Massachusetts—whether you call it the Commonwealth, the Bay State, or even the Baked Bean State (named for the Puritan practice of preparing baked beans and brown bread on Saturday for the Sunday Sabbath meal)—with its 10,555-square-mile land mass and 1,519 miles of shoreline, is full of firsts, fun facts, and famous sites. The history of Massachusetts has always been intertwined with its proximity to the Atlantic. For example, the sheltered harbor of the Port of Boston made all kinds of trade and emigration possible, which were both integral to industrial development. In fact, by the end of the 1600s, the Port of Boston was the third largest port in the English-speaking world (after the United Kingdom's London and Bristol), establishing Boston as an international center of trade. With such noteworthy maritime history, it's no wonder Massachusetts boasts so many firsts and fun facts.

Boston Harbor Panoramic 1876
Boston Harbor, c. 1876

Firsts

The Massachusetts coast is home to the following firsts:

  • Fried Clams - On a summer's day in Essex, Lawrence "Chubby" Woodman complained to a fisherman friend that business at his roadside stand was slow. (The stand, on Main Street, sold hand-cut potato chips and produce.) The fisherman suggested that Chubby try frying some clams. Having nothing to lose, as clams were plentiful and he dug them himself, Chubby threw some in his deep fryer on July 3, 1916, and, as the saying goes, history was made. His fried clams proved to be far more popular than potatoes, and business soon took off. Today, a number of establishments throughout New England (and the world) have their own versions. And the original source—Woodman's—still serves them up.
  • Frozen Fish - Up until the mid-1920s, if you didn't live near the ocean, it was difficult to get seafood. It had to be packed in ice (which limited the distance it could be transported) or slowly frozen—a process that caused ice crystals to form, destroying the cell walls and negatively affecting the taste. Enter Clarence Birdseye. In the 1920s, Birdseye changed the face of food forever by inventing a flash-freezing process. With his invention, the day's catch could be quickly frozen in a way that preserved both taste and texture. His technique also worked for fruits, vegetables, and meat. (It worked so well, in fact, that his patents were purchased by the Postum Company [now General Foods, Corp., a division of Kraft] for $22 million in 1929!) In 1925, the first fish processing plant to use the Birdseye technique was built in Gloucester. Birdseye has since gone to the great freezer in the sky (actually, his ashes were scattered near this Gloucester plant), but his name lives on in the General Food's frozen vegetable division, Birds Eye.
  • Lighthouse - Built in 1716, Boston Light on Little Brewster Island has the distinction of being the first "light station" (as it was called then) in North America. Currently, it is the only lighthouse maintained and staffed by the U.S. Coast Guard.
  • National Seashore in the Northeast - In 1961, the Cape Cod National Seashore became the first National Seashore in the Northeast. Thanks to the leadership of President John F. Kennedy, the federal government purchased the private and public land necessary to ensure that these 43,557 acres of unique coastline can forever be enjoyed by the public.
  • Public Beach - Revere Beach became America's first public beach in 1895. The beach was placed under the jurisdiction of the state's Metropolitan Park Commission and its Chief Planner Charles Eliot (a protégé of Frederick Law Olmstead), who oversaw the creation of a formal promenade, signature pavilions, and a bandstand to set off this three-mile crescent of sand and shoreline.
  • Schooner - In 1713, the world's first schooner was built in Smith Cove, Gloucester. This style of sail boat is distinguished by having at least two masts, with the foremast typically being smaller than the others.
  • Undersea Cable - Extending from Brest, France, to Cape Cod, the French Transatlantic Cable (which was laid in 1897/1898) was the first telegraph cable to directly link the United States and Europe.

Fun Facts and Superlatives

Bay State Postcard

Never want for coastal conversation starters again after absorbing these fun facts:

  • Documented Aliens - While it is impossible to say exactly when the first marine invasive species colonized Massachusetts coastal waters, to date, at least 64 have been documented in the Gulf of Maine (which extends from Cape Cod north to the southern tip of Nova Scotia). A new invader to join the ranks is the European rock shrimp (Palaemon elegans). Seen for the first time in North America in waters off Salem in July 2010, this is not the type of "first" anyone wants to see—these invaders often crowd out native species and disrupt the natural balance. For tips on spotting European rock shrimp and other invasives, see the CZM Aquatic Invasive Species Program's Identifying Invasive Species page. For a comprehensive overview on the alien invasion in the region, download the Gulf of Maine Council's Marine Invasive Species: State of the Gulf of Maine Report.
  • Lights, Camera, ACTION! - From the 1975 blockbuster Jaws to The Perfect Storm (filmed in 1999 and based on the October 30, 1991, storm—also known as "The Halloween Storm"—which was chronicled in a book by Sebastian Unger), the coast of Massachusetts has been featured in many a movie. For a complete list, see the Massachusetts Film Office's Made in Massachusetts filmography.
  • Longest Wharf in the United States - Boston's aptly named Long Wharf was the longest wharf in North America when it was built in 1710, measuring 1,586 feet at that time. It is much shorter today, since the harbor waters around it were filled to build more land to build on.
  • Most Egregious Use of Lobsters - Once upon a time in the days of yore, lobsters would wash ashore in piles two-feet deep along the Massachusetts coast. With such copious quantities of crustaceans available, lobsters were actually used for…wait for it…fertilizer! (This and other lobster tales are told in A Taste of Lobster History by History.com). It wasn't until the mid-1800s that people came to consider the delectably sweet source of protein something worthy of serving to company. Now, of course, Homarus americanus is considered a delicacy around the world, and people shell out a lot of clams to dine on the former fertilizer.
  • Most Expensive Real Estate Built on Landfill - What is now Beacon Street in Boston's Back Bay was once covered by water. Check out the Back Bay Neighborhood Association's Back Bay History timeline for details. (P.S. It is rumored that you can still catch a glimpse of the sea from the basement of Trinity Church in the Back Bay.)
  • Oldest Commissioned Warship Afloat - The USS Constitution (aka "Old Ironside") was one of six frigates originally commissioned by George Washington in 1797. Today, she is permanently berthed at Pier 1 in the Charlestown Navy Yard.
  • Oldest Continuously Active Port in the Western Hemisphere - Today, of all the working ports on this side of the globe, the Port of Boston has the distinction of being in continual operation for the longest period of time. With several active terminals, including the Fish Pier in South Boston, the Port of Boston supports 34,000 jobs (including cargo transport, seafood processing, ship repair, and tourist-related businesses), contributing more than $2 billion to the local, regional, and national economies.
  • Oldest Continuously Operating Boat Shop - Lowell's Boat Shop in Amesbury has been in continuous operation since it was established in 1793—longer than any other boat shop in America. It is also the birthplace of the fishing dory. Its mission is: "To preserve and perpetuate the art and craft of wooden boat building and promote the history of Lowell's Boat Shop and its environs."
  • Spadefoot Toad Abode - A threatened species in Massachusetts, the Eastern Spadefoot Toad pdf format of Eastern Spadefoot has found an ideal home in the sandy soils of Cape Cod. And from April through October, whenever an abundance of rain spurs toads into a hopping (and breeding) frenzy, roads in the Cape Cod National Seashore are closed to protect the toads from being squashed by moving vehicles.
  • Super-Creative Recycling in a Coastal Town - In 1922, a mechanical engineer named Elis F. Stenman began building his summer home in Rockport out of newspaper. It still stands today and is open to visitors for a small fee.

Explore Some Firsts (and Other Bits of Coastal History) First Hand!

Online or in person, check out these sites to connect with Commonwealth coastal history:

  • All Things Mayflower - While the original Mayflower no longer exists, a full-scale replica—the Mayflower II—is available for exploration in Plymouth.
  • Historic Walk to the Sea - The Norman B. Leventhal Walk to the Sea self-guided tour in Boston will take you from Beacon Hill to Long Wharf. Download your Walk to the Sea map, or if you don't feel like walking, watch this animated map progression from 1630 to today.
  • Itinerary of Massachusetts Maritime History - For 89 historic sites highlighting the Commonwealth's connection to the sea, see this National Register of Historic Places travel itinerary, made available by the National Park Service.
  • Maritime Museums Galore - See Smith's Master Index to Maritime Museums for a complete list of all coastal and maritime-related museums in Massachusetts, featuring exhibits on everything from historic battleships to pirates.
  • What a Wonderful Life of a Whaling Captain - In the 1800s, many Massachusetts men made their fortunes at sea. Whaling was particularly lucrative. To get an idea of what life was like for a Cape Cod whaling captain and his family during this era, check out the National Park Service's online Captain Penniman Exhibit.