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A magical boatyard

Dan Tobyne photos

Nestled on a marsh island along the Essex River and overlooking the river basin, the H.A. Burnham boatyard strongly resembles an Andrew Wyeth painting, with that texture of a Maine yard from days long past. It’s an ideal site for building large wooden vessels, and there has been a yard here almost continuously since the 1800s.

Ardelle is lowered onto the bilge way in preparation for launch.

It is believed that schooners were built on the Burnham property even before then, but it all came to an abrupt halt when the shipbuilding industry that had sustained Essex through the construction of more than 4,000 vessels died after World War I and II. Many families left the town and its boatyards for jobs elsewhere. Many never returned. The home and property that is today the Burnham yard was passed to Harold’s grandparents, Harold and Ardelle. The couple spent their later years in the house, and their love of this place was, in part, why Burnham chose to name his schooner Ardelle.

In the 1970s, slowly and miraculously, Harold’s father, Charles, rebuilt a shipbuilder’s barn and boat shop and reinstalled an aged bandsaw in the place where it had once stood. The remains of a sawmill, drying sheds and a sail loft were embedded in the ground. The slow process of resurrecting a yard that stood active for nearly 300 years began from this footprint that had been left behind.

When a big schooner — Ardelle, Fame of Salem, Isabella — is under construction, the sights and sounds that were buried by time emerge. Many elderly Essex citizens thought they would ever see a “vessel in frame” again. But in this 21st century, in this very spot, everything is done almost identically as it was 100 years ago. A wooden trunnel is driven into a vessel with a wooden mallet. Frame up! is the call to arms, used throughout the centuries, as a signal to put down tools and gather to hoist a massive oak frame into place on the keel.

Standing up one of Ardelle's heavy sawn frames

The old bell adjacent to the front door of the Burnham home is still rung for Mug up! That’s when the midday meal is served or when workers take a much-deserved coffee break. Centuries ago they drank rum, but one of the many Burnhams who built ships here over the generations ended that practice sometime in the 1800s. As long as there is a vessel under construction — or the hope of another keel laying or call for Frame up! — the history of the Burnham yard remains firmly in the present, and anyone taking part has a unique immersion into the living ways of the past.

This is no small feat, and it is a credit to the entire Burnham family and those dedicated to the nearby Essex Shipbuilding Museum. When another schooner is built by Harold Burnham, when the work begins, they will come. And what they will leave with is the knowledge that the ancient skills of Essex shipbuilding are intact, and the magic is still possible.

See related article:

- Moving history forward

April 2014 issue