The Fox Creek Canal is the oldest man-made tidewater canal in the United States. The following was written by Thomas Franklin Waters:
“As early as 1652 a move was made toward cutting a passage way for boats through the marshes from Ipswich River to the River of Chebacco to avoid the long and sometimes dangerous passage by the mouth of the river. In that year the town granted Thomas Clark and Reginal Foster that “when they shall have cut through a passage from this river into Chebacco river of ten feet wide and soe deepe as a lighter may pass through laden and to make a ford and foot bridge over that then the town have given unto them £10 toward said passage.”
Evidently the canal was not completed as in 1682 it was “granted to any one of the inhabitants to perfect cutting the cut that comes up to Mr Eppes’ bridge if they will submit to the selectmen yearly the setting of the toll for those who pass through and who do not help cut it .”
But still the work was incomplete and in 1694 it was granted that “such persons of Ipswich as will may have liberty to cut the cut through on the hither side of Castle Neck. If any pass through who do not help do it they shall pay for a passage as the selectmen set the price. Whoever will cut the cut through the marsh by Mr Eppes sufficient for boats to pass through laden shall have liberty such as pay. Those who help toward doing it shall pass free. Such as pay nothing shall be charged in money for a cord of wood or load of hay or ton or other loading.”
Despite these liberal terms no one seems to have had enterprise or capital to complete the work and it was not till 1820 that a stock company was formed which dug a navigable canal from Fox Creek to Chebacco or Essex River. $1100 was expended but the tolls on traffic were sufficient to pay nearly six per cent on the investment. Much ship timber was brought down the Merrimack through Parker river and the canal for the Essex ship yards.”
Fox creek is tidal and fills in quickly. In 1938 it was dredged again to accommodate ship-building at Robinson’s Boatyard. The boatyard was razed after the war.
William A. Robinson was an engineer from Kenosha, WI who sailed around the world in 1928 at the age of the 25 in a 32-foot Alden ketch named Svaap. He later sailed the ship from New York to the Galapagos Islands. Cornelius Crane, (the son of Richard T. Crane Jr and his wife Florence) met the young man, introduced him to his sister (also named Florence) and they married.
An engineer by training, Robinson started a shipyard on Crane property along Fox Creek to build replica sailing ships. In 1937 he built a topsail schooner for himself, the “Swift of Ipswich”, which is now owned by the Los Angeles Maritime Institute as a training vessel for at-risk youth. The boat was once owned by actor James Cagney and appeared in several movies. Also still sailing is his second ship, the 70-foot brigantine Varua.
During the Second World War, Robinson landed a contract to produce 100 small minesweepers and other small craft. Over 200 vessels were built here in Ipswich. Since most young men were overseas during the war, many of the workers were older men. The work was outdoors, not in a building, and they didn’t stop for the cold or snow. Read an in-depth story about working at the boatyard.
After the war ended, Robinson and Florence Crane divorced. He closed the boatyard and moved to Tahiti. Cornelius Crane is said to have razed the buildings so that they would not be a constant reminder to his sister of her ex-husband. All that remains are a few posts sticking out of the water from the former piers. The channel at Fox Creek has filled back in. Read the full story of Robinson’s Shipyard, written for the Boston Globe in 1992.
Recently discovered photographs taken before the 20th Century show cottages at the foot of Tilton Hill, named for Abraham Tilton, an early Ipswich settler. The home of Abraham Tilton Jr. still stands on Argilla Rd. The Ipswich River is beyond, with an unpopulated Little Neck in the distance. Beyond the tree in the middle are a few buildings on tiny Fox Island, which abutted Robinson’s Shipyard during WWII. “Loudmouth” (Fox Creek/ Ipswich River) is on the right, where you can faintly make out a large ship or two in the channel on the other side of the dunes. Very faintly in the distance are two cottages at Ipswich Bluff on Plum Island, before the Bluffs Hotel was built (no longer standing).
This image was digitally produced from a glass plate negative dates to the earliest era of photography, between 1860 and 1890.