rent of Cohasset Academy for town meetings, high school, and town offices was $69.80 per year! The first fire engine (undoubtedly a “hand-tub”) cost $986.75, and the South Shore Railroad was paid one dollar for transporting it from Boston. Town frugality persisted long after this, for in 1887 the tax rate was $3.60—the lowest in Massachusetts . . .

As the fishing industry became absorbed by large centers like Gloucester and Boston, the romantic and beautiful scenery, the cool ocean breezes, and the quiet and restful life attracted many people to this shore. Jerusalem Road and other localities on the shore were sought by summer residents, and some such families have been here for several generations. Cohasset has never had any hotels of large size. Peter Kimball was the pioneer with his Pleasant Beach House in 1846. The old Black Rock House and several quiet and select boardinghouses followed. There have always been dining places where excellent seafood could be obtained, and the charm of Cohasset has led many people, who came here in a transient way, to build houses, join the summer colony, or make permanent homes. Active yacht and golf clubs add to the attraction. The appreciation of Nature has transformed the quaint and primitive fishing town into a scene of rare picturesque beauty, while the old-time flavor has been in a measure preserved, and Cohasset has been a delight to all who have been able to enjoy it.

From Oliver H. Howe, “A Brief Sketch of the History of Cohasset,” Cohasset Historical Society pamphlet, 1941.