Rockport is a picturesque, historic fishing town in New England which boasts a pretty harbour and stunning sunsets.
But behind its pretty demeanour and the curtains of its white clapboard houses there lies chilling tales of the unexpected.
From strange stories of sea serpents and salty schooners to yarns about rebellions and rum, many of the town’s tales would make your hair stand on end.
A short hop from Boston, Rockport makes for a pleasant weekend or day trip in coastal Massachusetts. But be prepared to discover its darker history as well as its stunning historic houses and quayside.
The main historic centre of Rockport is focused on the brilliantly named Bear Skin Neck. The district takes its moniker from a bear which was caught by the tide in 1700.
Legend has it that one of Rockport’s residents, Henry Witham, was attacked by the marooned bear on the shore.
With no gun to defend himself, he stepped into the water and battled with the bear using only his knife. After a scuffle, he killed the bear, skinned it and spread the animal’s fur to dry on the rocks.
The battle between man and beast led locals to call the area ‘Bear Skin Neck’. It may sound improbable but it’s true.
As you wander along its charming shopping streets lined with artists’ studios, it’s hard to imagine a time when bears came up onto the coastline.
Most fishing towns are deeply superstitious so perhaps it’s unsurprising that tales of strange sightings and creatures abound along the coast.
Rockport lies on the Cape Ann peninsula which also takes in the nearby port of Gloucester. In 1817 there were numerous eye-witness reports of a huge sea serpent off the coastline of both towns.
A local newspaper talked of “a monstrous sea serpent, the largest ever seen in America” spotted in the calm waters of Rockport and Gloucester harbours.
For almost a month, witnesses reported seeing what they described as a sea serpent 80-100 feet long with a head resembling a horse with a horn-like appendage.
This scaly monstrosity was compared to a “row of casks” by some eyewitnesses. Perhaps it was simply that – after all, it’s hard to get a clear view of the sea when the mist rolls in.
But a firm sighting was reported by two women on August 10, 1817 who claimed to have seen the creature swimming in Gloucester harbor.
In the following years there were sporadic sightings from ship’s captains and eye witnesses who claimed the serpent had the “head of a turtle… larger than the head on any dog… (with) a prong or spear about twelve inches in height (coming from its head)”.
Although not seen in recent decades, it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled for the sea serpent which is Cape Ann’s version of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster.
Sadly it didn’t pop up on my visit to the town!
Rockport’s rum revolt
My favourite Rockport story is one of temperance, rebellion and liquor. It’s a rum tale which rivals the prohibition battles fought in Chicago during the 1920s.
In the 1850s there was growing concern about alcohol consumption in Rockport. Fishing was the main employment but the weather only permitted this for nine months of the year.
During this enforced three-month “vacation” the fishing men idled away their time and drank enormous amounts of spirits.
The town’s women became increasingly worried about the amount of money being spent on alcohol which was causing problems for poor families.
In 1856 a gang of 200 wives, mothers, daughters and supporters gathered in the town’s Dock Square. Led by seamstress Hannah Jumper, they swept through the town, smashing up all supplies of alcohol.
Hiding their weapons beneath lacy shawls, the protesters set out to destroy every drop of alcohol in the town. After five hours “Rockport’s revolt against rum” was over. Legend has it that the women went home to make supper for their families.
One eyewitness described the scene: “On finding any keg, jug, or cask having spirituous liquor in it… with their hatchets they broke or otherways destroyed it.”
Except for a brief period in the 1930s, Rockport remained one of 15 Massachusetts’ dry towns. It wasn’t until 2005 when Rockport voted that alcohol could be served at restaurants. Amazingly, liquor stores are still illegal in the town!
For a small town Rockport has an unusually colourful history. During the 1812 Anglo-American War, Rockport became the focus of attention during a siege on its coastal defences by the British.
Throughout the war Bear Skin Neck was home to the Old Stone Fort and barracks which were built to provide protection from the British warships that would patrol the coast and prevent townsfolk from fishing in the bay.
On 8 September, 1814 the British launched an unexpected attack on the tiny fishing village of Sandy Bay (the old name for Rockport).
The town’s people hurled rocks at the enemy using their stockings as slings because they didn’t have muskets and cannons.
The site of the old fort is now marked by a historic plaque at Bear Skin Neck which commemorates the 1814 attack.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that the east coast was a battle ground for British military power in America – and that Britain was the last ever country to occupy the US mainland.
Rockport isn’t all sea serpents, marauding bears and military manoeuvres – it also has a softer, artistic side.
Once again, it’s a surprising story of a small, sleepy town punching above its weight.
International artists such as Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and John Sloan drew inspiration from the town’s coastal setting, exquisite light and distinctive maritime character.
We noticed the light on our trip which is especially dramatic at sunset when you can sit on the harbourside watching the changing hues and colours as the sun goes down.
One of the town’s main inspirational draws for artists is a simple, red fishing shack on Bradley Wharf, known as “Motif Number 1“. The shack is the most frequently painted building in the USA.
Painter Lester Hornby was the first to call it Motif Number 1 in the early 20th Century – and the name has stuck ever since.
Built in the 1840s, this iconic New England-style building was swept away in 1978 by snow storms but has been replaced by a replica which is every bit as distinctive.
Its frail, simple structure is part of its appeal – a throwback to early centuries when fishing was at the heart of Rockport’s economy.
Town of granite
After discovering so many tales about Rockport, the town has one last unexpected story to tell.
The clue is in the town’s name. Rockport is a town built on rock – quite literally… its granite was an important factor in its growth at the beginning of the 19th Century.
The first granite quarries were developed to the north of the town near Halibut Point. By the 1830s, Rockport granite was being shipped to cities and towns throughout the USA’s eastern seaboard.
As the demand for its high quality granite grew for industry and construction, the quarries of Rockport boomed.
A special type of sloop boat was developed to transport the granite far and wide across North and South America.
The quarry eventually closed in 1929. Today the disused quarry is a popular nature reserve. There’s a lovely walk down to the beach and great opportunities for bird watching on the nature trails.
Its tranquility makes it easy to forget that this was once a hive of industry but the scattered remains of old stones provide a glimpse of its past. A Second World War watch tower now dominates the country park.
Rockport’s real life stories
Rockport is much more than a small, charming town with historic buildings and a pretty harbour. It has fascinating and authentic stories to tell.
Delve deeper and you’re bound to find more… from its splendid, white First Congregational Church and historic homes to its headland and shoreline.
With its tales of scary bears, sea monsters, mining men and marauding women, Rockport is my kind of small town. Quite simply, it’s one of a kind.
Just a shame that it’s still hard to get a drink of alcohol!
Tammy’s travel tips – Rockport
Rockport is located 35 miles north of Boston on the Massachusetts coast – it takes around 50 minutes to drive there.
Where to stay?
There are fewer hotels than I expected in Rockport but locals recommend the value-for-money Bear Skin Neck Motel, The Seafarer Inn and the upmarket Rockport Inn.
We stayed at the Emerson Inn by the Sea, a historic hotel which lies just out-of-town. Its main claim to fame is that the writer Waldo Ralph Emerson visited the original hotel on vacation at the height of his fame.
There are cracking views of the sea from the Emerson Inn’s garden plus a charming dining room and porch with a seafront vista. This place oozes history.
Where to eat?
Lobsters are on the menu wherever you go in Rockport. We picked Roy Moore’s restaurant on the main street for our evening meal although his smaller shack has pleasant tables on the outer deck for a daytime snack or lunch.
Locals also recommend The Red Skiff and The Lobster Pool in Rockport town centre.
Where to shop and relax?
Rockport boasts an attractive shopping centre with a mix of tourist shops, arts and crafts galleries and high-end boutiques.
As my partner Tony put it – “the tourist shops in Rockport have higher quality tat” rather than the usual rubbish. That’s a little unfair as Rockport does have an air of class, although it also has some ‘bog standard’ gift shops.
For some reason it also has high proportion of psychic, boho and ‘hippy’ shops, if you fancy a touch of tarot or transcendental meditation.
On the attractions front, Rockport boasts a rich heritage and I was struck by the impressive number of historic buildings. It’s worth taking a stroll around the historic centre.
The stunning Shalin Liu Performing Arts Centre is a must for music lovers with beautiful views from the rear of the concert hall out to sea.