maritime history of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine encompasses
much of New England's history. As the Ice Age glaciers began retreating
from eastern Massachusetts around 16,000 year ago, portions of
Stellwagen Bank and Jeffreys Ledge were dry and home to grasses,
forests, and Pleistocene animals. It is likely that between 11,000
and 12,000 years ago, Paleoindians inhabited these areas and exploited
the rich marine resources found along the shore. Rising sea levels
slowly inundated Massachusett's Bay, pushing the native populations
to settlements along the current shoreline. For thousands of years
Native Americans utilized the vast fish and shellfish resources
of Massachusetts Bay developing rich cultures that were in harmony
with the marine environment.
the thousands of years of human occupation of the Massachusetts'
coastline, waterborne transportation was an essential part of
the region's communication network. Vessels of many shapes and
sizes have carried a variety of cargos and multitudes of persons
to and from Massachusetts ports. Beginning with the native cultures
and continued by the earliest colonists who cut settlements from
the thick forests and fished along the shore, New Englanders have
derived tremendous economic benefit from their close association
with the sea. New Englanders have traveled the breadth of the
globe in sailing ships, trading with far flung cultures or harvesting
the bounty of the sea. At the beginning and end of each voyage,
many of these intrepid mariners crossed through the waters that
are now recognized as the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
A view of Boston in the mid-1700s depicting the city's bustling
maritime trade. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
played an important role in the maritime heritage of New England.
In the late 1500s Basque whalers came to the New World, and possibility
as far south as Stellwagen Bank, but it was not until the 17th
century, with shore based whaling in Massachusetts Bay, that whaling
was a common activity along the East Coast. Small boats set out
from the shores of Cape Cod in pursuit of North Atlantic right
whales. Once harpooned, the whales were killed with a lance and
then towed ashore where their blubber was rendered into oil. These
activities hastened the decline of North Atlantic Right whale
populations that has made them critically endangered today.
Whalers departing from Massachusetts ports might be at
sea for several years before retuning to port. Courtesy
of the Library of Congress.
the 18th and 19th centuries, larger whale ships departed from
Massachusetts ports for whaling grounds far offshore. As whale
populations diminished in the Atlantic Ocean, Massachusetts
whalers rounded Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean to find more
whales are viewed in a different way. During the summer months,
people board whale watching vessels to view these animals up close
and appreciate their grace and power. Stellwagen Bank is one of
the best places to observe feeding humpback whales in the United
States. Whales in the sanctuary are no longer hunted; rather they
are studied and enjoyed for their beauty.
traffic across Massachusetts Bay steadily built from the 17th
century to the 19th century as New England's economy and population
grew. As the largest American city closest to Europe, Boston became
a destination for many immigrants. Travel by sail was an uncertain
affair. Prior to the institution of regularly schedules sailing
packets, early 19th century, travelers might have waited weeks
for their vessel to fill its hold or its cabins. Once started,
these trips often lasted much longer than anticipated since even
the fastest vessels could become oceanic prisons when the wind
ships carried immigrants into ports around
Massachusetts throughout the 17th-19th centuries. Courtesy
of the Library of Congress.
During the 19th century, the application of steam propulsion dramatically
transformed passenger travel. Passengers could now count on a
departure time and journey length. Additionally, steamships were
built with comfort in mind. Passengers enjoyed lavish meals and
warm beds en-route to their destinations. Today, thousands of
people cross Massachusetts Bay on high speed ferries that connect
Cape Cod to Boston and on cruise ships that depart Boston for
Bermuda, the Caribbean, Canada, and the New England coast.
with lavish cabins and fine dining became the preferred way to
travel on the ocean in the 19th and 20th century. Courtesy of
the Library of Congress.
tremendous variety of vessels and cargos have passed through the
sanctuary's waters. Whether a colonial brig trading between Salem
and Jamaica or a clipper ship carrying tea from China foreign
commerce was the life blood of New England until the American
the Civil War, coastwise shipping of bulk commodities became
the focus of New England's merchants. Carried on schooners,
the American coasting vessel of choice since colonial times,
cargos of granite and ice left Massachusetts Bay. Returning
to New England, the schooners carried coal and lumber. While
the era of sailing ships is long gone, Boston remains a
busy port frequented by container ships, tankers, tugs,
were the most common type of vessel to
sail in Massachusetts Bay at
the turn of the century. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Bounty of the Sea
over 400 years, Massachusetts Bay has been a center for fishing
activities. The area was first fished by Native Americans who
collected a variety of marine foods along the water's edge. During
the colonial period, fish played a large role as one of the region's
main export commodities. The Pilgrims came to Plimoth colony with
the intention of fishing, and many 17th century towns grew and
prospered from this industry. As technology progressed, fishing
vessels and fishing methods evolved to meet the demands of the
market. The small rowed craft of the colonial period were replaced
by swift schooners in the 18th and 19th century which were then
replaced by engine driven trawlers in the 20th century. Today,
fishermen travel from their home ports for Stellwagen Bank to
harvest finfish and shellfish.
Fishermen used hand lines to catch cod.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
waters over and around Stellwagen Bank have been the scene of
conflict several times during past centuries. Revolutionary War
and the War of 1812 privateers, rum runners, and German submarines
have all navigated the waters of Massachusetts Bay. The vitality
and economic importance of Boston has attracted these less than
peaceful activities. Patriots, outlaws, and enemy forces have
all used the waters off Stellwagen Bank for attack and refuge.
Prohibition, many entrepreneurs converted a variety of vessels
for the smuggling liquor. This lucrative but illegal "rum
running" business involved larger vessels that anchored in
Massachusetts Bay and transferred the alcohol into smaller craft
that would carry the contraband products to shore.
rum runner being pursued by the Coast Guard in Massachusetts
Bay. Courtesy of the United States Coast Guard.
October 1924, the United States Coast Guard squadron based in
Boston discovered more than a dozen vessels waiting on Stellwagen
Bank to have their illegal cargoes offloaded. After some resistance,
the Coast Guard captured the smugglers and their vessels but not
before the rum runners tossed 850 cases of brandy, champagne,
and whiskey overboard. This scene repeated itself several times
throughout the 1920s since the shallow water over Stellwagen Bank
was an ideal place to anchor.
Capsules on the Seafloor
at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, Stellwagen Bank National Marine
Sanctuary sits astride the historic shipping lanes and fishing
grounds for such ports as Boston, Gloucester, Plymouth, Salem,
and Provincetown. These ports have been centers of maritime activity
in New England for hundreds of years. Over time accidents have
occurred and ships have sunk leaving virtual time capsule on the
seafloor. As a result, the sanctuary has become a repository for
this nation's maritime heritage resources, with shipwrecks serving
as discrete windows into specific moments of our sea-going past.