The first stagecoach in Essex County, drawn by four horses, was established in 1774 and connected Newburyport with Boston via Salem and Ipswich. By the early 1800’s, up to seventeen stagecoaches and four post chaises passed through town each day, most of them full to overflowing.

The stagecoach era ended abruptly when the Salem tunnel opened, and two days later on December 20, 1839, a train from Boston made its first passage through Ipswich. It arrived about 9 o’clock on a Friday morning with 50 passengers, taking only 34 minutes from Salem. Townspeople were delighted, but the opening of the railroad and the end of stagecoach travel led to the decline of Ipswich as one of the most important towns of Massachusetts, and removal of its courts.



View of the old Depot from Topsfield Road
View of the old Depot from Topsfield Road. The Strand theater and opera house is the brick building on the right, on Market St.
The small rectangular structure beyond the train was the luggage storage building. It was moved to 82 High Street, where it is still used for storage and as a shop.
The Whipple house is in the background at its original location on Saltonstall Street in this early postcard.
The Whipple house can be seen in the background at its original location on Saltonstall Street in this pre-1927 postcard.
The Ipswich Depot was approximately at the location of the Institution for Savings.
The Ipswich Depot was approximately at the location of the Institution for Savings. On the right is the Damon Building, and the brick building is the Hayes Hotel.

End of the stagecoach era

The fascinating history of stage and railroad travel from the Standard History of Essex County was written in 1878 by Cyrus Mason Tracy. I condensed several pages into the narrative below:

This advertisement for the stage coach from Portsmouth to Boston listed a stopover in Ipswich.

The stage coach was in its day as great an advance upon the prevailing modes of transit as the railroad car was in later time. It thoroughly revolutionized all extended travel and gave an aspect never before observed to all the world of outdoor civilization. It was gazed at by boys on the highways and women at the windows. Its approach announced by the jingling of a bell suspended from the neck of one of the leaders was the occasion for the shout of “THE STAGE THE STAGE” and a general halting from labor and a gazing at the wonder.

A Concord Coach on display at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont displays the name
A Concord Coach on display at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont displays the name, “Ipswich.”

In 1818 the Eastern Stage Company was incorporated and it met with all success, turning profits yearly for its investors. The premier stagecoaches were manufactured by the Abbot-Downing Company of Concord NH, founded in 1816 by Lewis Downing. In 1828 he teamed up with with twenty-two year old J. Stephens Abbot of Salem, Massachusetts, who assisted in the manufacture of the “Concord Stage Coach.”

While this was going on the air was beginning to tremble in the shadowy and unknown distance with the roar and screech of the railroad train and its unearthly whistle sounds of doom. The iron horse soon came riding into Essex County, as those old fashioned stage worthies must have thought, like a very fiend in armor. All their glory began to wane and their prosperity to melt away before their eyes The impatient spirit of a growing people refused longer to be satisfied with any arrangement that could be made for their transportation by animal muscle.The Eastern Stage Company faced the invasion bravely and tried every expedient to prevent being thrown from their feet but without effect. The official existence ended June 26, 1838.

Train approaching the mills
Train approaching the mills

The Eastern Railroad from Boston to Salem opened for travel two months later on August 27, 1838. A new era of travel dawned at once on the wondering eyes of the shore people of Essex County. The cars took eleven hundred the first day with no fatigue to anybody, kept it up day after day and in about a month ran it up to sixteen hundred while crowds of curious spectators gathered near the depot at each arrival and departure.

Manufacturer of locomotives in Boston, serving the Eastern Railroad

So began the Eastern Railroad, the giant that stretched forth its arm and laid literally a hand of iron upon the bosom of Essex County. On December 18, 1839 the cars ran through the Salem Tunnel and to Ipswich. The town was delighted but the opening of this road led the way to the removal of the courts from Ipswich. It had long been one of the three shire towns of the county and reluctantly yielded this prestige.

By the next summer the Eastern Railroad had its cars running to Newburyport and on November 9, 1840 it leaped the Merrimack and made its entry into New Hampshire in triumph, fifty four miles from the Massachusetts capitol.

The document establishing the Newburyport Railroad lists initial subscribers and the number of shares owned. It refers to two acts: One establishing the Georgetown Branch Railway Company, and another establishing the Newburyport Railway Company, both in 1846.

The Damon Building on the corner of Market St. and Depot Square faced the Depot.
The Depot
Greek Hotel Ipswich
The building formerly at 44 Market St can be seen in the distance in this old photo of the Ipswich Depot, taken before 1900.
Ipswich Depot
Ipswich Depot and baggage house

2 thoughts on “The Railroad comes to Ipswich, December 20, 1839

  1. “The Stage, the Stage” reminds me of a bank commercial from when I was a child. Wells Fargo it must have been…not sure if they had that particular bank in New England, but they were everywhere in California. Had a stagecoach emblem.

    You’ve just dredged up a dormant memory…thanks!

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