Photo by Robert Boyd
As a summer playground, Manchester-by-the-Sea is said to have been "discovered" by Richard Henry Dana, the Boston poet and essayist who built a summer house here in 1845. Dana’s friends followed suit, and the rush to build was on.
Today, there is still so much to love about Manchester-by-the-Sea in summer: the ocean smell on Beach Street; the cool breeze in Masconomo Park; sleek sailboats in the harbor; the rocky promontories and coves; and shops selling everything from crystal to flip-flops, coolers to croissants.
It’s such a small town that most residents can walk to Singing Beach, a half-mile-long beach bookended by rocky cliffs. You can see a steady stream of locals taking their daily walk or run to Musical Beach, as it was called in Dana’s time. If it’s too crowded, residents can drive over to Black and White Beaches, off Ocean Avenue, or to Tuck’s Point, where the town has renovated the signature domed rotunda, for some crabbing with the kids.
Summer played a big part in the town’s growth. Starting after the Civil War, Boston’s publishers, artists, actors, philanthropists, and industrialists sought a cool retreat and built mansions to flaunt family wealth from department stores, railroads, banking, and manufacturing. Many seaside estates still stand, making high-end real estate company LandVest a happy partner in town commerce. Meanwhile, oceanfront taxes keep the town well groomed.
"What most people don’t know is Manchester was a center of fine furniture making in the first half of the 19th century," says John Huss, amiable curator of the Manchester Historical Museum, in the charming Trask House (open for guided tours Saturdays from noon until 3 p.m.). Huss notes that Manchester is special because "It’s gone through a transformation of a simple fishing village to merchant sea captains to furniture to summer colony. People come today for the beautiful scenery, fabulous harbor, and quality lifestyle."
"For a small community, a lot is offered," says Matt Casparius, director of the town’s parks and recreation department, which runs 300 programs a year. Many of those programs are open to out-of-towners, including Dog First Aid Training, the open-water swim program, poetry programs, and group tickets to Red Sox games. The increasingly popular Music in Masconomo Park is free Tuesday nights from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m.
Boston book publisher James T. Fields, due to the enormous success of his business, was able to retire in 1871 at the relatively young age of 54. Two years later he bought Thunderbolt Hill in Manchester and built his summer house. It was Fields who adopted the town’s moniker Manchester-by-the-Sea (he and his wife, Annie, put it on their stationery) to distinguish it from the five other Manchesters in New England. In 1990, by a one-vote margin, townspeople officially changed the name to Manchester-by-the-Sea, following the lead of the train conductors’ station call.
Manchester-by-the-Sea’s biggest estate was Highwood, built in 1897 for Chicago millionaire William P. Walker, a Tudor mansion with seven miles of roadways, horse trails, stables, outbuildings, and a water tower. That was standard for the new cottages, along with the requisite billiard room and tennis courts.
Another famous resident was actor Junius Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth. Junius converted his summer cottage above Old Neck Beach (later Singing Beach) into the Masconomo House, a hotel that opened for the season in 1878 and was an instant hit. (Junius is buried in one of the town’s four cemeteries.) Above Lobster Cove, Bostonian G. Nixon Black built "Kragsyde" in 1884, one of the finest examples of the Shingle style, according to architectural historian Vincent Scully. Unfortunately, it was demolished in 1929.
Also notable were the 20 foreign embassies that had moved into town by 1920, as well as several presidential visits, including those of William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, who at one point retreated for some R&R to the Coolidge Mansion. The Coolidge family donated their home to the Trustees of Reservations, providing the public with their own R&R in the form of a wonderful stroll and picnic on the spectacular Ocean Lawn (open weekends).
Another Trustees property worth a hike is Agassiz Rock. In 1874, students named the erratic boulder to honor Harvard University natural history professor Louis Agassiz and his work on glacial deposits. Before the professor’s work, most people believed it was Noah’s flood that left the scattering of big rocks throughout New England.
In the 1960s, Route 128 linked Cape Ann to Boston, and Manchester officially became a suburb. On the MBTA commuter line, modern commuters can reach Boston in 50 minutes, starting at 5:24 a.m. weekdays.
What keeps Manchester humming now are the engaged citizens. Take the Boy Scouts; not only do they enterprisingly sell parking spots at the train station for the beach goers, but they also they coordinate a huge town-wide food drive. One week they leave the Town Report in a yellow grocery bag, and the next week they return and pick up food donations. This year they collected 5,700 pounds of food, which yielded an equal donation to the pantry from a matching grant. Another example is Standley’s Garage, just across from Crosby’s (formerly Brown’s) grocery store.
Shops are fun and eclectic, full of items you won’t find in the mall and located within an easy walking distance. At Zak’s, you can provision an entire children’s party, while newly opened White Lilac sells distinctive gifts. Cargo Unlimited lets you flop into the overstuffed couches and ogle antique furniture; Mimi’s sponsors shopping parties. Manchester has no fewer than three jewelry stores, all geared to mark memorable family milestones. Mahri’s does unique pieces; Nancy Larson does excellent, careful work, be it new or reworking your old piece; and the latest store is Gladstone’s.
Restaurants range from Dunkin Donuts at the train station to The Landing (Sunday night Celtic music nights are popular). The newest arrival is Foreign Affairs Market at 26 Central St., in the former Al’s Cafe.
Next door is Safari SUP (Stand Up Paddling) Surf Shop, which is run by Christian Del Rosario, a Manchester native who moved back here from Nantucket. His lovely wife, Nicole, also paddles standing up, the newest craze. It will take some doing for the yachties to get used to the SUPs in the harbor, but no worries. Everyone relaxes during a summer in Manchester-by-the-Sea.
Date of Settlement: 1629. Date of Incorporation: 1645. Zip Code: 01944. Population: 5,136 Total Area: 18 square miles. Median household income: $98,467. Schools: Manchester Essex High and Middle, Essex Elementary and Memorial Elementary. Notable residents: Richard Henry Dana, poet/essayist; Susan Minot, novelist; Ray Ozzie, software entrepreneur; George Putnam III, editor/founder, The Turnaround Letter; Sprague Grayden, actress; Josiah Spaulding, attorney/politician; William Northey Hooper, sugar industry pioneer; James McMillan, politician; Nat Faxon, actor.