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Town History

A Community of Shipbuilders

​Before Norwell

Our Journey as a Town

Norwell cannot be truly understood until you know a little about her history. A glimpse at the town seal tells you about the importance of boat building. The genesis of boat building was purely economic. In the early seventeenth century, as the British Navy began building more ships and the demand for merchant vessels increased, wood became scarce in Britain. The cost to build a ship in New England was half the cost of building one in England. Trees that had grown unhindered for 150 centuries covered the countryside: the forest canopy was 200 feet throughout most of the northeast woodlands, so strong, stout pine and oak was there for the taking. Soon a thriving boat building business sprung up along the banks of the North River to take advantage of this "inexhaustible" supply source.
Most of the boats that were built here were small working coastal boats, as the North River shipyards didn't have the depth required for larger boats. But the Columbia, America's first ship to circumnavigate the globe, and after which the mighty Columbia River is named, was built on the North River! The largest ship ever built on the North River was built by William Delano at the Wanton Shipyard and was called the Mount Vernon.

​Over 1000 great sailing vessels would continue to be built along the North River, before Norwell took her name. One of the most famous ships that was launched from the North River was the S.S. Columbia, the first American-built vessel to circumnavigate the globe, and after whom the Columbia River (which it "discovered") and British Columbia were named. In 1801, a record 30 ships were built on the River, and in 1812, the 464-ton Mount Vernon was built at Wanton Shipyard, the River's largest, just south of River Street, near Blackthorne Lane.

Eventually, the ships that merchants were demanding were too large (and drawing too much below the water line) to be built in the North River, and boat building died. However, the legacy of Norwell's Clipper Ships lives on; to this day they are the figurehead of the town and can be found on various Norwell logos.

Norwell was originally settled in about 1628. In 1637 Cornet Robert Stetson was granted a tract of land about four miles along the North River. This area was part of Old Scituate (incorporated in 1636, and including all of Norwell, most of Hanover, and portions of present day Cohasset, Marshfield, Pembroke, and Hanson). More about the Stetson kindred is available here.
Henry Norwell (Left) - Courtesy of Massmemories.org

1849 Norwell split from Scituate and became know as South Scituate. In 1888, it changed its name to Norwell, after Henry Norwell, a wealthy Boston merchant and benefactor to the small rural town. Other names that people voted on for Norwell were Deane, Hatherly, Cushing, and Standish. All of the non-selected names got 2 votes, Norwell got 215.