The Old Beacon Oak
Generations have passed since the old Beacon Oak on Newburyport's High Street last marked the seasons' changes, surmounted with a beacon to guide mariners safely home ~ Still, its lore stands as one of the most poignant in the Waterside's history ~ A beacon to a distant past ~ a landmark for the journey home again, by land & water ~ it remains an icon fixed in our minds & on an old plan of the town of Newburyport ~ forever ...
 

A generation after the Waterside Third Parish of Newbury was incorporated as the town of Newburyport in the year 1764, surveyor Joseph Somerby produced a map of its bounds and limits for public record. The original Plan of the Town of Newburyport, taken May 1795 found in the Massachusetts Archives is reprinted on page 22 of John J. Currier's History of Newburyport, Volume I.

In addition to the bounds and ways, the plan situates the five "Houses of Publick Worship" and the "Court House" using icons keyed to the legend. The encircled "X" marks the location of the "Pond" and its surrounding 3-3/4 acres (Frog Pond at what is now Bartlet Mall). And a graphic graces the map (alongside the point marked 3) to define the position of a natural monument and landmark known as the old Beacon Oak.

Although that old Oak tree no longer stands --- its lore thrives in the rich history of this seacoast community, a beacon to the distant past. Its known history and the mystery surrounding its service to the community is repeated on pages 141 and 142 of the aforementioned reference, corroborating the following facts.

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The magnificent old Oak grew along what founders laid out as the Old Country Road, on the south southwesterly side of what was to become the elegant throughway called High Street. Its situ was nearby to the Dexter House, in between what is now Dexter Lane and the overpass for Route 1 (across from the expanse between Boardman and Winter Streets). The arbor's emergence reached the height of the cupola of the 3-story Dexter House, from which it is said the distant Isles of Shoals can be seen on a clear day.

At some point in time, a staff firmly attached to the old Oak tree's trunk was surmounted by an empty cask which, at the beginning of the 19th century, was replaced with a new one crafted by one Mr. Peters, a local artisan and cooper. Sometime later, parties unknown placed a weathervane with the model of a ship atop this newer cask. On December 8, 1820, the following notice was published in the Newburyport Herald:

To whom it may concern --- The Beacon on High Street with the ship on top, on land owned by the late Mrs. Wyer, has become so dangerous by the decayed state of the rope that unless properly secured by those interested, it will, in a few days, be taken down.

Currier records that no definite action was taken until some three years later when the following notice appeared in the Herald on November 25, 1823:

As the Beacon in High Street has become dangerous from its age, and as no person will own it, this is to give notice, if no objection is made to the subscriber, it will be removed.        A. GILMAN.

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These accoutrements removed, the venerable Beacon Oak remained in its stead until the morning of Sunday, July 21, 1833 --- as reported in the Newburyport Herald, issue dated July 23, 1833. That article is transcribed from microfilm available at the Newburport Public Library as follows:

There is probably no native of Newburyport - no one who was born and bred up here - who does not recollect, what in fact must be associated with his earliest recollections - the old Oak on High Street, surmounted with a cawk, which served as a beacon to vessels coming in and going out of the harbor. The age of that Oak cannot now be ascertained. The date of its germination runs far back into times, when another race possessed the land. Perhaps beneath the shelter of its wide-waving boughs, the Indian and his dusky mate have reposed in the noontide heat of summer - and perchance also, the chiefs of some tribe, now vanished beyond the reach of even traditionary history, resorted thither to take council against the threatened inroad of some border nation. Whether so or not, is one of those secrets, which can never be revealed to mortal ears. The Old Oak has told no tales. It has not even disclosed its origin; and but a small portion of its history has ever become known. More than forty years ago it was spoken of as the Old Oak, and before that time has been used as a guide for mariners. When a beacon was first placed upon it, we have not be able to ascertain. About thirty years ago, a common pipe, which had been used for that purpose, a great number of years, had become so much decayed, that it was thought advisable to replace it by a new beacon. Accordingly, a subscription was got up and a stout cask, made by the late Mr. Peters, was procured and hoisted into its place, where it remained until within a few years. To that succeeded a miniature ship, which was the last object created there. We have said that the Old Oak long since exhibited marks of declined age. The first symptoms of decay were apparent many years ago; and it is now some five or six years, since that time almost completed its final triumph over it. - During that time, it has loomed up, in ghostly shape lingering along, a naked trunk, bare of vegetation, divested of its branches, and not even a skeleton of what it was. It has however, all that time, resisted sun and shower, wind and whirlwind - bearing about it a sort of charmed life in death. The storms of winter seemed to pass it by in compassion; the seasons came and went, and the relic of the Old Oak was still unmoved from its place; still the beacon, which was indebted to its dead trunk, served to guide the sailor to his home. But the works of natures, as well as those of art - all things earthly - must have an end. Temples and towers come to the ground and crumble in the dust. The forests of a thousand years must also submit to doom, written upon the face of creation by the finger of Him who created it. The Old Oak has found no exemption from the universal decree. On Sunday morning last - a serene and quiet day - if ruffled, ruffled only the gentle breath of summer - the ancient, venerable and worthy Old Oak, after encountering the inclement chills and rude blasts of winter, bowed down its head and fell to mingle with the dust from which its sprang. The wanderer "Whose heart untravelled fondly turns to home" when he shall revisit the place of his nativity will hereafter look in vain for that strange object, which so strongly excited his boyish curiosity; in vain will the mariner, who threads the channel, which is to conduct him to all he holds dear, cast his anxious glances toward the beacon, which has been so long his friend; the friend is no more.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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