Traveling Through Time: Chebacco Lake Watershed’s History

Written by: Gabriela Alba and Alyssa Mahoney

Between the rural-suburban town of Hamilton and the coastal town of Essex, Massachusetts lies Chebacco Lake, the largest of five bodies of water that form the Chebacco Lake Watershed. Throughout time, Chebacco Lake has been the center of a rich and meaningful history. This 209 acre body of water has provided a home to community members and aquatic species, generated economic activity, and offered a space for community gatherings. The history of the lake and the story of its people is what brings together organizations like Seaside Sustainability to help begin improvement efforts on the Chebacco Lake Watershed and Alewife Brook this spring. From serving as a space for the first Native American settlements to community gatherings and conservation efforts, here are some of the most notable highlights throughout Chebacco Lake history.


Photo by: Elizabeth Thomsen


The Peoples of Agawam Settlement in the Chebacco Region

According to Le Baron’s 1874 archaeological map, the Agawam Village was situated on Castle Neck River. Agawam, meaning “other side of the marsh”, included territory in Cape Ann and the Chebacco region and was one of three divisions in Essex County that made up the Pawtucket who spoke Eastern Alqonquian. The Pawtucket language group was derived from the Abenaki dialect spoken by their northern New England and Essex County Pawtucket ancestors.

“Chebacco” meaning “the area in between'', signifies the rivers of Agawam and Annisquam. Settlement near rivers allowed for canoes to be the Pawtucket’s main form of transportation. They formed new canal routes by cutting through rivers and marshes to create passage behind Plum Island. The method of reducing natural causeways also proved to be beneficial to the Pawtucket as they could better defend themselves by isolating their islands from enemy attacks.

The Ice Harvesting Industry and Transportation Sector

In 1872, a railroad line between Hamilton and Wenham was the ideal area to transport lumber and men to several large ice houses. Men arrived at the lake by train and the electric car along Route 22. To deliver ice to local markets in a timely manner, ice blocks flowed down a strip of water while workers used steel hooks to keep them moving until they were hoisted into the ice block houses. Workers were expected to move thousands tons of ice to be ready for shipment worldwide.


The invention of time-saving machinery increased the productivity of ice cutting, which led to a successful transportation business. The Eastern Railroad, which trailed from East Hamilton to Essex, was the main transporting track for the ice industry at Chebacco Lake. The track was an ideal location for ice shipments because it was built close to the shoreline where it passed by the lake. Locally, Essex citizens depended on an ice man to deliver Chebacco Ice, much like how home milk deliveries were a mainstay for families in the 1950s and 1960s. Clean and safe ice and drinking water from the lake were important to the workers and residents.


Centennial Grove

The growing success of the transportation sector led to opportunities even beyond transporting people, ice, and lumber to and from the lake. The area also became a popular recreation site. This area became known as Centennial Grove—a popular place for day visitors who came on the train from Boston, which included areas for a dining hall, dance pavilion, store, ball fields, and boat rentals.


Hotels at Chebacco Lake

Chebacco Lake also supported a growing tourism industry during the late 1800s. In 1859, The Chebacco House became the first hotel built beside the lake. A second hotel was built in 1888, the Winnepoyken House. Tourists from outside of town would take a rail service that passed through the center of Hamilton and then travel by horse-drawn carriage to arrive at these hotels. Chebacco House and Winnepoyken House were popular tourist destinations because of the natural beauty of the surrounding area. They offered attractions including camping, boating, and fine dining in elegant dining rooms. Although these hotels are no longer standing today, Chebacco Lake is still treasured for its beauty, recreational opportunities, and environmental significance on the North Shore.


Alewife Brook

Alewife Brook, originally named Chebacco Brook, is Chebacco Lake’s primary outlet to the Essex River. Alewife Brook has historically supported the local fishing industry for the Town of Essex. The brook is an essential path for river herring that provides passage to Chebacco Lake, an important spawning site. As alewives swim upstream to spawn in Chebacco Lake each spring, fisher people have harvested the fish to sell as food, bait, or fertilizer. Unfortunately, the Alewife herring population has decreased significantly over the years due to poor water quality, fishing practices, pollution, water use, and agricultural practices.


Chebacco Lake Association

The Chebacco Lake Association was formed in 1985 to address residents’ concerns about the rapid growth of invasive vegetation around the lake. After addressing the issue of invasive vegetation through restoration efforts, the association established an educational program and land management plan to educate the community about ways to preserve, protect, and restore the health of the lake. In 1992, Massachusetts State Representative Brad Hill, Massachusetts State Senator Bruce Tarr and other groups, including the Chebacco Lake Association, formed the Alewife Task Force. This group of organizations and volunteers works to improve the quality of Alewife Brook, a key factor in promoting the overall health of Chebacco Lake.


Photo by: Elizabeth Thomsen


Throughout time, the Chebacco Lake watershed has been integral to the towns of Hamilton and Essex by providing natural resources and environmental services to the ice harvesting, tourism, recreation, and fishing industries. It is critical that we work to protect the health of this watershed. Seaside Sustainability has convened an array of stakeholders to begin restoration efforts to improve the overall health of the lake. It is Seaside Sustainability’s hope that with public engagement and organizational partnerships, Chebacco Lake will become a model of environmental sustainability as well as a recreational resource for the enjoyment of both residents and visitors.


Author’s Note: Thank you to Sue McLaughlin for providing us with information about the history of Chebacco Lake.

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