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A Brief History of Little Harbor

Robert Fraser

From Savor of Salt, edited by Jacqueline M. Dormitzer (Cohasset, Mass., 2006), pp. 61-63.

A few miles west of [Cohasset] Harbor is Little Harbor. It is so called [because] it originally was a tenth of its present size.

Between about 1685 and 1732, Daniel Lincoln had a large farm on [what is now] Sohier Street near Ripley Road. He took his excess produce by boat to sell in Boston. His wharf was in Little Harbor near the Common.

In the spring of 1728 [a group of landowners] proposed to build a stone dam at its natural outlet [to the sea]. This would allow Little Harbor to be used as pastureland without fear of flooding . . . The dam was finally built in 1765. It was called Cuba Dam, believed [to be named] in honor of [England’s] victorious capture of Havana from Spain in 1762. The dam held out not only the [sea] but also water [that washed] over the nearby beach in storms, rains, and melting snow.

Around 1800 a deep ditch was dug the whole length of Little Harbor and a wood sluiceway was built across Sandy Beach to the sea. However, before this sluice was used, it was buried in the sand by a storm. It is still there, intact, and the tops of the pilings are often visible in the lowest tides of winter.

A second attempt was made in 1804. Elisha Doane headed the Cohasset Meadows and Flats Company. They punched a hole through the dam and fitted it with a strong gate. This gate closed and remained shut by the pressure of a rising tide. The sluiceway was lined with boards to prevent erosion. This [effort] was a complete success, and nearly 100 acres were opened for pasturage. The company divided the land into strips and rented them out to the nearby farmers.

However, in the great Minot’s Light Gale of 1851, the storm-driven waves washed right over the dam. Ezra Towle, who lived at 272 North Main Street, had retired from being a sea captain to become a contractor and stage line owner. He was hired to clear out and open the tide gates to allow the salt water to escape. [But] the gates were jammed too tightly and he was forced to dynamite the whole dam. The pent-up water rushed out so fast that it took all the good earth with it. In just a few hours, Little Harbor was transformed into the large sandy-bottomed area it is today.

A few years before, Edward Cunningham had built his summer home on Beach Island. This Milton resident was an agent of a Boston clipper ship company and was one of our first summer visitors. He also built an unusual Chinese-style cottage on Brush Island just off Sandy Beach. It was painted Chinese red and was furnished with oriental items brought over by his clippers. Cunningham [would come] from Boston by . . . train and then walk down Beach Street and across the dam to his cottage.

When the dam was destroyed, he had a small footbridge built over the now enlarged outlet of Little Harbor. The present bridge is the fourth Cunningham Bridge. Cunningham was murdered at his Milton home shortly after the turn of the century. His unusual house on Brush Island was set afire and destroyed in 1929 by rumrunners. However, his descendants still own the property. This house is not to be confused with the one on the Black Rocks at the end of Forest Avenue, near Straits Pond. This started out as a gunning shack in the 1870s.

On Beach Street is a small inlet known as Mohawk Run. No one today knows why it is so called. It was here during the Revolution that the Pest House stood. [At that time] there was an outbreak of the dreaded smallpox . . . People could be inoculated to prevent it, receiving a hopefully weakened strain of the disease. However, many feared an epidemic could break out from those vaccinated. Thus they were shut away for a few weeks in a small house built for the purpose some miles distant from the village.

From Robert Fraser, “Little Harbor,” Cohasset Vignettes, privately printed, 1981. Reprinted by permission of the author.