A boat-builder who goes with and against the grain

The wood is sent to the salt marsh beside the river, near the place where Harold Burnham was born.

It comes as logs, not lumber, stacked near a graying cedar-shingled building in Essex, Mass., where the work will begin, and not far from where it will end, though its true destiny is the river and the ocean beyond.

In an era when technology trumps nature, when robots assemble machines with precision no human can match, and when the stars that once guided man’s movement have been relegated to ornaments, Burnham studies the grain of twisted tree trunk through the lens of an ancient boat-builder.

“I’m not looking for straight pieces,” he says. “What I’m looking for is large pieces with natural curves in the wood, because those are the strongest. If that piece of wood has a particular sweep to it, I can adjust the boat to fit the piece of wood.”

The vessel into which he fit the final pieces last year sits in unlikely waters this week, in a Potomac River marina not far from the Library of Congress. Burnham was one of nine people, including an Okinawan dancer and teacher and a Passamaquoddy basketmaker, who Wednesday night received a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for accomplishment in folk and traditional arts. The winners each received $25,000.

With the help of several friends, he sailed the 58-foot schooner Ardelle down from Essex for the ceremony and a National Endowment for the Arts concert that will be broadcast live Thursday.

It is all intertwined — Harold Burnham and what his town has been for four centuries. That legacy and tradition were slipping away, until the evolution to obscurity collided with Burnham’s determination to preserve it.

Essex — north of Boston, south of Maine, near the legendary ports of Marblehead and Gloucester, from which men set to sea — always has been a place that built boats.

Stout seagoing boats, broad in the bow to shoulder aside the rugged seas of the North Atlantic in search of cod and halibut and to bring lobster and the men who fished for them home alive.

In the middle of the 19th century, Essex built a boat a week. Now there is just Burnham and a couple of pals, and hardly anyone alive anywhere builds boats as he does in the salt marsh, where ice-age glaciers deposited just enough stone and clay to defy the flooding river and support the weight of a wooden boat rising among the grasses.

A family heritage

It is said that the first boat constructed in Essex was built by a Burnham, at some uncertain date before 1668, when the town fathers put aside an acre of land by the river for boatbuilding. The oldest tombstone in the Old Burial Ground bears the name John Burnham, who passed in 1708, and the last is that of Eliza Burnham, who died in 1897.

“The Burnhams once made up an enormous proportion of the population — I can’t remember whether it was a third or a half,” said Burnham, 45. “The story of my direct family heritage is interwoven with the community. In a small community that goes back 400 years, anybody who goes back more than a couple of generations probably is related to one of a few families. But what makes it interesting is that the ties to shipbuilding are much deeper than my own personal family.”

By most accounts, overfishing offshore and the popularity of steel and fiberglass hulls after World War II killed off boat-building in Essex after the 50-foot schooner Eugenia J. slid down the ways in 1949.

But folks like Harold’s dad built them as a hobby, and the Story family — Dana and his son, Brad — kept up the legacy of Jonathan Story, who built the Eugenia.

Harold wanted to shape boats, too, so he calculated that a diploma from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy would set him up to earn a nice salary at sea for half the year and leave him the rest of the year to turn wood into boats. That worked out until the first of two kids came along in 1994.

Now he lives in a house on the salt marsh that his family built four generations ago. The house is heated by a wood stove, because wood is plentiful and everything else is too expensive.

‘I don’t need pictures’

“I’m in debt up to my eyeballs in every way. This is the only time in my life I’ve been deeply in the hole,” he said, helped by a summer of operating Ardelle as a charter boat out of Gloucester. “You couldn’t make a living at building boats and I haven’t yet, but to me it’s not really about making a living. It’s about preserving the craft and the culture.”

The wood sits in piles in the yard, deposited there by a tree service company that knows his needs, waiting for a customer who wants a boat built. It has been 20 years and just six boats built since Burnham began.

When an order comes, he builds a small model that is half the shape of the boat’s hull from stem to stern.

“This is all I need to build this boat,” he says, pointing to one. “I don’t need pictures, I don’t need anything. You give me this, I’ll build you one of these, and when I’m done if you hold this up in front of the boat it will look exactly like this.”

He starts by cutting the wood. Some wooden-boat builders bend pieces to fit the design, but Burnham cuts them to the intended shape.

“I’m using the wood as efficiently as it possibly can be used,” he says. “What’s really remarkable, and I think is kind of fun, we have no dumpster. What comes into the yard is logs, and what leaves the yard is a giant schooner. And every single piece of wood that comes into the yard is used. There is no waste, nothing.”

Each time the wood is cut or shaped it moves a few feet closer to the water, where it all will be assembled. When that moment comes, Burnham mates the wood and fixes the planking with stout wooden pegs called treenails.

“Today, wooden boats are built with modern construction, yacht-style, and fastened with screws or nails, and usually they’re bent frame and softwood plank,” he says, “and what we’re building is heavy construction, meaning double-sawn frames or cut-out frames and treenail fastenings.”

When passengers boarded the Ardelle for day sails in Gloucester this summer, Burnham delighted in telling them that his boat was built entirely of recycled materials.

“I love this term because it makes us appear green and not just cheap and desperate,” he laughs. “With the completion of the Ardelle, I am certainly a charter-boat captain and the boat-building business is back to being a hobby, but if I can preserve the craft for one more generation and teach as many people as I can, then that will be enough.”

These are the worst times Essex boat-building has known in 400 years. Even after the industry was declared dead more than 60 years ago, a boat or two was built each year. Now there have been stretches of three or four years without one.

“When I get another boat to build, I’m quite confident I can run a crew, and that contributes to more people learning the craft,” Burnham said. “The one thing that makes me feel good is that the wood is beginning to pile up in front of my shop.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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