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Nahant: From Algonquians to Amusements

Right. So you’ll recall that I’m writing about our recent trip to New England, and I had just gotten us to Nahant. You’ll also recall that I described the town as being the quintesstially peninsula...which, in Latin, means “almost an island.” And that’s Nahant pure and simple. It’s an island that just happens to be attached to the mainland by a long, thin tongue of land.


According to its Wikipedia entry, the island was originally populated by Native American peoples, and most recently (as in the 1600s) by the Naumkeag people, who were “a historical tribe of Eastern Algonquian-speaking Native American people who lived in northeastern Massachusetts.” (1) Nahant itself was under the control of either a local leader by the name of Montowampate (known to the English as "Sagamore James”) or else another potentate, known to the Europeans as “Blacke William” or “Duke William.” It isn’t clear, unfortunately. But at least the later English-speaking colonists (members of the great Puritan Migration) said that they’d given Blacke/Duke William a suit of clothes in return for the right to use the island for various agricultural purposes.(2)


Whatever...Nahant only very gradually picked up an English-speaking population after that. By 1800, apparently, there were only three homes on the island. And, originally, it was part of another town, Lynn, but everything started to change in the 1850s.


What happened? Well, at the time, Lynn was a popular destination for beachgoers and vacationers. It was, in fact, kind of the Gold Coast of Boston, with expensive houses and hotels near the beach. It was considered very classy and The Best Sorts lived there or at least went there on vacation.



Again, nothing to do with the story, but I like the image. It’s of Martha in High Noon, one of our fav restaurants in Albuquerque, NM. I modified it to make the background look a bit more like a painting. See what you think.


That, by the way, would amuse at least some modern New Englanders. When Martha and I were living in Lynn in the 1980s, the town was considered a pretty hard knocks community--a rust belt pit full of decaying houses, abandoned factories, and crack houses. (There was a popular ditty: “Lynn, Lynn, city of sin, nobody comes out the way they went in.”)


I gather that’s not so true anymore. In the last twenty-five years or so, Lynn has made a significant effort to turn itself around. I’m told that it is now kind of a happening place, with young artists and entrepreneurs turning abandoned buildings into lofts and software boutiques. (I hope so. ’Twas pretty dreadful when we were there. But that’s a story for another day...when you feel like something tall, dark, and gruesome.)


But, anyway, like I say, Lynn was crowded with summer resorts in the 1850s and 1860s. But, then, or some I’m told, the temperance movement hit...big time. Suddenly, it got a lot harder to buy liquor in the town of Lynn. (Again, a quick aside. Anti-alcohol movements in the US could be self-important and self-righteous, and there was no shortage of bigots among its leaders and followers. The sub-text in many places was “inferior breeds,” like immigrants from Ireland and Italy, drank...whereas “Real Americans,” didn’t. But, even so, the Anti-Saloon types had a point. Alcoholism is a real problem, and it causes real deaths and blights real lives. So we really can’t reject them in toto.)


Anyway, the result was that the Best And The Brightest...or at least the richest and thirstiest...went in search of new playgrounds. And there, right off shore, was Nahant, which soon became a town in its own right (separate from Lynn) with a thriving tourist economy. Again, quoting its Wikipedia entry, the area was the home or summer getaway of many Boston’s finest, including artists, writers, poets (for example, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), and politicians.


It was also, though, home to some of America’s first amusement parks, like Bass Point and Maolis Gardens, where there were all manner of entertainments--things like merry-go-rounds, bowling alleys, and a massive roller coaster.(3)


This provided Nahant with a new existence...and Nahanters with considerable annoyance. The visitors to their enclave brought welcome dollars, but they were also a rowdy bunch. There was just too much drinking and merry making and noise for everyone’s taste. The result was serious tension between the long-term residents and the visitors.


It is a pattern we will see again.


Anyway, the amusement parks were a passing phenomenon. Gradually they closed or went elsewhere and Nahant evolved again...becoming, in time, what it is today, i.e., a pleasant urban residential area with several lovely beaches.


Which is, of course, where Martha and I enter the story.


More to come.






Footnotes:


1. Naumkeag People, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naumkeag_people

2. Nahant, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nahant,_Massachusetts

3. For more on these parks, see “Bass Point and Maolis Gardens,” https://freepages.rootsweb.com/~howardlake/history/amusement/basspoint.html. I have been trying to find the name of the author. I believe it is Carol Clark, but I am not 100% certain.

Also, if you’re interested in the great American amusement parks of the past, check out the web page of the National Amusement Parks Historical Association (NAPHA), which is here: https://napha.org/, and particularly its list of lost parks: http://lostamusementparks.napha.org/

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