Burnham’s Marine Railway, established in 1849–1851, is a shipbuilding and maintenance facility on Duncan’s Point that is now owned by Maritime Gloucester. This significant historic property played an important role as a support facility for Gloucester’s fishing, and merchant trades and is a rare surviving example of a mid-nineteenth-century marine railway that was built by the prestigious Boston maritime engineering firm Crandall Dry Dock Engineering Company. The Massachusetts Historical Commission has determined that the railway is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Thomas Morton’s 1819 “Patent Slip”—the first marine railway. American marine railways emulated Morton’s and other British patents and these service facilities were critical to the maritime operations and economies of Gloucester and other Massachusetts coastal communities from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. The railways cost about $700–$3,000 in 1819, or about one-tenth the cost of a drydock, and were simpler to build and operate. (The Glasgow Mechanics’ Magazine, September 18, 1824)
Fitz Henry Lane’s 1857 painting “Three Master on the Gloucester Railway” showing Burnham’s Marine Railway. Lane (1804–1865), a famous Gloucester native known for his maritime art, built his home a short distance away from the railway (On deposit at the Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, MA).
A current photo of the cradle and track at Burnham’s Marine Railway (Maritime Gloucester). A marine railway’s essential components have not changed substantially since Morton’s first patent: inclined parallel rails, a carriage or cradle to hold the vessel, and a hoist system powered by humans, horses, steam, or electricity (The Glasgow Mechanics’ Magazine, September 18, 1824).
Language of the original congressional act by the Massachusetts General Court approving construction of the Burnham’s Marine Railway
1885 plan of Burnham’s Marine Railway (Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Waterways Research Room).
The Burnham’s railway was the first of Gloucester’s three known marine railways. Famous Essex sailor and shipbuilder Captain Parker Burnham (1781?–1871) and his sons Joseph B. and Elias established this marine railway at Harbor Loop Road (then Duncan and Water streets). Joseph B. Burnham (1817–1884) was born in Essex and moved to Gloucester with his brother and began building ships about 1840. Joseph was also well known as a contractor in Gloucester and built the city’s National Register-listed Annisquam Bridge (aka Bridgewater Street Bridge) spanning Lobster Cove. The three Burnhams established a wharf on Duncan’s Point in the 1840s and obtained state permission to build their marine railway in 1851. They added a second railway (now an archaeological site) between 1851 and 1857.
Ads from “The Fisheries of Gloucester” in 1876.
A late -19thcentury view of the planing mill at Burnham’s Marine Railway. The building is now used as Maritime Gloucester’s Dory Shop and encloses the hoist for the railway (Maritime Gloucester collections).
(Ads courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library/Book Delivery).
Burnham’s Marine Railway location also hosted other businesses, including a gristmill, planing mill, and these sail makers and riggers
Burnham’s Marine Railway serviced and repaired hundreds of fishing vessels for about 100 years. By 1949, the railway complex had become the “Burnham Branch” of the Parkhurst Marine Railway Company; in 1953, it was acquired by Gloucester Marine Railways, which owned the Rocky Neck Marine Railways in Gloucester. That same year, part of one of the two railways at the Burnham facility was destroyed by fire, but substantial portions remain and are an important archaeological component of the railway complex.
When the Gloucester Marine Railways was under threat of bankruptcy in the 1990s, a group of investors acquired Burnham’s Marine Railway for use in restoring and building replicas of historic vessels, then transferred the property to Maritime Gloucester, which has operated the property as a museum and maritime heritage center and still hauls out historic vessels on the railway. You can learn more about Burnham’s Marine Railway by clicking through to this MHC InventoryForm.