Front Page Titles (by Subject) NAHANT. - Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 3
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NAHANT. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 3 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 3.
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“A breath of our free heaven and noble sires.”
The whole coast of Massachusetts Bay is well worth the study of the traveller. Nothing can be more unlike than the aspect of the northern and southern extremities of the Bay. Of Cape Ann, the northern point, with its bold shores and inexhaustible granite quarries, I have given some account in another book* . Not a ledge of rock is to be seen near Cape Cod, the southern extremity; but instead of it, a sand so deep that travellers who have the choice of reaching it by horse or carriage, prefer going over the last twenty miles on horseback: but then the sand-hills are of so dazzling a whiteness as to distress the eyes. The inhabitants are a primitive race of fishermen and saltmen, dwelling in ground-floor houses, which are set down among the sand ridges without plan or order. Some communication is kept up between them and a yet more secluded race of citizens,—the inhabitants of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard,—two islands which lie south of the southern peninsular of the Bay. I much regretted that I had no opportunity of visiting these islands. Some stories that are abroad about the simplicity of the natives are enough to kindle the stranger's curiosity to see so fresh a specimen of human nature. In Nantucket, there is not a tree, and scarcely a shrub. It is said that a fisherman's son, on accompanying his father for the first time to the main-land, saw a scrubby apple-tree. In great emotion, he cried, “O father! look there! what a beautiful tree! And what are those beautiful things on it? Are they lemons?” It was not my fortune to see any citizen of the United States who did not know an apple-tree at sight. It must be highly instructive to take a trip from this remarkable place across the Bay to Nahant, in the month of August.
It was October when I visited Nahant, and all the gay birds of the summer had flown. I was not sorry for this; for fine people may be seen just as well in places where they are less in the way than on this rock. Nahant is a promontory which stretches out into the Bay, a few miles north of Boston. Or it might rather be called two islands, connected with each other and with the main-land by ridges of sand and pebbles. The outermost of the islands is the larger, and it measures rather above a mile and a half in circumference. The whole promontory was bought, in the seventeenth century, by a certain farmer Dexter, of an Indian chief, Black Willy, for a suit of clothes. Probably the one party was as far as the other from foreseeing what use the place would be put to in the coming days. Nahant is now the resort of the Boston gentry in the hot months. Several of them have cottages on the promontory; and for those who are brought by the indefatigable steam-boat, there is a stupendous hotel, the proportion of which to the place it is built on, is as a man-of-war would be riding in one of the lovely Massachusetts ponds. Some middle-aged gentlemen remember the time when there was only one house on Nahant; and now there are balls in this hotel, where the extreme of dress and other luxury is seen, while the beach which connects the rock with the main-land, is gay with hundreds of carriages and equestrians on bright summer mornings.
This beach consists of grey sand, beaten so hard by the action of the waves, from the harbour on one side and the bay on the other, that the wheels of carriages make no impression, and the feet of horses resound as on the hardest road. It is the most delightful place for a drive or a gallop that can be imagined, except to the timorous, who may chance to find their horses frightened when the waves are boisterous on either hand at once. We entered upon it when the water was nearly at its height, and the passage was narrow. We had passed through the busy town of Lynn, and left its many hundreds of shoe-making families at their work behind us. We had passed many a field where the shoe-maker turned farmer, for the season, was manuring his land with fish heads and offal; and now we burst into a region where no sounds of labour were heard, few signs of vegetation seen. We were alone with our own voices and the dashing of the sea, which seemed likely to take us off our feet.
When we reached Great Nahant, several picturesque cottages of the gentry came into view. All had piazzas, and several were adorned with bright creeping plants. No inhabitants were visible. Some rows of miserable young trees looked as if they were set up in order to be blown down. Many attempts have been made to raise forest trees, but hitherto in vain. Some large willows grow in a partially sheltered spot; and under these are the boarding-houses of the place. The verdure is scanty, of course; and this is not the kind of beauty to be looked for in Nahant. The charms of the place are in the distant views, and among the picturesque and intricate rocks.
The variety contained within the circuit of a mile and a half is fully known only to the summer residents; but we saw something of it. At one moment we were prying into the recesses of the Swallows' Cave, listening to the rumbling of the waves within it, making discoveries of birds' nests, and looking up through its dark chasms to the sky. At the next, we caught a view between two rising grounds of Boston, East Boston, and Chelsea, sitting afar off upon the sunny waters. Here and there was a quiet strip of beach, where we sat watching the rich crop of weed swayed to and fro by the spreading and retreating of the translucent waters; and then at intervals we came to where the waves boil among the caverns, making a busy roar in the stillest hour of the stillest day. Here all was so chill and shadowy that the open sea, with its sunny sail and canopy of pearly clouds looked as if it were quite another region, brought into view by some magic, but really lying on the other side of the world.
There is a luxurious bathing-place for ladies,—a little beach so shut in by rocks, along the top of which runs - high fence, that the retirement is complete. Near it is the Spouting Horn, where we sat an unmeasured time, watching the rising tide spouting more magnificently every moment from the recess called The Horn. Every wave rushed in, and splashed out again with a roar, the fragments of sea-weed flying off like shot. A clever little boy belonging to our party was meantime abroad among the boarding-houses, managing to get us a dinner. He saved us all the trouble, and came to summon us, and show us the way. His father could not have managed better than he did.
We rambled about in the afternoon till we could no longer conceal from ourselves that the sun was getting low. We intended to describe a circuit in returning, so as to make as much of our road as possible lie along the beach. Never was the world bathed in a lovelier atmosphere than this evening. The rocks, particularly the island called Egg Rock, were of that soft lilac hue which harmonizes with the green sea on sunny evenings. While this light was brightest, we suddenly came upon a busy and remarkable scene,—the hamlet of Swampscot, on the beach,—the place where novel readers go to look for Mucklebacket's cottage,—so much does it resemble the beach scenes in the Antiquary. Boats were drawn up on the shore,—the smallest boats, really for use, that I ever saw. They are flat-bottomed, and are tenanted by one man, or at most two, when going out for cod. The men are much cramped in these tiny boats, and need exercise when they come to shore; and we saw a company playing at quoits at the close of their working day. Many children were at play, their little figures seen in black relief against the sea, or trailing long shadows over the washed and glistening sands. Women were coming homewards with their milk-pans, or taking in their linen from the lines. All were busy, and all looked joyous. While my companions were bargaining for fish, I had time to watch the singular scene; and when it was necessary to be gone, and we turned up into the darkening lanes, away from the sea, we looked back to the last moment upon this busy reach of the bright shore.
The scenery of Massachusetts Bay is a treasure which Boston possesses over and above what is enjoyed by her sister cities of the East. New York has a host of beauties about her, it is true,—the North River, Hoboken, and Staten Island; but there is something in the singularity of Nahant, and the wild beauty of Cape Ann more captivating than the crowded, fully appropriated beauties round New York. Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington have no environs which can compare with either of the Northern cities. The islands which lie off Charleston, and where the less opulent citizens repair for health in the hot months, are praised more for their freshness and fertility than for any romantic beauty; and the coasts of the South are flat and shoaly. The South has the advantage in the winter, when none but the hardiest fishermen can be abroad to watch the march of the wintry storms over the Northern sea and sky; but in summer and autumn, when the Southerners who cannot afford to travel are panting and sickening in the glare among sands and swamps, the poorest of the citizens of Massachusetts may refresh himself amidst the sea-breezes on the bright promontories or cool caverns of his native shore.
[*]Society in America, vol. i., page 281.