MARBLEHEAD CHRONICLES: Town’s 1755 powder house, a testament to Revolutionary-era defense

In 1755, the French and Indian War broke out. This was a conflict between the French and the British over the territory that now comprises most of the state of Ohio. Native American tribes joined the French to keep the British out of their territories.

The powder house on Green Street, then known as Ferry Road, was built in 1755 to provide storage for muskets and ammunition. It is one of only three pre-Revolutionary War powder houses in the country still standing.

There was great concern in Marblehead for the defense of the town, especially from attacks from the sea by the French. A powder house for the securing of ammunition was erected by a vote of the town. The building committee was composed of Colonel Jacob Fowle, Colonel Jeremiah Lee and Major Richard Reed. They chose a location “far from town” on what is now Green Street. The powder house was, of course, filled with black gunpowder which was very flammable. If it caught fire there would have been a very large and damaging explosion.

The effects of this war were very significant to Marblehead and its fishermen. Several fishing schooners and their crews were captured at the Grand Banks, causing great fear and distress to everyone in town. British officials were petitioned for protection, explaining that the small size of Marblehead and its rocky and barren land meant that the only occupation available to residents was fishing.

An example is well illustrated by the fishing schooner, Swallow. In 1756, the schooner, owned by Robert Hooper and commanded by Captain Phillip Lewis, sailed from Marblehead to the West Indies. The vessel was captured by the French and taken to Martinico where the crew was imprisoned. The officers, including Captain Lewis, Ashley Bowen and George Crowninshield, were held in a separate house and they managed to escape. They seized a small schooner and sailed safely away. The rest of the crew was not so lucky, and they remained prisoners until the end of the war.

In 1759, when British troops under the command of General James Wolfe scaled the cliffs leading up to the city of Quebec, several men from Marblehead were with them. Ashley Bowen was one of the men to go, and there were 32 others. Their risky gambit paid off when the British defeated the French forces under General Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. Wolfe was fatally wounded during the battle, though his victory ensured British supremacy in Canada.

An interesting twist to the French and Indian War and the French defeat was that it later prompted the French to support American colonists during the American Revolution.

Pam Peterson chairs the Marblehead Historical Commission.

Pam Peterson
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